Danish Air Show

Sunday 10th June 2018

The Royal Danish Air Force hosts an airshow every two years, and rotates between its three bases every time. This year, it was the turn of the Air Transport Wing at Aalborg, in the very north of the country, to put on the show. By far the headline act was the Norwegian CF-104 Starfighter making its first overseas appearance, but this belied an extremely strong lineup in both the static and flying displays. Marred only by bad weather, the show once again placed itself very strongly on the roster of European military shows, even in a year where multiple air forces are celebrating their centenaries.

Sam Wise travelled to Jutland to report for UK Airshow Review.

As is so common with European shows, Aalborg offered a limited-place spottersday on the Saturday before the show. Open to just 260-odd people and for 100 DKK (around £10), the day very much took the same format as that of Skyrdstrup two years before, but also improved on the enthusiast experience as well. With a south-facing crowdline the organisers again offered a southside area for photographers to get shots of the arrivals and rehearsals, though the cloudy weather on the day made it somewhat redundant. With the majority of the flying aircraft situated near the public area, there were no squadron parking tours or the like - but instead the spotters could walk freely around the parked aircraft up close, talk to the crews and take all the photos they wanted. The same went for the static area, where the showday barriers had not yet been put up - the enthusiasts had complete freedom to move around the aircraft and interact with show staff and crews even while live aircraft were taxiing in and moving around the showground. The dining facilities on offer even bear mentioning: rather than the (by no means bad) packed lunch handed out at Skyrdstrup, this was a full on, and really decent, buffet affair in the staff and crew tent - spotters rubbing shoulders with pilots and major-generals alike. All of this worked to produce a real sense of trust and respect from the show to the enthusiasts, not the patronising babysitting that sometimes takes place at such events, and made that section of the demographic feel genuinely welcome and part of the show. A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.

The show had a truly fantastic international lineup, both on the ground and in the air. Rare contributions to the static included an Armée de l'Air Mirage 2000B from Orange, three 1Sqn Typhoons from the RAF (in squadron markings, no less) and a P-8 Poseidon from the US Navy, among other such European regulars as a NATO E-3A Sentry and a Dutch Air Force Chinook. On the other hand, given the historic connections and shared culture between the countries it's a bit surprising to not see anything military from either Norway or Sweden, not that you can ever expect anything at any given show. The usual plethora of European fast jet displays brought the foreign contributions to the flying display very nicely, but two larger contributions in particular are worth highlighting for their significance, both in terms of their appearance and their connection to Denmark.

The first is the fact that all three Baltic countries were able to send items to the show for the static park - a Search and Rescue Mi-17-1V from Latvia, an An-2 and Robinson R44 (yes, really) from the Estonian Air Force and a C-27J Spartan, L-39C Albatros and an AS565 Panther from the Lithuanians. For all three countries these represent significant percentages of their fleets, and, bar the Spartan and Albatros, all the aircraft had flights exceeding 6 hours to reach the show making their appearances all the more incredible. These efforts are made in no small part due to the fact that Denmark has traditionally strong links with the Baltic militaries. Denmark was one of the first countries to extend the invitation to the Baltic nations to join NATO, and in the build up to that entry they also gave the countries lots of spare materials no longer required by the Danish armed forces as well as providing training to the Baltic militaries.

The second contribution of significance was the return of the Ukrainian Air Force with two Su-27 Flankers and an Il-76MD Candid. They made big waves when they attended Skrydstrup two years ago, and, while the UkAF Flanker display is becoming a bit more visible on the European circuit, naturally they were one of the highlights of this year's show. Again, this results from a surprisingly strong relationship between the two air forces: Station Nord, the Danish Defence Command's base less than 1000km from the North Pole in Greenland needs an annual fuel lift to keep running. The station has seen an increase in scientific activity in the last 10 years as a result of climate change's effects on the rate of ice melting, and the fuel requirements have increased by around 1000% as a result; the RDAF's Hercules fleet simply would not have the capability to meet this need. As a result, the Danes turned to the Ukrainians for this heavy-lift ability, and 2018 actually marks the tenth time that they have co-operated on this operation.

Of course, the Danish Air Show is, primarily, about showing off the Danish military to the public, justifying their expenditure and demonstrating their capabilities and the home team contributions this year did not disappoint. It's certainly gratifying to see an air arm engage so strongly with the public and actually make an effort to jazz things up - positive efforts such as offering the (descriptively-dubbed Danish Air Force One) CL604 Challenger's special tail design for the show out as a public competition and vote, thereby giving even more meaning for the public who got to see the (very smart) design on the day. Even the F-16 display jet carried a special tail sticker applied just for the show, although it was, sadly, peeling off by the time it actually arrived. A monstrous display by the based Hercules squadron and a rare appearance by an RDAF Home Guard Defender were welcome additions but the centrepiece of the Danish display was the Air Power 2018 demo. Describing a special forces raid in front of the crowd, the set-piece display saw an AH101 Merlin, an MH-60R Seahawk and two AS550 Fennecs assault the base while four F-16s beat up the field above, giving even more of a show of force than they did at their own base two years ago. Featuring smoke, flares and no less than three blank-firing machine guns mounted on the Merlin, it was a cracking display to give a good sense of the Danish military's abilities at very close range and was highly reminiscent of the Commando Assault Demos of Yeovilton fame. It felt like there was perhaps somewhat less on show on the ground from the home team, though this might just have been a feature of the static layout itself versus the larger area available at Skrydstrup two years ago giving this impression. Indeed, there was even an example of an RDN Lynx Mk90B in the static park, an aircraft that was retired from service last year, parked next to its considerably less charismatic replacement.

There's no doubt that the headline act of the show was the CF-104D Starfighter, making its first overseas appearance since its return to flight - and, indeed, only its second public display at all. Scheduled for arrival on the Saturday evening, the road under the approach outside the base was filled with visibly excited photographers - who were sadly disappointed when the jet landed at the other end of the runway as the wind changed just an hour beforehand. Unfortunately, on the show day, the Starfighter ended up slotted in the absolute worst weather of the day, but this did not stop it from putting on its display. Flown in the safe hands of Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35 pilot Eskil Amdal, it was a demonstration absent of aerobatics or flashy manoeuvres but which really showed off the speed, sight and sound of the jet; the howling and screaming of the J79 engine could be heard throughout the entire performance, and the thick black smoke stood out even against the dark clouds that framed the display. The Starfighter ranks with the Phantom as Europe's most iconic Cold War jet and played a huge part in Danish (and Norwegian) front-line defence for many years. It is extremely fitting that, just a day after the jet was displayed for the first time in Norway, it displayed at Aalborg, a former Danish Starfighter base. To this end, the show saw visitors from many former European operators visit to witness their iconic jet back in the air again, demonstrating the pulling power of booking a true star such as this.

This connection is not merely symbolic, however, as the RDAF helped supply the Norwegian Starfighter team with spare parts and supplies that they didn't have available in Norway - meaning that there was still a bit of Danish Starfighter flying as well. It's safe to say that this marked a huge catch for the show, marking an absolute highlight of the summer to see this most iconic jet in European skies for the first time in fourteen years. A poll held on the show's Facebook page asking followers to choose their most anticipated act saw the Starfighter win by a ridiculous margin (incidentally, the Flanker came a distant second). Certainly it is a jet that will be king at any show it appears at, and there's no doubt that a sizeable percentage of the foreign visitors to the show will have attended on the strength of this one act. A show-stopper and show-maker if ever there was one.

It's a shame that the day of the show saw the first bad weather that the area had for five weeks, a fact which the Danes, more used to that weather, accepted as stoically as British airshow goers tend to (it was sad, though, given that, with Aalborg being further north than Edinburgh, the Friday saw the temperature at a very comfortable high twenties). This did curtail a few of the civilian acts and flypasts, but couldn't put a dampener on an otherwise excellent show. We said it last time for Skyrdstrup, but the Danes really get what an airshow is about; a gold-standard spottersday, free entry to the show, no restrictions on food or drink being brought in, interactivity with the show leading up to the day all build those bonds between public and air force in a time when, looking at shows closer to home, it feels like that gap is widening. The visitors are there to be educated and entertained purely for the sake of it, rather than seen customers to be wrung of every penny. The fact that it only takes place every two years undoubtedly plays its part in that, but the commitment to that ideal is hugely refreshing as a British visitor. Added to this one of the strongest lineups on the circuit this summer and some of the most welcoming and helpful hosts a country can offer and there's absolutely no reason not to make the return trip to Karup in 2020. It's just a shame we have to wait so long to do so.