Belgian Air Force Days
Saturday 9th September - Sunday 10th September 2023
Where next for the European airshow? It's a question which is probably at the back of all our minds, and perhaps not one which we want to dwell upon for fear of the answer. This latest instalment of the Belgian Air Force Days events, which took place at Kleine Brogel airbase on September 9th-10th under gin-clear skies, provided ample scope for reflecting on the past, present and future of the military airshow.
reports back from a roasting hot Limburg province, with photography by the author and .
Any discussion of this event really has to start with the weather. A scorcher had been anticipated from around a week out, and for once the forecasts were accurate, with highs in the mid-30s and hardly a cloud in sight across the three days of the event, including Friday's remarkably well attended Spotter's Day. Indeed the crowds at the Spotter's Day were so huge that there were problems accessing the airfield, with a lot of complaints from those stuck in lengthy queues, particularly when show assets started arriving whilst literally thousands of frustrated spectators were left standing sweating in a farmer's field.
With the heat well known in advance, and the show organisers presumably aware of the number of spectators expected at the Spotter's Day, the decision not to open the gates earlier was rivalled only by the decision to kick everyone off the airfield at 5pm on the dot, by which point several of the show's main attractions had yet to perform their practice displays. There's nothing quite like trudging back to your car in 34° heat, across parched farmland, only to hear a roar, swivel, and see the Viggen displaying about a mile off in the distance, in perfect late-afternoon sunshine. These issues persisted into Saturday, again by all accounts a challenging experience for many spectators, with Belgian Air Force personnel even handing out waffles and bottles of water to the thousands stuck in yet more apocalyptic queues for the shuttle buses back to the car parks at the end of the display.
Such missteps of course are common enough at airshows, and the talented team at Kleine Brogel - assisted this year by many of the Sanicole crew - have arranged enough splendid events over the years that we can probably cut them some slack. At least they coped better with the heat and water distribution than the disastrous Radom event in Poland a fortnight earlier - refer to Sam's UKAR review for further details - which was irresponsible bordering on dangerous. Water bowsers on the showground at Kleine Brogel may not have been especially obvious, but they were at least present, and the plethora of catering outlets generally remained very well stocked throughout all three days. Enough has probably already been written about Belgium's eccentric voucher system for purchasing catering - if you know, you know - as always, your best bet by far is to take your own supplies onto the airfield. On the positive side, however, we should acknowledge the decision by the organisers to provide a €10 catering credit to anyone who attended last year's Spotter's Day at Kleine Brogel prior to the airshow at Sanicole, which they accepted had fallen short of the usual standards. This was a lovely touch by a group of organisers who are very much in tune with their target audience, and was thoroughly appreciated.
Kleine Brogel - 'KB' inevitably to all and sundry - is an undoubtedly picturesque spot and one of Europe's great aviation locations, with a track record of hosting airshows, Tiger Meets and spotter's days almost unrivalled across the continent. As well as events such as this, 'formal' airshows if you like, the venue also acts as host for the vast majority of the exhibits which display at nearby Sanicole, which is too cramped to accommodate anything other than rotary and small GA-types. KB has long been fabled for its ability to attract rare and interesting participants, and hopes were high for this particular event, the first full airshow at the base since 2018. Needless to say, it didn't disappoint. The obvious highlights for enthusiasts were the classic Saab jet-duo of Viggen and Draken, both putting on exceptional performances, with the Viggen in particular taking centre-stage thanks to its party-piece of providing two displays either side of its trademark STOL demonstration, with added swivel-and-reverse down the runway. The Draken pushed it pretty close for spectacle, mind you, all old-school charm and noise, doing a fine rocket-ship impersonation with its lengthy afterburner flame seemingly never absent during a blistering routine.
Elsewhere the line-up was 'solidly decent airshow fare', with plenty of old favourites to delight the crowds. The Spanish Typhoon put on an outstanding display, possibly one of the best we've seen from the type, with the Greek F-16 and (brilliant, as always) Swiss F/A-18 demos rounding out the European modern fast-jet quotient. One of the more unusual routines came from a Dornier Do-228, not a natural airshow performer by any means, but a welcome display nonetheless; the aircraft taking part on behalf of the manufacturer as Belgium considers the type for an ongoing short/medium lift requirement. But perhaps the best display of the whole weekend, and one which is rapidly becoming a firm favourite on the European circuit, came from the Czech Air Force and their stunning W-3A Sokol demonstration. Nominally a SAR demo which features the obligatory 'rescuing' of someone from the airfield, the remainder of the display is essentially top-notch helicopter aerobatics, the chopper being thrown around in a sequence of incredibly violent manoeuvres close to the crowd. It's pure airshow theatre, made all the better here by the use of one of the bright red-and-white SAR machines, as opposed to the rather more drab camo machines which occasionally fly the routine.
It seems to be an unwritten rule that you're not allowed to have a Belgian airshow without at least one Fouga Magister, and at KB we had no fewer than five, with the all-red ex-Belgian Air Force solo being joined by the fourship of Magisters from Patrouille Groupe Tranchant. In their brightly coloured aircraft, the vastly experienced pilots (one of whom even flew Magisters with the Patrouillle de France!) put on a quite superb show, providing an elegant contrast to the rather more frenetic front-line jet displays; all the more welcome as they were a very late addition following the cancellation of the Finnish Midnight Hawks. The actual Patrouille de France, meanwhile, provided the other jet display team, flying on Sunday only. Further international display team flavour was provided by the evergreen Royal Jordanian Falcons and Poland's Team Orlik, fresh from a starring role at their own show at Radom a couple of weeks prior.
A useful yardstick for measuring the success of these events is the participation of local forces, and by this metric Belgian shows have traditionally excelled. Sadly it was announced at the event that these would be the last ever public appearances by the A-109 demo team… a small utility helicopter isn't necessarily what first springs to mind when contemplating 'airshow acts which will be greatly missed', but the outpouring of affection for this demo over the weekend was palpable, the crew putting on a fittingly dynamic display to bid farewell to the Belgian public in their specially-marked 'Razzle Blades' machine with its distinctive grey wolf motif. If that display was well received then the reception for "Vrieske" and his F-16 display was positively fever-pitch, the 'Dream Viper' given top-billing on both days and tasked with bringing the show to a rousing close. Earlier in the display Vrieske flew alongside Spitfire Mk XVI SL721, which itself provided a lovely solo display before being joined by the F-16. The Spitfire, along with similarly well-flown routines by both solo and multiple T-6s, went a long way to addressing a common feedback point from the 2018 version of this event, namely the lack of warbirds to 'bridge the gap' between the plethora of front-line military acts and smaller, solo aerobatic types.
Further domestic participation came from the ever-popular Red Devils in their tiny SF-260s, while at the opposite end of the scale, at least size-wise, we were treated to a few flypasts by an Air Belgium A330neo on the Sunday. A militarised 330, in the shape of one of the MRTT machines from nearby Eindhoven, also joined Sunday's flying display, accompanying a couple of local F-16s for an air-air refuelling demonstration. The F-16s themselves were given their own opportunity to shine for almost certainly the last time at a major Belgian Air Force event, the 'Thunder Tigers' of 31 squadron providing a suitably raucous four-ship comprising numerous flypasts and airfield beat-ups. Rather brilliantly, the Belgians used this opportunity to allow one particular F-16 airframe, the venerable FA-95, to hit its 8,000 hour threshold, the aircraft (sporting special markings to celebrate the milestone) receiving a water-cannon salute at Friday's Spotter Day before being immediately retired from service and towed into the static park, where it received plenty of attention across both show-days.
As for the rest of the static, it was definitely a case of 'quality over quantity' - nothing wrong with that, of course. Dutch F-16s and F-35s hopped over the border, joining Austrian PC-7s, Portuguese F-16s, a pair of German Tornados and (most impressively of all) a Slovak Mi-17, resplendent in bonkers digi-camo. The specially marked German A400, bearing a colour scheme which paid tribute to this summer's colossal Air Defender NATO exercise, also deserves a mention.
And, under normal circumstances, that would have been that. A fine weekend of top-class aviation action, in glorious weather, and a fitting finale to the western European airshow season. However, there was a nasty sting in the tail for those at KB this year, when it was mentioned by the commentary at the show that this was almost certainly the last Belgian Air Force Days event, at least "for some time".
When you consider what we have already lost in recent years - the Dutch KLu 'Open Dagen' to name but one - this rather ominous announcement concerning another much-loved (if admittedly occasional) show in a country synonymous with aviation is a further blow. Thank God for RIAT and Sanicole, as without those stalwarts the military airshow scene in western Europe would be pretty much moribund. There are of course plenty of warbird events to keep things ticking over, but for those of us who get our fix from modern military action - or even, those of us who gravitate towards events like this which provide a nice mix of everything - it feels as if there are fewer and fewer options every year. It's not too much of a stretch to see a direct correlation between the paucity of such shows and the huge crowds experienced, for example, at the Friday Spotter's Day for this event, where it genuinely felt like the entire population of the Benelux had descended upon Kleine Brogel. If we are to hope that the European airshow does indeed have a future then we probably need to accept this as a 'new normal'; a relatively tiny amount of hugely over-subscribed events. At least KB as a venue has the space to accommodate the numbers; many others by contrast would doubtless feel horribly cramped under similar conditions. Accepting that the glorious weather may well have played a part in boosting the numbers at this particular event, nonetheless this feels like a permanent shift, and we all no doubt need to adjust expectations accordingly.
Whilst not wishing to turn this review into an obituary, we also need to acknowledge the looming homogeneity of European air forces, something which on its own is capable of sounding a death-knell for this hobby even before we begin to factor in the loss of key events. After all, for example, if every fast-jet is an F-35 (and by all accounts no European air arm has plans to display one any time soon), will there be any point in attempting to arrange an event like this one at Kleine Brogel? That being the case, it seems a little... discordant to make so much of the USAF F-35 demo at this year's event. Now, to be clear, securing this demo is undoubtedly a coup, and it's a very fine display; certainly more entertaining than some of the USAF fast-jet demos we've seen over the years (their F-16, for example, always looked somewhat anaemic alongside its more energetic European cousins). At KB the F-35A display looked especially good, the atmospheric conditions playing their part to perfection by enveloping the aircraft in vapour clouds whenever it flew one of its many fast passes. And the pilot, Major Kristin 'Beo' Wolfe, seems a wholly admirable individual who rightly drew plaudits for her contributions both in the air and on the ground at Sanicole last year, when she spent a lot of time with local children, especially the girls, hoping to inspire the next generation of female aviators. Yet we also have to consider that the imminent ubiquity of this very type is part of the reason why events like this may no longer be possible, and perhaps sooner than any of us want to contemplate.
Ultimately this was an enjoyable weekend with some great flying action, in a lovely setting, impeccably stage-managed by the elements which for once obliged with wall-to-wall sunshine. Yet the poignancy of the announcement concerning the future of BAF Days events undoubtedly casts a pall when considering the future of this show. Whilst this year's line-up may have been more solid than stellar, in a few years we may well look back on a show like this with something approaching wistful nostalgia. It all serves as a reminder to celebrate and enjoy the (ever-diminishing) events which do persist, while we still have them.