Air Show Report : Sanicole Airshow 2012
On September 14 and 16, 2012, the Sanicole Aeroclub welcomed the public at the Leopoldsburg-Beverlo airfield near Hechtel-Eksel in Belgium for its annual international airshow. Photo report and review by Niels Hillebrand on the main Sanicole airshow day on Sunday 16th.
36th Annual Sanicole Airshow
Every year the International Sanicole Airshow takes place at the small airfield of Leopoldsburg-Beverlo (EBLE) near Hechtel-Eksel. The airfield is a former military auxiliary airfield located in the area of Camp Beverlo, Leopoldsburg. Observation airplanes and later helicopters used the field during military exercises with the Belgian Army until the airfield was decommissioned. In 1971 Aeroclub Sanicole was founded at the airfield and later the 600 by 18 meter hardened runway was constructed. Other than the some 35 sport and leisure airplanes that use the airfield, the Belgian Army paras as well as Belgian A109 helicopters use the airstrip when deploying to Camp Beverlo for exercises in the area. Even though the airfield and its runway are quite small, the annual Sanicole airshow is definitely not just a small event. With exception of the annual airshows hosted by the Belgian and Dutch airforces, this is the biggest airshow in the low countries nowadays, but more importantly it's the most consistent airshow around here. Not only because it is organized annually at the same location, but also because every year the organizers manage to secure top performers and military displays thanks to their strong ties to the European Airshow Council and excellent support and participation by Belgium's defense organization. The airfield is located in the CTR of the Kleine Brogel Air Base, home to the Belgian Air Force's 10th Tactical Wing. In addition to taking part in the show with some of its F-16s, Kleine Brogel serves as a staging base for many of the airshow performers, which would otherwise not be able to take part due to the limited runway, facilities and space at the Sanicole airfield.
The 36th edition took place on September 16, 2012. On Friday the 14th there was also the Sanicole Sunset air show, but the weather forecasts looked pretty bad so I didn't attend the Sunset show. On Sunday the 16th the weather was absolutely perfect, especially considering it was mid-September and the week before it looked like autumn was arriving early this year. One of the major downsides of the Sanicole airshow is that the flight display area is located due south of the audience, this of course means that for the majority of the day you are looking into the sun. On a bright and sunny day as this year, this is not only unfavorable for photographers, even normal spectators had some trouble seeing the aircraft when they performed loops or wing-overs in show center, or later due west. But luckily there was little to no haziness, you could observe the aircraft in the distance and at higher altitudes when it wasn't directly into the sun.
One of the disappointments for 2012 came when the show's main display team, the Breitling Jet Team, had to cancel at the last moment. One of the L-39 jets suffered a mechanical emergency on Saturday on their trip to Kleine Brogel from the airshow at Den Helder, The Netherlands. The pilot and mechanic were able to safely eject after directing the aircraft to come safely down in a field near Valkenswaard. On Sunday morning it seemed the BJT would take part with a reduced formation as both crewmembers had been released from hospital, but then on the day itself the announcer explained their participation had just been cancelled as additionally a technical problem had been discovered on one of the other jets. Reading the BJT press release later, the team had understandably decided against participating in the show so that the team could take some time off to relax and return to their home base first before flying any airshows again.
Due to the lack of the Breitling Jet Team as well as some other cancellations it seems, the air show started quite late: 11 AM local time if we don't count the RC-model aircraft show and Antonov An-2 take-off and return. The flying program still filled up the day nicely and made it a great air show which lasted until 5.30 PM. For the airshow regulars, this was mostly thanks to the Swedish Air Force Historical Flight, USAF B-52H fly-by, and Canadian Skyhawks parajump. But even when considering only the Belgian performers and air force display teams you'd still have a flying program worth watching. In addition to the Belgian Air Force F-16AM Solo Demo, SeaKing SAR Demo, A109 Solo Demo, and Red Devils display team, 31 Squadron of the 10th Tactical Wing provided a fourship parade with on their last pass releasing flares while climbing away. Other displays included the RNLAF F-16AM Solo Demo, which always puts up a great show just like its Belgian counterpart while flown and painted differently. Having seen them both perform in the same shows for many years, I always try to decide for myself which one delivers the better show. This time I couldn't make up my mind, but I can say that having both in the same show is great, I felt differently in the past when the routines and paintjobs were not as distinctive. The Royal Navy attended with two Lynx helicopters, unfortunately only one participated in the flying display, and the Royal Air Force with their official Tucano display aircraft that had the Jubilee markings for 2012 (see also the report of RAF Leuchars Air Show).
If there's one thing Sanicole seem to do particularly well, it's finding ways to fill the gaps caused by last minute cancellations. For example, the Belgian Air Force C-130H which was the platform for the Canadian Skyhawks also did a fly-by after the excellent Skyhawks' display. The SwAF Historical Flight was kind enough to fill another gap in the program due to the RAF Hawk cancellation and presented its Saab Sk 60 which we were told was only in Belgium as support. The real SwAF HF participants were the classic J 29 Tunnan and the latest addition to the Historical Flight: the AJS 37 Viggen. It was absolutely awesome to see a Viggen in the air again, this time in the legacy bare-metal look. I have included quite a lot of photos of the Viggen because it was my favorite aircraft of the day, and I had not expected to witness the Viggen in flight again without going to Sweden.
The 2012 Sanicole Air Show was somewhat light in terms of foreign military aircraft and helicopters, this was probably due to other airshows in Europe that weekend. We have certainly seen Sanicole editions with more military solo jet displays as well as helicopters from abroad. Of course, this year there wasn't an exercise at Kleine Brogel that coincided, so maybe expectations for Sanicole in terms of military aircraft should not be too high anyway regardless of the airshows elsewhere. The civilian performers did a great job though, and the quality of the displays in terms of precision and entertainment value seem to increase with every season for most of them.
Now I have to address one small concern: statics. It's not that Sanicole can physically offer a great static display, and for most airshow visitors it's never the most important element of an airshow. That said the static display was virtually non-existent this year, with only a few additional light aircraft joining the limited number of performers that operate from the airfield plus a F-16 demo airframe from the Belgian Air Force. A few more "warbirds" and military helicopters scattered around as in some of the previous editions goes a long way in keeping the public occupied before and after the main flying events. I hope there aren't other reasons than limited space and this year's lack of guest aircraft for the ever decreasing number of statics present, because while 2012 saw excellent weather and visibility, this is not something that's granted every year. Also, to avoid traffic jams the announcer invites the public to stay around for a bit after the flying display, but with such a tiny static display and only a couple of light aircraft leaving there is not much left to see or do.
The 2012 Sanicole Air Show was a great success despite the cancellation of the main jet display team! Because the airshow at Sanicole depends heavily on its flying program due to airfield limitations, for me 2012 was great largely thanks to the foreign participants, enjoyable civilian/parajump displays, and the excellent weather this time. If you are used to military air shows at major airbases where there is always a large static display, many exhibits, and where all performers take-off and land before your eyes, Sanicole can be quite disappointing. At least until late in the afternoon when your favorites finally show up (and photography/visibility conditions have improved). Especially if you've seen most of the displays already earlier in the season, it becomes difficult to justify travel and the 20+ Euro ticket cost if either the line-up doesn't offer something amazing or the weather forecasts aren't great. For a family day out with young children on the other hand it's maybe a better experience than an air force open day thanks to the compact and straightforward public area, near-by parking, relaxed crowd without too many serious photographers at the fences blocking views, plus the smiling volunteers from the Aeroclub, etcetera. Sanicole probably offers the best air show around here in such a setting. I appreciate that they do this without overdoing other "family-event attractions", or rather "distractions" that have nothing to do with aircraft or flying. The organizers do a great job at putting a varied flying program together, that's both entertaining and interesting for all. They always include something special or rare, something commemorative of the war or aviation history, as well as some real crowd-pleasers to complement the good but common line-up of airshow performers from Belgium. Hopefully they can continue to do so in future editions! Although it will be challenging in light of concurrent September events and an increasingly budget-constraint military, I am confident that Sanicole will continue to focus on delivering an excellent display program.
The next Sanicole International Airshow will take place on Sunday September 15th, 2013, and before that on Friday September 13th there will be the Sunset Airshow too. Visit Sanicole.com in due time for more information and to pre-order tickets.
Report and photos by Niels Hillebrand ( view portfolio )