Air Show Report : Koksijde International Airshow 2011
In 2011 the Air Component of Belgium's military held its annual airshow at Koksijde Air Base on July 6-7. Your webmaster reports on the Koksijde International Airshow 2011.
Koksijde International Airshow 2011
Koksijde air base near Belgium's North Sea coastline opened its gate to the public on July 6-7, 2011, for the annual airshow of the Belgian Defense's Air Component. Despite being officially named Air Component nowadays, the Belgian air arm has recently been re-introducing the Belgian Air Force title on some of its aircraft. So it was no surprise that the 2011 airshow at Koksijde celebrated the 65 year anniversary of the Belgian Air Force. Koksijde itself being renowned for organizing great airshows, the 2011 show was already looking promising. It surely became an even more attractive event on the calendar, when the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds announced their 2011 European Tour!
However as soon turned out, it wasn't just the Thunderbirds that made Koksijde 2011 worth visiting as the Saudi Hawks included Koksijde in their European tour. In addition to great summer conditions, on July 6th at least, the organizers also issued an unexpected yet welcome change to the schedule by starting the show at 1300 hrs to make it last until sunset. Coming from the Netherlands I was quite pleased with this as I had less traffic on the way to and from Koksijde, but the biggest plus was the great late afternoon and evening light.
Aside from the Thunderbirds, timing of the show, and anniversary, the organization managed to book a good line-up for the flying and static displays. It was even dubbed the biggest airshow in Belgium since 1964. I wouldn't know, but anno 2011 it sure was a success in term of great performances and special guests.
Belgian Air Force Show
The 65 year history of the Belgian Air Force was commemorated by adding some historic types into the mix. The current and past workhorses of the force, a DC-3 Dakota and one of the C-130 Hercules transports joined up for a special formation fly-by. Unfortunately the DC-3 was void of any Belgian markings, in fact it still carried the lettering "Cent ans d'Aeronautique Navale" as last year the airframe carried French Navy markings to celebrate 100 years of French Naval Aviation. Two of the most historically important fighters flew together as well, the Spitfire and F-16. While the F-16 was the Belgian Solo Display aircraft, for the Spitfire the organization had to rely on a machine in Dutch markings. Understandably, it was the same story for the Meteor and Hunter. Fortunately the public could see a pair of T-6 Texans and the Fouga Magister with Belgian markings.
Just like last year's show, the Belgian Air Force also proudly presented its latest acquisition, the Airbus A330, which was nicely escorted by two F-16s. No Belgian airshow is complete without one of their SeaKings doing its SAR Demo. The A109 also performed its solo demo, which never fails to amaze as it's obviously flown to the limit. Although a Belgian Alpha Jet was spotted departing the base, to present the fighter pilot training the Belgians relied on the French Alpha Jet Solo demo to tell the story as training takes place in France under a joint program. Add in the ERJ-145 VIP jet providing some "air baptism" flights, and almost all current types could be seen flying.
Belgium's display team, the Red Devils, had been reformed last year and flew their first official displays this year having gained their international certification. Unfortunately funding restrictions have lead the team to form with four SF.260M basic trainers rather than the Alpha Jet, the real successor of the team's previous mount the Fouga Magister. Having already seen them last year, I was prepared for the small and slow SF.260M team and able to look past the nice color scheme to 'judge' the flying. While it's great for the Red Devils to exist again, the display still needs a lot of work. Recognizing that formation aerobatics with propeller aircraft is difficult, tight formations or aggressive maneuvers with these light underpowered aircraft meant for basic training are not expected, but setup and reset times before and between the elements were far too long making the performance seem boring and lasting forever. Hopefully the team will keep on improving their routine and find a way to compensate for the lack of speed by avoiding "going the long way round" to set up for the next element. That said, bravo to the Belgian Air Force for (re-)forming the team in today's world of defense spending cut backs.
The best performer of the Belgian Air Force, the entire country even, is of course the F-16 Solo Display. I've been a fan since 2006, but in recent years I've put it before the RNLAF F-16 Solo Display even. The 2011 season was the last for pilot Michel 'Mitch' Beulen, and I'd like to think this season showed his experience, although that's impossible to say as on-looker, all his performances I have seen over the years had been perfect in my eyes. What I can say though is that I really liked the 2011 routine, really gets your adrenaline pumping. For Koksijde 2011, it was even better as the display took place at sunset. The orange afterburner and flares in the reduced light at 9.30-10.00 PM made it a winner and it was the perfect finale to the show on Wednesday.
But of course this does not conclude our report, Koksijde 2011 was an international show, and the line-up of jet display teams was indeed very international.
Starting the show was the most remarkable display team, the Saudi Hawks, which were for the first time on a full-blown European tour. It was the team's first ever performance in Belgium. Different formations, pairs, and solo Hawk Mk.65/65As does not excite that much when one is used to seeing the more impressive RAF Red Arrows several times a year. But the simple, yet beautiful green-and-white color scheme of the six jets and the green smoke was a great change to the more common red and blue. As first act of the day, rather than around the time the Red Arrows performed later on the day, a direct comparison or "Hawk boredom" was avoided.
The show's headliner, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds also greatly benefitted from even greater conditions late on the afternoon. In addition to the close formations, the shiny white F-16s beautifully contrasted against the sky. Having only seen the Thunderbirds in their low altitude routine before, I was well impressed by the high altitude routine. Although the low passes by tight fourship formations of the big (relative to other teams' aircraft) F-16s were perhaps more thrilling to most people, the full formation in probably the biggest loop I've ever seen was a work of art to be enjoyed in silence if it weren't for the propaganda coming from the loudspeakers.
The story was not much different for the next jet display team: the Turkish Stars. Flying the NF-5 jets as opposed to basic jet trainers as most European teams, it's always a great addition to the line-up as they are faster, sleeker, and noisier. Whether it's because the team came after the Thunderbirds or because it was 8 PM and the crowd had begun to thin out, I am not sure, but the display didn't seem to impress the onlookers as much as at other shows. For me, it was great to see them in evening light and found every pass but the final split, as the team's announcer called out, "get your camera ready to make a photo" moment because some clouds had blocked the sun for a few minutes then.
The last display team of the day were the Patrouille de France. The sun had begun to drop and turn orange, the resulting light lit up the jets with the warmer white stripes and smoke trails beautifully mixed with the red and blue.
To please most aviation enthusiasts an airshow can't just rely on brightly colored formation display teams. Koksijde 2011 also offered enough other displays, although limited in terms of special let alone rare displays I'd say there was something for everyone. World War Two was not forgotten with the BBMF Lancaster and Dutch Spitfire displays. The Cold War jet era represented by not only the Hunter Hawker, but also a Gloster Meteor. There was a strong RAF presence with the RAF King Air, Tucano and Hawk solo displays followed by a pair of Tornado GR.4 attacking the airfield. Helicopter fans could enjoy the display by the Austrian Alouette III, but perhaps even more, the Czech W-3, both from SAR units. Unfortunately the RNLAF AH-64 Apache demo did not fly its demo, it would have been great to see at sunset. For modern jets, as if the Belgian F-16 and Thunderbirds weren't enough, the RNLAF F-16 also performed its demo. With all those F-16s, there should be a F/A-18 Hornet as well, and there was. The Swiss F-18C Hornet flew its square loop and high-alpha pass like no F-16 can. Of the civilian displays, one receives special attention in this report, the FX Glider with pyrotechnics was a great for the evening show.
The only thing really missing from the display program was a fourth generation jet, unfortunately the AdlA Rafale display was occupied in France, an Italian Eurofighter was present but for the static show only just like its German counterpart, and surprisingly there was no Gripen at all.
For the static show, the Belgian Air Force's heritage when it comes to fighters was not forgotten, with a F-104G and Mirage 5BA in fresh paint joining several F-16s on display. Similarly the S-58C, the SeaKing's predecessor was also rolled out. Koksijde being the home base for the Belgian Sea Kings, it was not surprising that there were also plenty of helicopters in the static show, including a Polish Navy Mi-8 and Dutch NH90 with the latter providing a glimpse into the future for Koksijde. Also from its Northern neighbor, a Chinook, PC-7, and even one of three remaining Alouette IIIs. The strong UK representation already mentioned for the flying program was also felt in the static line-up, with a RN Merlin and RAF Tucano and courtesy of the SAR connection one RAF SeaKing, which commemorates 70 years of RAF Search And Rescue in 2011. France had sent a Gazelle, Alpha Jet, and a Dauphin. Other static aircraft worth mentioning were the Estonian An-2 and Ukrainian An-30. Apart from the Belgian F-16s and one Italian and one German Eurofighter, the static line-up was lacking in terms of fighters. This may have been a result of the show taking place on working days rather than over the weekend plus many NATO countries' ongoing operational commitments for the Libyan no-fly-zone. Some private aircraft filled the gaps nicely.
Looking back Koksijde International Air Show 2011 was a great success. Because the public faces the sun at Koksijde, it was a great move to start the program at 1300 and continue until 2200 hrs when the sun goes down. For photography especially the schedule enjoyed on Wednesday was perfect. Although, I suspect concerns with regards to traffic played a bigger role in this decision, as Thursday was a normal day schedule. Also Thursday's weather was worse, so not everyone who attended may share my experience of enjoying even the regular acts.
While plenty of attention was given to the historical types and current units of the Belgian Air Force by the show's commentator, it was not clearly communicated it was an anniversary, but it was definitely a show that signaled some kind of celebration. The airshow's booklet/magazine is also more of a picture book than that it provides information, the only historic info is about the Red Devils in interview form. Perhaps it's too much to ask for a 65th, 70th even, but I hope when the Belgian Air Force turns 75 years a summary of its history will be included in the booklet.
In terms of aircraft and performers it was a great show once it regained momentum later in the afternoon. The Thunderbirds may have been the primary reason for airshow fans from outside Belgium to attend, but most other displays were top notch as well. Koksijde really brought SAR to the foreground by inviting other SAR units to attend for both flying and static displays, interestingly this brought several helicopters to the show normally not seen at these events unless it's in their own country. It was good to see this many visiting aircraft from the neighboring countries, although a fast jet from France was missing, likewise one of Germany's Eurofighter predecessors would have been a nice addition to the static. Also it would have been great to see more aircraft from countries further away, though this can be easily forgiven in light of the Thunderbirds, Saudi Hawks, and then as bonus the Estonian An-2 in the static.
Report and photos by Niels Hillebrand ( view portfolio )