Organizing airshows over the last few years seemed to be a lost art within the Belgian Air Component, with rather pedestrian events lacking soul and excitement, even despite the occasional rare participant. For a while, it seemed that the Defence Days 2008 at Florennes would be no different, particularly as it faced fierce competition abroad from the Royal Navy show at Yeovilton and the main Royal Air Force show, held at RAF Waddington during the same weekend.
The weather on both days was very different. Saturday afternoon, starting at around 15:00, saw relentless rain which impacted activities severely, even if some acts gave it their best shot to display in such biblical conditions. Technical problems with the Turkish Stars and the B-52 which was due to appear getting stuck on the ground at RAF Waddington did nothing to help matters. The Sunday show on the other hand enjoyed some nice summer weather, contrary to weather forecasts.
Having abandonned its plan to minimize the amount of criticism by decreasing the number of people leaving the base after the show by starving the audience, the sand component stuck with demonstrating its equipment to the crowd while a professional event catering company managed the food and drinks supply at very reasonable prices for an event of such magnitude. Parking and transport were a bit of an issue, particularly on Sunday when traffic jams caused severe delays in the early afternoon. With a very limited number of access ways to the base, this problem would be inevitable if the public was unevenly distributed over the 2 days because of the weather.
The public area was enormous, with demonstrations by all components of the Belgian defence being spread out over a wide area. In that sense, the decision to start the flying display at 10:00 made little sense, as it would almost certainly draw away the public from the many ground demonstrations. The flying display such as it was could have been compacted a little more to about 5 to 5 and a half hours to allow the other components to take centre stage in the morning. It would also have resulted in an even more satisfying flying display.
The static display was unusually poorly laid out by Florennes' standards, with fences and people on both sides of the aircraft, too closely to the airframes. There were plenty of nice items to be seen though, including a Polish An-26 and Fitter, a freshly updated Belgian Marchetti SF-260++ with larger canopy, Spanish F-5s, French Super Etendards and French Mirage F1, a German BO-105 in special colours and many more. The Greeks were even nice enough to send 2 A-7 Corsairs in special colours, while elsewhere, Belgian aircraft in anniversary colour schemes could be found. Special attention also went to the Joint Strike Fighter mock-up, certainly as the Belgian roundels applied to it seemed to indicate overly large optimism on the part of the producer. Parking the majority of display aircraft where the crowd could watch them prepare and taxy out for their displays was also a nice touch.
With the term 'International Airshow' being used officially again by the air component for the first time in years, it was clear that the organizers planned to present a nice programme, despite some negative vibes among Belgian enthusiasts prior to the event.
In recent years, the air component has learned quite a bit about filling gaps in the programme with its own assets, resulting in some demonstrations not commonly seen elsewhere, like a Seaking carrying an artillery gun supported by an Agusta A-109 for cover fire, the same pair being used to insert rescue forces to liberate hostages, in addition to both aircraft being presented solo.
The Belgian air power demonstration was performed by 2 C-130s, 6 F-16s and 3 A-109s, in a scenario to rescue civilians from a conflict zone. The demonstration incorporated assets from the medical and land component, including our special forces.
These 'joint demonstrations' were spread out throughout the day and complemented the other acts quite nicely.
The organizers had wisely tapped the increasingly interesting French classic aircraft market, particularly when considering the sky-rocketing costs charged by operators on the other side of the English Channel. AJBS presented its new P-40 Kitty Hawk, in addition to its famous A4D Skyraider in US Navy colours. Another aircraft dating back to the Vietnam era in the programme is also in French civilian hands: the very energetic and spectacular OV-10 Bronco. A far more sedate demonstration came from a Vampire 2-seater.
Eric Vormezeele flew his T-6 Harvard in Belgian colours on both days, while his son Frederic displayed the Scandinavian Historic Flight's P-51D Mustang both solo and in a heritage flight together with the Belgian solo demonstration F-16.
Aerobatics were not overlooked with displays by a Belgian Yak-52 and Ali Ozturk's Pitts S2 on steroids. The Ursel-based Victor formation team flew a combined PA-28/Extra 300 display on Sunday for the first time in public.
Also on Sunday, the USAF presented a KC-135 from Mildenhall with 2 fly-by's. It is always nice to see an aircraft not commonly encountered on the display circuit included in a display. Also not commonly seen at airshow is the search-and-rescue demonstration of the Dutch navy Lynx, another welcome addition to the Florennes line-up.
As usual, the Belgian air component managed a first for their show: a Romanian IAR-99 training aircraft, which flew a limited display, but still nice to see thanks to its rarity. The French Alpha Jet solo demonstration compensated for the lacklustre performance of its Romanian trainer counterpart, though.
To make up for lacking some fast jet power, the Belgian and Dutch F-16 solo displays both flew twice on Sunday, the Dutch F-16 taking to the sky again after Mickey Artiges finished his home game. The Swiss were not to be outdone with their excellent F-18C Hornet solo performance, spectacular as always.
No fewer than 3 jet display teams took part in the Florennes show: 2 French teams, with the civilian Breitling Jet Team and the French air force's national team Patrouille de France, plus the Turkish national team Turkish Stars, back in Belgium after an absence of 11 years.
The variety of displays presented certainly showed the organizers' determination to impress the public, which turned out in excess of 100000 people over the weekend.
A nice touch for the flying display was the placement of the speakers behind the crowdline, allowing unobstructed pictures for photographers. Unfortunately, the quality of the commentary coming from those speakers was substandard, with the commentator giving the impression that there was no organization at all with statements like 'We don't know whether the KC-135 will appear' or 'We don't know which act will follow', statements unbefitting an event with such a high degree of planning and coordination, not to mention the general dry, technical monotonous presentation. A more anecdotal approach would perhaps not be a bad idea if the intention is to stick to a single commentator.
Another good idea was the local radio setup so people could follow the commentary in their cars and receive local traffic information. If this idea is continued in the future, it would be a smart to advertize this in advance, though.
Still, the show managed to put the Belgian air force back on the map, attracting more international acts than the 'competing' shows that weekend and presenting them nicely in a varied programme. And to those who frowned when the Dutch F-16 closed the Sunday show after the superb Belgian F-16 display, please consider this: the Special Olympics also come after the main event.
by Chris Janssens
Lay-out and content by Chris Janssens, 2005 - present