Aircraft, with the exception of gliders, are noisy. This statement must have had the organizers of the Royal Netherlands Air Force Open Days at Leeuwarden scratching their heads a little when they were told that there should not be any noisy aircraft on Friday morning to avoid disturbing celebrations in a nearby village. They decided that it would be a wise decision to schedule all the propeller-driven aircraft before lunch time, as they produce fewer decibels. A fine plan, which fell apart when they decided that the Fouga is also a quiet aircraft and it started taxying. For 30 minutes, the celebrations surely came to a halt. Whoever came up with listing the little Fouga as quiet had clearly never been near one.
Still, putting a good programme together is something which the Dutch Open Days Office has significant expertise in. Leeuwarden 2006 has become something of an icon in the minds of airshow enthusiasts all over Europe, which meant that the organizers had the impossible task of living up to that memory, which even in 2 short years has grown quite different from reality. After all, apart from the numerous display teams, with the US Navy Blue Angels as top of the bill, there were very few items then that modern military aviation enthusiasts who frequent internet forums would get excited about. Still, the show has become an icon and an oft-heard criticism was that there were far fewer jets in the flying display this year than in 2006. As a matter of fact, there was an equal number of fighter displays in the flying display in 2006 and 2008. Add to that the classic jets which completed the programme this year and 2008 actually had more jet noise than 2006 at the Open Days. How memory can fail people!
There were indeed fewer display teams this year, with just the Italian Frecce Tricolori, the rarely seen Iskra Team from Poland with their 4 TS-11 Iskra jet trainers and the Royal Jordanian Falcons. The 2 North Weald-based Gnats can hardly be considered a display team as most of their display consists of a solo performance.
Supporting the 2 Gnats and appearing in the flying display itself was a UH-1 Iroquois, G-Huey, taking the audience back to the days of Vietnam with its very distinctive sound. An aircraft from the same era which put on a very spirited performance was the OV-10 Bronco, now in French civilian hands.
Other helicopter displays at the show were the Belgian Seaking with a SAR demonstration, 2 AB-412 of the home-team putting on a synchronized rescue operation, a Royal Navy EH-101 Merlin and the brand new NH-90, presented in flight for the first time to the Dutch public in its Dutch colour scheme.
A surprise guest in the flying display was the CP-142 Aurora of the Canadian armed forces. This demonstration was a great coup for the organizers, even more so because they hadn't advertized it in advance. Another surprise flying act was the Irish Air Corps PC-9 solo demonstration, though it was outperformed by the far more agressive show of the Slovenian PC-9, who should also receive the award for best camouflage as it was difficult to distinguish from the trees behind it while waiting prior to lining up on the runway.
With the Royal Netherlands Air Force celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, particular emphasis was placed on its history with a strong showing of the Klu Historische Vlucht based at Gilze Rijen, who are unfortunately short one Spitfire after a landing mishap in 2007. Still, the formations they presented during the morning programme were very graceful and provided some nice photo opportunities.
One aircraft that stood out was the Stinson wearing a civilian registration. This aircraft did not belong to the Royal Netherlands Air Force, in fact, bit was the private plane of his majesty Prince Bernhard.
Another wonderful photo op came with the Heritage Flight, consisting this year of the B-25, Hunter and F-16. On Saturday, the Hunter suffered a birdstrike during its solo display and was forced to make an emergency landing. While the aircraft landed safely, it is out of action for a while for extensive damage assessment and repair.
The traditional airpower demonstration saw 10 F-16s take to the sky, supported by a Chinook, 2 Cougars and 2 Apaches for a close air support demonstration, using tons of pyrotechnics. The undisputed highlight of this programme item, however, proved to be the KDC-10 with a pass at roughly 2 metres height for the entire length of the runway.
Saturday not only caused a panic during the Hunter demonstration, but also immediately after the take off of the Spanish EF-18 solo display, when one of the main gears refused to retract. A forgotten safety pin proved to be the culprit for the incident and the pilot got a second chance at the end of the programme. Other fast jets in the flying programme were the Dutch and Belgian F-16 solo displays and the French Mirage 2000, now in its final season.
More jets were to be found in the static park, including a Hungarian Mig-29, Greek and Turkish Phantoms and a German Typhoon, joining other gems like an Austrian PC-7 and USAF KC-10 tanker. The layout of the static was a mixed bag, though it must be said that the situation in the shelter area was particularly dramatic with fences surrounding the aircraft making any decent shot impossible.
The most oddly placed static aircraft came from Belgium, however: Alpha Jet AT33 arrived on Friday while the public was already on base and could therefore not be incorporated in the static park anymore, so it was placed on the other side of the runway in the active zone, away from the audience.
The main controversy though was about commentator Leo Van Der Goot, a well-known Dutch radio-presenter and avid pilot, which makes him more qualified to talk about flying than most of his main critics. Some deem his loose presentation style unfitting for the professionalism of the Dutch air force. It could also be argued though that his style is more likely to teach the general public something about the aircraft on show than a monotonous professor-like lecture. Not having any commentary would be ill-advised, as most the 165000-strong public would not have a clue as to what is going on. Commentary will always be a difficult issue with varying opinions, but judging by the smiles in the crowd generated by the commentator, he must be doing something right.
While the show suffered from the weather with a varying cloud base and some cancellations, the main ones being the B-17 Flying Fortress 'Sally B' that is still missing an engine and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight who were down to a single appearance by the Lancaster on Friday due to weather at their home-base Coningsby, this edition of the Open Days still had plenty to entertain the public. After the Friday show, the organizers clearly analyzed the shortcomings prior to the Saturday display to get rid of the gaps and get a nicely flowing display programme going.Not a classic perhaps, but clearly still one of the highlights of the European airshow season, and free to boot!
The Dutch football team may have lost their game on June 21, the Dutch airshow bureau proved once again they are still world class.