20 September 2009
|Of the many civilian airshows Belgium once had, the International Sanicole Airshow is the only one that survives, apart from the serious effort to resurrect the Ursel Avia Show. This year saw a dramatic change in date for Sanicole, shifting from its traditional summer slot to Sunday September 20 to coincide with the NATO Tiger Meet held at that time at the nearby Kleine Brogel air force base.
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Thanks to the Tiger Meet, Sanicole was able to attract even more foreign military participation than usual, assembling a programme of very rare quality. So much good fortune happening in Belgium however could only mean one thing: something had to give.
The first piece of bad news came from the Swiss Tiger Association Hunter, which suffered an engine problem and therefore failed to make it to Belgium, and the USAF which withdrew its planned tanker aircraft participation entirely for operational reasons. Thanks to some quick thinking by the organizer and a swift response by Plane Sailing, Sanicole could still show some stars and bars in the sky, albeit a little older, but only slightly, painted on the amphibious Catalina. The Catalina is always a welcome sight at airshows: its size commands attention, and thanks to its amphibious nature, it can be presented in different configurations. Mac McKinney presented the display with much gusto, making it more than an adequate stand-in for the USAF. Another last-minute addition to the programme was Etienne Verhellen with his Yak-52 'Janie', always an energetic routine. Having coped well with the last-minute cancellations, things still looked very bright.
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Sunday dawned and it became clear that things were actually a little too bright. While Sanicole always suffers from backlight for the most part of the flying display, something which is difficult but not impossible to deal with, Mother Nature decided to throw up another hurdle for capturing pictures of the airshow: the sun was accompanied by a thick haze. From the ground, the haze obscured aircraft significantly, resulting not only in fuzzy pictures but also in a dull, at times blinding light-grey to white background. Worse still, the haze meant that display pilots had trouble seeing the ground, the crowd and the display line, an inherently dangerous situation. For this reason, many of them decided to cancel their displays, cut their routines short or limit themselves to their low show to ensure they stayed well within safety limits. Inevitably, this caused significant gaps in the programme. The French air force Alpha Jet and the Mirage 2000s which were to perform an airfield attack returned back to Kleine Brogel without showing themselves at Sanicole, having established visibility was outside their safety parametres. Other no shows were the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Spitfire and Hurricane and the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight's Beech 18. While disappointing for the audience, all pilots should be applauded for performing as best they could under these difficult circumstances, or having the good sense and professionalism one expects from a pilot to cancel displays or not perform them completely so as not to endanger themselves or the crowd. The haze would stay over the airfield all day, a gust of wind would have made short work of it, but it was not to be.
What did fly, when it was visible and after much reshuffling in the programme, was still very impressive. Apart from the Catalina, Sanicole presented a number of other famous warbirds. From the UK came B-17 Flying Fortress 'Sally B', back after suffering endlessly from engine woes and the BBMF's C-47. Flying in from the Netherlands was a Harvard of the RnlAF Hisoric Flight, joined by Hanno Wesdorp's Harvard in US colours. Frederic Vormezeele once again presented P-51D Mustang 'Old Crow', including a heritage flight with the Belgian Air Component's F-16 solo display. To many though, the stars among the warbirds came from Austria, courtesy of Red Bull: a B-25 Mitchell, F4U Corsair and flying again in Europe for the first year after a long absence,a P-38 Lightning.
While Red Bull's warbird displays were quite bland, they also provided the most amazing helicopter display the crowd had undoubtedly ever seen with their Bo105, flying a fully aerobatic routine. This also served as the jump plane for the Red Bull wing suit jumper. Other helicopter displays at the show were the Belgian Air Component's Seaking search and rescue demonstration, and the Czech Air Force's Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter. Another Czech Hind was parked in the static display, which also featured a Royal Navy Merlin and Italian AB212. Another nice touch in the static display was the liberation camp at the right of the crowd area, complete with V1 flying bomb.
Sanicole was one of the final displays of Aerosuperbatics in Team Guinot colours. Due to engine trouble, the Guinot pair was reduced to a solo wingwalking display. The team's future looks secured though thanks to a new sponsorship agreement with Breitling. Also from the UK came the Blades, the world's only aerobatic airline, joining the rather more standard airline Jetairfly in the air in a unique mixed formation of 4 Extra 300s and a Boeing B737-700. The Blades' display wowed the crowd thanks to its high pace and varied routine. The Belgian civilian formation team The Victors, based at Ursel, presented a flawless 5-ship routine early on in the display, while Sanicole regulars Breitling Jet Team saw themselves forced to cut short their display due to bad visibility. Providing the obligatory aerobatics act was perhaps one of the most remarked and photographed performers at the show, 25-year old Melissa Pemberton from the US. She also had to adjust her routine, though in her case this was due to having to fly an Extra 300 rather than her usual Edge 540, which allows her to fly more energetically. Still, her performance was a nice, expertly flown aerobatics routine and definitely a crowd pleaser.
Of course, all of the past review disregards the biggest civilian act by far, if not in size, then certainly in prestige. The Avro Vulcan is a showstopper wherever it appears, and was obviously a main attraction at the airshow. At Sanicole, the Vulcan flew in straight from the UK, accompanied by 4 F-16s of 31 squadron who had flown some formations earlier on in the show. Due to having to hold a while prior to its display, the Vulcan had to cut its routine short, but still impressed the crowd upon departure with its legendary Vulcan howl. A truly unique sight!
Another unique formation at the show was that of the NATO tigers, the specially painted aircraft of each unit flying in formation and then solo over the small Sanicole airfield. This was just one of many acts by frontline military aircraft on the show schedule.
Other noisemakers in the show were the Dutch Hawker Hunter, the Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16, the Hungarian Gripen, Spanish EF-18 Hornet and Mirage F1 and of course the Belgian F-16, which not only brings 'Mitch' Beulen's superb demonstration to the table, but also the liveliest support crew, excellent ambassadors for the country. Seeing so many fighter displays at one show is a rare treat nowadays, undoubtedly something many shows are envious of. The RAF sent over 2 of its training aircraft: the King Air and the Tutor, the latter restricted to its low show unfortunately, a shame given the quality of its high display.
Rounding off the impressive line-up were the Royal Jordanian Falcons and the Patrouille suisse, which added yet another major European display team to the long list of teams which have appeared at Sanicole.
Record crowds in excess of 30000 flocked to the airfield, which inevitably led to problems at the end of the day when this mass had to find its way home via the only 2 crossroads leading to to the airfield. This is to be expected, even if it is a little frustrating.
Facilities at the airfield on the enlarged public area seemed able to cope well with the influx of the crowds. Catering and toilets to the right of the clubhouse never struggled to keep up and certainly seemed to leave some room for expansion. A nice touch was the food court at the extreme right of the public terrain, a collection of different foo stands forming a small square with table and chairs in the middle. Given the public narrow strip which Sanicole has available, this setup may be difficult to achieve in other places though, a shame as it adds to the already relaxed feel fo the show when one can eat seemingly away from the hustle and bustle in a 'quiet corner'. To use the toilets, one had to pay a lump sum for the entire day, rather than per visit, which certainly speeds things up and can turn out to be quite a bit cheaper for people with regular sanitary needs.
The programme booklet was also a nice change from most shows, being filled with pictures by Europe's leading aviation photographers rather than standard PR-images provided by the participants. Commentary at the show was bilingual English and Dutch, the former provided by the inimitable and always excellent Sean Maffet, who together with his producer Jonathan Ruffle provided entertaining support for the displays with both appropriate music and insightful commentary, a real asset to the show, showing how well-thought out and professionally-approached commentary adds value to the event, especially in difficult circumstances such as on September 20.
Constant improvement and innovation seem to be the core values of the Sanicole airshow and this constant team effort to provide the public and aviation enthusiasts alike with an unforgettable day out resulted in another terrific show, despite bad luck with the white wedding-like veil in the sky. This is why Sanicole should be on any aviation fan's calendar for 2010.
by Chris Janssens
Lay-out and content by Chris Janssens, 2005 - present