Geoff Stockle and Hugo Mambour & Vincent Pirard/AviaScribe contribute to a combined report from a unique Belgian event. Pictures as credited.
Having changed its name from the 'Bierset Happening', the fifth International Belgian Helidays were held over the weekend of 1 & 2 June in glorious weather.
The Liège-Bierset airfield, which used to house the Mirage V (the last aircraft of 42 Squadron were retired in December 1993) is now an army aviation base and commercial airport. Bierset is home to the front line aviation units (once based in Germany) of the Army Component of the Belgian Armed Forces - all forces were amalgamated together on 1 January 2002. The aviation assets of the former independent forces are now under the control of three new operational commands, known as the Air, Navy and Army Components, which report to a unified command headquartered at Brussels-Evère.
The units at Bierset are the 16th Liaison Battalion (BnHLn) equipped with the SA318C Alouette II and BN2A-21 Islander, the 17th and 18th Multirole Battalion (BnMRH) flying the A109 Hirundo and 255 Maintenance Company. The new BnMRHs are composed of one multirole company and one antitank company, reflecting the new flexibility required for the post-cold war era (before 1 July 2002 they were antitank battalions or BnHATk).
The military area of the airfield is part of a much-developed Liege Airport with a huge cargo terminal capable of handling aircraft up to 747 size. Because of this and insurance/noise limitations the airshow itself is confined to helicopters and light aircraft only. But, this doesn't prevent some of the rarer and more interesting military helicopters attending this popular event.
The home team provided several machines for static viewing, the most noteworthy being a pollution control-configured BN2A Islander B-02/LB. Apart from the Islanders, fixed wing types were few and far between, consisting of a Belgian Air Force SF260D and privately owned Piper Cubs and Stampes. But, the show is about helicopters after all!
Main attraction for most enthusiasts was Polish Navy Mil-14PL 'Haze' 1011 (see title picture) from 2DLMW at Darlowo, resplendent in a gorgeous blue camouflage scheme. This maritime development of the Mil-8 series is one of a number of former WarPac types that are slowly disappearing due to increasing Western re-equipment. However, the Polish Air Force provided one of the least common participants of the 2002 gathering with a W-3RL Anaconda, the SAR variant of the Sokol, exclusively in use with the 2 Eskadra Lotnicza based at Bydgoszcz.
Unnoticed by most visitors was the fact that static Mil-26 'Halo' RA-06021 was being prepared by Belgian company Skytech for the Congolese Air Force - surely one of the rarest participants seen at a European airshow! Acquired last year in Malaysia and transferred by barge and by road from Antwerp harbour to Bierset for overhaul, this is the third Halo the company is refurbishing. Although unfinished, the Halo was adorned with a pseudo-military scheme, complete with Congolese Air Force markings. Skytech will operate the Russian helicopter on behalf of the African air force once the refitting of the airframe is complete.
The French Air Force provided one of the final three Alouette IIIs (2041/67-ED) in service, belonging to EH03.067, so again adding to the rarity stakes at the show. Equipped with a CHLIO nose turret, the type should have been replaced by Ecureuil helicopters some years ago, but it was found that the new type was unable to carry the weight of all the equipment carried by the Chlio Alouette. The French delegation also composed of a navy Lynx HAS2 (FN) of 34F from Lanvéoc-Poulmic. Other Lynxes in attendance came from Norway, Germany (Mk88A 83+26 resplendent with new nose), the Netherlands and United Kingdom.
Other interesting participants included three Italian helicopters, comprising an AB212AM (MM81148), a rare A109EOA-2 (MM81249) observation platform and an A129A, the latter two from the Cavalleria Dell'Aria (Army aviation). The Hungarian Air Force sent two Mil-8T 'Hip's belonging to 89 VSRD from Szolnok, these being on a Squadron exchange with 18 Battalion prior to the event.
The Swiss Air Force participated for the first time with an AS332M1 Super Puma, whereas the Dutch brought an AS532U2 Cougar in SFOR markings, an AH-64D from Gilze-Rijen and a CH-47D from Soesterberg. The most colourful Alpine offering was undoubtedly the OH-58B from Tulln-Langenlebarn in Austria, duly painted in Kiowa markings to celebrate 25 years of operations with the Austrian Air Force. It was joined by AB212 5D-HP, both machines coming from Fliergerregiment 1 at Tuln-Langenlebarn.
The only American participation was Army UH60A 87-024584 of the 357Av Det, SHAPE HQ, whilst the RAF provided a Sea King HAR3A. The German para-military Bundesgrenschutz (Border Guard) sent an EC135T1 (D-HVBK) and EC155B (D-HLTL).
In the air
The flying display consisted of only fifteen items, all of which flew twice. A Belgian Islander (B-03/LC) flew an excellent solo display, reminiscent of Greenham IATs or 70s Farnboroughs when demonstrator aircraft were displayed more vigorously, and was the only fixed-wing item. The more common A109 solo display and the 'Red Bees' (previously Blue Bees) team of five Alouette IIs completed the host nation's contribution to the flying, except for the traditional Sea King SAR demo.
From the UK came the Merlin HC3 demo from 28 Squadron and the Royal Navy Lynx pair. Other highlights were the Swiss AS332M, Aeronavale Lynx and a superb aerobatic performance from the German Army BO105. Although the promised Slovakian Mil-24 pair failed to attend, this really was a first class event - the sheer rarity of most of the attendees easily makes up for the lack of turning and burning afterburners. A definite re-visit for next year!
Let's hope that this unique event will survive the new 'ideas' of the Belgian Minister of Defence, who has decided to organise a single annual event for the three armed forces. The first took place at Beauvechain in September 2002 (report coming soon - Ed) - consequently, the traditional Belgian Air Force official annual airshow has disappeared. 2003's event will take place at Zeebrugge, a navy facility with no runway. It would be very sad indeed to see such a specific and interesting event like the Bierset Helidays disappear as well.
Geoff would like to thank Wilfried Spruyt and the A109 FlightSim team.