Flares are in at Volkel
Dave Eade reflects on last year's annual airshow of the Dutch Royal Air Force. Pictures by the author and Geoff Stockle/Aeromedia
Held at a different MOB (main operating base) every year, this year saw a return to Volkel on 18/19 June, home of the F-16s of 306, 311 and 312 Squadrons of the KLu. Somewhat strange is the Dutch habit of holding the show on the Friday and Saturday of the weekend, where most countries one would expect the Saturday and Sunday to be chosen. Weather is always the risk at such a large event but on both days the inclement forecast did not seem to daunt the enthusiasts, and on the Saturday the public arena could be said to be heaving!
Violent showers were a problem on both days - Saturday's bringing about rapturous applause and much respect for the guys in Red! Yes, just as they took off for their show, the Red Arrows were greeted by torrential rain over one half of the base. It seemed only a matter of time before 'Red One' would call 'time' on what appeared to be a partly visible very flat show - but this team can be relied on to put on a show if humanly possible - so they did! "God is British" was the comment we heard from a German photographer on the following day as, to the repeated amazement of the crowd, the Reds managed to pick the one twenty-minute clear blue sky - when vertical visibility was around 93 million miles - not a cloud to be seen! It was followed by one of those moments when not only does your hair stand up on the back of your neck, but you are very proud to be British! The applause from the crowd as the synchro pair performed their 'Heart' maneuver was rapturous, to say the least!
So what else did we see? The annual Royal Netherlands Air Force airshow is usually a huge event, showcasing the home forces as well as attracting a large and varied foreign participation. This year's event was indeed a large scale airshow, with at least 170 aircraft and some ten countries involved, but one couldn't help feeling something was missing. The static content was down on that of the 2000 show but still contained some nice pieces - star for the Friday crowd was the arrival of two Italian F-16ADFs from the 37th Stormo at Trapani, neatly parking in a line of Dutch F-16s where they competed for attention with J-229 in a special 25th anniversary colour-scheme from the KLu (reminding those of us old enough to remember the original prototype from way-back-when). Noticeably absent from the line were any F-16s from USAFE or Norway, a sole Belgian example being the only other nation present, particularly disappointing in view of the fact that examples from Portugal, Greece and Norway were to be found on deployment close at hand in Holland. As with the RAF display at Waddington, this demonstrates just how difficult it is to get aircraft to airshows today. We understand that although the crews were really up for it and eager to attend, permission from the Pentagon had to be sought (and was refused) for US Navy presence from the USS Enterprise at Waddington. One wonders what has happened to 'Esprit-de-Corps' today. Crews are in the area, have to fly missions so what's really so difficult about a landing away from base - and just think of the kudos it would present! A reason to refuse, when they are already in the country, is therefore hard to find. One remembers when NATO beer calls went out in the seventies - any excuse (including a PAN call) would be made to get to the offering base on a Friday afternoon!
Missing from this year's event were any examples of hardware from our Eastern friends, with the one exception of the An-30 'Open Skies' aircraft from the Bulgarian Air Force - which probably caused pleasure in the hearts of the men from Kodak and Fuji, if no-one else. Mini presence was also the order of the day for the USAFE, with only a brace of F-15Es on parade. The most photographed F-16 in the world must be the 'Teamwork' mount from 322 Squadron, KLu. This year, in the hands of Captain Christian van Gestel, the display carries on the 'Tomba' tradition in its expertise but also (except in the UK, apparently) in the use of flares. A discussion with the ground crew whose job it is to follow Christian around in the best-painted van on the circuit revealed that Waddington and Fairford had vetoed the use of flares on safety grounds. Another worrying aspect was that they could have got away with 'display' flares in place of the real thing, but the Klu could not afford them! Used twice in the sequence, the flares are deployed in both the loops on the B-axis (photographers take note).
As mentioned above, the Reds were there with the French and Italian jet teams for company. The hoped for mixed mass formation from all the teams to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Reds did not materialise, of course... In general the Brits did rather well though, with the RAF circus of Nimrod, Sea Harrier, Tornado GR4, Hawk and Hercules 'J' on display. Other sequences and gems were the display of the Swiss PC-7 team, which now starts, if available, with a fly-past with the F-18 'in the box' of the vic formation (pioneered at Koksijde in 2003). He then breaks skywards to start his sequence while the team goes off to hold. The Swiss F-18 probably wins the European F-18 contest this year - it is a very tight, thrilling show. It seems that every KLu show leaves you with the "why don't the RAF do that?" feeling. This is never more so than with the annual Air Power demonstration - commencing with a massive air attack from eleven F-16s (yes, eleven!) who don't just fly past once but return in singles and pairs again and again to 'soften up' (read 'knock hell out of') the target. This is followed by armour and troops brought in by three Chinooks, Cougars and a Hercules, while Apaches stand guard. The spirit in which the whole show is put together was shown on day two when the troop landing was immediately followed by a tremendous rain-storm. The demo was not abandoned (as some would have expected) but merely paused while the rain passed, to the absolute soaking of the soldiers involved, and as soon as able the extravaganza just carried on as if nothing had happened. Sorry to labour the point, but can you see this happening at a UK display, where we are lucky to see any sort of capability display today? The pyrotechnic experts get to show their skills as well during the whole performance. Bringing the sequence to a close was one of the KLu's KDC-10 tankers with an F-16 on the boom followed by a flypast of the remaining ten attacking fighters in a very respectable vic.
Absent from the party, although on the guest list, was the Lockheed Constellation, which at the time of the show was still awaiting engine runs. There was plenty still to enjoy though, with excellent performances from the Breitling Apache Team of L-39s, British and German Tornados (possibly the last time for the Germans if all comes to fruition with the news that the German High Command are withdrawing from all airshows), and the superb FAA Sea Harrier in its beautiful blue colour scheme. There is so much here to make the KLu show a 'Not-to-be-missed' show. There are always those, press enclosure included, who expect to see the world at every show and spend two days complaining bitterly about no-shows. For me, I look at from the point of view that this is a free to the public show (MOD please note) and if you turned up on a days spotting and saw half of this on the pan, you would be in danger of wetting yourself. This was, maybe apart from the weather, one of the high spots of the European calendar for 2004 - and rightly so. KLu - we salute you!