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Looking a bit cross about things...23 Squadron badgeThe Devils are dead!

Vincent Pirard/AviaScribe reports on the disbandment of 23 Squadron, Belgian Air Force at Kleine-Brogel.

On 8 March 2002, 23 Squadron, part of 10 Wing of the Belgian Armed Forces’ Air Component was disbanded at its home base of Kleine-Brogel, all part of the plan 'Falcon 2000'. Following the participation of the BAF in the operations over the Balkans, a restructuring plan was set up aiming at rationalising plane and pilot assets, with a reduction of the number of operational squadrons from 6 to 4. It is within the framework of this plan that 2 Squadron 'Comet' from the 2nd Wing at Florennes had already been disbanded on 20 April 2001.

Born during the Cold war

23 "Devil" Squadron was established as a day fighter unit at Beauvechain, on 1 September 1951*. This new squadron was intended to form the embryo of the future 10 Wing, along with two other similar units, 27 "Black Panther" Squadron and 31 "Tiger" Squadron. Barely one month after setting up 23 Squadron moved to Chièvres where it was equipped with the Spitfire Mk.14. Begun in January 1952, the association of the 'Devils' and the Spitfire was rather short-lived as these already old fighters were withdrawn from use six months later and replaced by the F-84G Thunderjet from December 1952. These jets were delivered by the Americans to the Belgian Air Force, in accordance with the MDAP (Mutual Defence Aid Programme). This change of aircraft type meant the transformation of 23 Squadron into a tactical unit as well. On 23 January 1953, the 'Devils' finally moved to the new airbase of Kleine-Brogel. To celebrate this event, the noses of all their aircraft were adorned with a distinctive red stripe, which was later decorated with white edges, and by the addition of an aircraft identification code (Z6-A to Z6-Z).

ClickClickThree years later, in May 1956, after a brief period which saw its strength completed with E model Thunderjets, 23 Squadron received its first F-84F Thunderstreaks. It exchanged these for F-104G Starfighters from April 1964, the Lockheed "rocket with a man in it" remaining on strength for 18 years until the Spring of 1982 and the delivery of its successor and new Belgian standard fighter, the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

23 Squadron was declared operational on its new aircraft at the end of 1982 and had, in 1984, the honour to be one of the first Belgian units to participate in the famous "Red Flag" exercise. At the end of the 1987 firing campaign at Solenzara in Corsica, it became the first Belgian Air Force squadron to qualify for a triple role: fighter-bomber, strike and air defence. A small sociological revolution occurred in 1994 when 23 Squadron welcomed a "she-devil" of charm, the first female combat pilot of the BAF, the officer airwoman Annemie Jansen.

Flightline at K-BThe Devils go to war

With the end of the Cold war, new commitments appeared. In October 1996, flying from Villafranca air base in Italy, the 'Devils' of 23 Squadron flew their first operational missions during the NATO operation 'Joint Falcon'. These sky-control missions over Bosnia and Slavonia were followed in 1999, by participation - this time from Amendola air base - in the war operations led by NATO over Serbia and Kosovo within the framework of operation 'Allied Force'.

The next steps took place in September 1999, with the beginning of 23 Squadron's conversion to the F-16AM (or MLU) and, in early 2001, with the delivery of the first NVGs quickly followed by that of the AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN pods.

Besides an expected fiftieth anniversary, the year 2001 coincided with the decision of disbandment as well. The answer was immediate: the painting of a commemorative F-16 with a large devil head and the most appropriate title 'I’ll be back'. If the transfer of the identity and the devilish traditions of 23 Squadron to the F-16 OCU was seriously envisaged, the idea was finally abandoned, relegating the furious devil to the ever growing pantheon (paradise or hell?) of disappearing squadron badges.

Major Vaerten (left) hands over the 'Devils' to the CO of 31 Sqn, Lt Col TheysThe Devils become Tigers

Like in Florennes, where 2 'Comet' Squadron was incorporated into 350 'Ambiorix' Squadron, 23 Squadron was simply integrated into its sister and ever rival unit, the famous 31 'Tiger' Squadron. This unit saw, at the beginning of this year, the number of its pilots increase with numerous 'Devils', whereas its aircraft strength grew from 12 to 18 ships. The professional integration of these two units ended on 8 March, with a mass formation flypast over the main Belgian airbases. At the end of this flight and after the usual official speeches, the last 'Devils' were called one by one by the CO of 31 Squadron, Lt-Col Rudy Theys, and knighted as a 'Tiger'.

The last line-up for 23Today, 10 Wing of Kleine-Brogel is composed of three flying units: a tactical one, 31 (FB) Squadron, an air defence unit, 349 (F) Squadron, and the F-16 OCU. But as cried out by the last 23 Squadron CO, Major Ronny Vaerten, at the end of his prayer of circumstance: "Devils forever!".

*On 17 March 1948, Belgium signed, together with the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, the Pact of Brussels, which established the Western Union. In the frame of this embryo of integrated defence system, Belgium had to align 12 day fighter squadrons, 3 night fighter squadrons as well as two transport squadrons by 1951.


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