Flying Free at Koksijde 2003
As Koksijde's 2004 airshow approaches, Philip Henden reflects on a rare opportunity at last year's show
Everyone who attends an airshow always comes away with a lasting memory or two. It maybe a rare aircraft seen in the static park, or something that has flown an exceptional display. Well, mine and certainly my wife's was the opportunity of being given a once-in-a-lifetime chance of being flown in a Belgian Air Force Sea King from 40 Squadron at their 2003 open day held at Koksijde.
It seems in Belgium they have a whole different mentality to airshows in giving members of the public an opportunity to fly, free of charge, in military aircraft. This usually takes place by firstly taking part in competitions drawn up in the display programme, or on the 'net' prior to the show taking place. Such flights in 2003 included jollys in an Agusta A109 and the BAF's newest VIP jet, the Embraer ERJ35 which flew in from Melsbroek. However, our mount was to be one of the home-based Sea Kings - so how I did manage this, I hear you ask? Well, I have to admit I can't speak Dutch or French, these of course being the dual languages of Belgium, so this totally ruled me out in taking part in any of the competitions. I simply wrote to the Public Relations Officer asking him "Please, please, can I have a couple of tickets to fly in one of your Sea King helicopters?" I confess to being a bit of a helicopter nut and, always having a bit of soft spot for the Sea King, I thought I'll try my arm! So in the letter I explained that I had done some written work for the Belgian Air Force and various other projects, but then it suddenly dawned on me this only happens to the likes of 'Blue Peter' presenters or if I was unfortunate enough to find myself up to my neck in English Channel!
40 Squadron's motto is 'Dare what should be Dared', so being encouraged by this I posted the letter some weeks before the show. As time went by I have to admit that I started having my doubts, but one week before the show a letter arrived with the squadron crest emblazoned on the envelope - this I opened with great gusto and with much trepidation, only to find it was from the Base Commander Erwin de Decker! For those who have been on the airshow circuit for many years (such as my good self) you will probably recognise this name as once being the BAF's solo F-16 display pilot when he flew with the now disbanded 23 Squadron (Devils) at Kliene Brogel. "It gives me great pleasure to invite you and your wife for an after-show flight in one of our Sea King helicopters"! Well, I have to say the week before the show really dragged on, but the day finally dawned and after arriving on the coastal Tram from Ostend to Koksijde the weather was somewhat murky, with a combination of sea mist and low cloud - not good for a flying display, let alone flying in!
After picking up our tickets and flight information we watched the show, wondering if the weather was ever going to improve. However, the show itself proved to be quite interesting in that both the NH90 and a Canadian EH101 (or Cormorant to give it a better name) were both there, the latter having flown in on delivery from Verigate in Italy. These two had good reason to be there as the Belgians are now looking for a successor to the venerable Sea King that has been plying its trade over Koksijde for well over 25 years.
After taking up position in a long queue and waiting for the last item to complete the show (the excellent Patrouille Suisse) two Sea Kings flew from the back of the airfield onto the apron in front of the queue to take on board the first load of passengers. As we moved along there was a brief security check and a quick once-over of our passports before our turn. My wife must have thought she was with a five-year-old instead of a 40-something adult who couldn't control his excitement...
The downdraught from the Sea King's two Rolls-Royce Gnome engines was considerable - even a Sumo wrestler would have been hard pressed to keep his balance with one of these hovering in front of him! Rotors still turning, we were waved on board by the winch-man, gaining access by the crew door behind the cockpit, and ushered onto a long bench type seat.
Before we could get our bearings it was lift-off, going straight into a powerful steep climb and turn flying over the nearby houses of Koksijde town, heading towards the coastal resort of Oostenduirke. As with most Search and Rescue helicopters the side door was open, affording a great view for those sitting opposite it (albeit well strapped in of course). After much hand-signalling from the loadmaster we all took turns in sitting on a squat seat behind the pilots, watching the men at work behind a huge array of mind-boggling instruments. With one deft movement of the cyclic the helicopter nosed down at a steep angle and although it's impossible to have a conversation in this helicopter nothing could mask the screams from the passengers in the back - I'm sure they were screams of delight rather than fright! We soon returned to straight-and-level flight and as we flew along the surrounding sandy beaches, looking down on the early evening crowds going about their business below, my thoughts turned to that grim night on 6 March 1987 when the squadron was called upon to carry out the huge task of rescuing passengers on the stricken ferry 'Herald of Free Enterprise', when it capsized outside of Zeebrugge harbour. The squadron performed many rescues that night and their exploits certainly made the world's press the following morning. However, our flight was coming to a close as we turned inland and entered Koksijde's approach pattern - after going into a short hover with the ground looming up we were soon back on Terra Firma. Exiting the helicopter with ears still ringing, we were both grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats...
Koksijde 2004 takes place on 3-4 July, more information can be found on www.opendoorkoksijde.be.
Both Karen (my wife) and I would like to thank Colonel Erwin de Decker and Avi Waldeck PR for arranging our flight in Sea King RS04.