RNLAF Open Dagen, Volkel 1/2 September
A potential door-opening procurement order is to be announced by the Dutch military in the next few years - Dave Eade and Gary Parsons were at Volkel to see the opening sales pitches.
Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and JSF - one would have been forgiven for thinking it was Farnborough week, but instead of Hampshire this was the the eastern Netherlands, and the Air Force's annual open days. Each year sees the airshow rotated to a different airfield, this year being the turn of Volkel, just north of Eindhoven, home to 306, 311 and 312 Squadrons and their F16AMs. Being close to the UK it is one on many a British enthusiast's agenda, so was it worth the trip?
Bouquets go to the Commanding Officer, staff and organisers of this years Koninklijke Luchtmacht Opendagen. This free show is a mix of Flying Legends, Mildenhall and Farnborough, combining some of the best attributes of all three. From the warbirds of the Second World War, through the heavy metal of Europe today, to the designs fighting for the contract to replace the F16s of the current Dutch Air Force this show had a large crowd spellbound despite appalling weather.
Sales more important than the British taxpayer?
So how did the organisers at Volkel manage what Leuchars, Waddington and RIAT have failed to do in the past, in getting a full demonstration by Eurofighter? The answer lays in a blatant sales pitch by the major manufacturers to the Dutch military, which is beginning the process of deciding upon a successor to the F16, due for replacement at the end of the decade. Eurofighter GmbH see the Dutch decision as a potential stepping-stone to a Europe-wide sales bonanza, such as that enjoyed by the Americans with first the F104 and later the '16. It's major rival, Dassault, is also looking to other European nations to resurrect a stalling Rafale programme, so the French company had to be at Volkel to keep it's fourth-generation fighter in the running. Similarly, Lockheed Martin, provider by default of the current F16, brought along a mock-up of the Falcon's replacement, JSF, as by the time the Dutch requirement is necessary, the F16 will be yesterday's aeroplane. Lastly, as a stocking filler, BAE Systems brought along a Gripen, as well they might seeing as they had to be there with the Typhoon...
The change to a trade show occurred with the placing, directly in front of the VIP tent, of the contenders for Dutch guilders in the competition to find a new fighter for the Klu. The French Rafale B (B01) and Swedish Gripen (39186) were present in their metal form, while Eurofighter brought the "Airfix" Typhoon to sit beside the equally false JSF mock-up from the USA. Competition for this contract is obviously rife and many heavily gilded uniforms were seen surveying each type.
Full flying demonstrations were seen from all the key players, excepting JSF of course, but then we need something new to look forward to in the next twenty years...Put back to the end of the day on Friday due to the weather, Typhoon followed Rafale in almost a fly-off competition, and stole the show with the aggressive routine displayed at Farnborough a month previously. Christian Worning was once again at the controls of DA1, and the high-velocity vector rolls were much in evidence. In contrast, Rafale was tame in comparison, although a much sharper display on Saturday realised more of the potential. If only they had gone to Farnborough, they may have realised what they were up against from the off...For us, the Typhoon won the competition on both days, but we have the feeling that neither will win the war. Remember the old adage that the only thing to replace a DC3 was a Dakota - this applies to the C130 and, most believe, the F16 better the devil you know, some might say. All this would be very sad for Eurofighter as the other F16 arms would probably follow suit even though they might end up with an inferior product purely on the cost off-set.
As it is one of the easier bases to get to, the crowd on the Saturday showed that many Brits had either made their own way or taken a seat on one of the plenitude of coaches making the crossing. Billed over two days, the Friday was a combination of arrivals day, rehearsals and a complete run of the main day programme. Your intrepid scribes arrived midway through the Friday programme, but in time to catch both the best of the performers and weather. The weather forecasters on this occasion chose to get it correct and the predicted showers (downpours to you and me) gave both pilots and display organisers plenty to think about. The word rehearsal, for Fridays efforts, turned out to be true however, as worse weather was to arrive on Saturday. The decision to leave the hotel at 0700 for an early photo session on the static line-up was quickly abandoned, with one quick look out of the window at the flooded hotel car-park, and one was thankful for the decision to complete it in mediocre light on Friday. Many shows have been abandoned in weather like this and the valiant display organisers and pilots of Volkel and elsewhere are to be applauded for their efforts over this weekend.
Revenge for RIAT
As well as a RIAT-style line-up, the weather was unfortunately in the same vein - one Dutch wag was heard to comment that it was "revenge for RIAT", but quite what satisfaction was to be gained from the drenching everyone received was lost on most! One aspect of Volkel that was similar to RIAT was the variety of other military aircraft on offer - not in the quantity but certainly the quality. Where else can you see a Maltese Defence Force Islander? (Are its pilots referred to as Maltesers?) Further down the line were aircraft from Turkey, Greece, Austria, Rumania, plus many more. Unlike RIAT, the static line was well laid out for photography, only problem being the regular incursion into the frame of a dog, complete with its even more vicious looking female handler!
One unfortunate incident occurred over the weekend with vandalism to three jets in the static line; both Norwegian F16s and a German Tornado were sprayed with paint by anti-nuclear protestors on the Friday night, resulting in a ticking-off for the vandals and non-appearance for the jets. Apparently the protestors, who object to Volkel's nuclear capability status, were well known to the local police. An aspect of foreign bases is that they are not particularly secure, the many trees surrounding the base providing ample opportunity to hide until an appropriate moment. One thing they do provide is a handy place to relieve oneself, rather than cough up 50 cents to use the toilets dotted about in small encampments. But, this is the only feature of Dutch airshows to cost more than British ones, as entry to the show is free, the programmes reasonably priced and the food mostly edible.
The static line-up contained some gems the stars of which were probably the two Rumanian Air Force Mig-21s (6824 and the two-seat 9501). Both had been through the Lancer up-grade and bore superb colour schemes that, if nothing else, did much to keep Messrs. Kodak and Fujis respective sales managers very happy. Subject of some criticism prior to the day on Mil-Spotters Internet site, the line faced south, nose on to the sun (what there was), but with a little patience good shots were there to be had. It is interesting to compare the impeccable manners of the Dutch, who were happy to move over while you got your shot at the ropes, with the "Who do you think you are?" attitude at a UK show. Second prize in the star stakes, for us, went to one of a pair (68-0383 and 68-0427) of Turkish F4E Phantoms, both bearing shark mouths but one, obviously just out of the paint shop and looking immaculate. F16s abounded, as one would expect, but Denmark appeared to be the only European nation not to send one, with 91-0412/SP of the USAFEs 52 FW, 15104 and 15119 from the Portuguese 112 Filo, Norways 671 and 682 all vying for attention against representatives from the home squadrons.
With their traditional political difference now obviously on hold, a few metres away from the Turks were two A7 Corsairs (159949 and two seat 161221) from the Greek Air Arm for so long strangers to the air show scene. It is delightful to see their ever-increasing attendance at the shows, as was the Luftwaffe Mig-29, which has been somewhat elusive of late.
Slightly offbeat, but providing many spotters with their first line under this air arm was the BN-2B Islander AS9819 from the 2nd Regiment of the Maltese Defence Force. The line up was completed with various examples from, amongst others, the RAF (grounded Tucano and Hawks from the Centre of Aviation Medicine and 19 Squadron), Austria (Kiowa, Draken and Saab 105) Italy (MB 339A) and the (still immaculate) E3A in special NATO colour scheme. The line-up at any air-show on the continent is always lifted by the rarer VIP aircraft and Volkel was no exception with the KDC-10 (T-264) and Gulfstream V-11 making an appearance on Saturday, keeping the Fokker 50 (U-05) and 60 (U-03) company. Still missed, we feel, is the sight of a Fokker twin-prop flying on the display circuit.
It is evident that this is the Air Force's opportunity to show itself to the taxpayer, and it does so in style, this year providing a spectacular finale with mass formations of helicopters, including six Apaches, and no less than eighteen F16s launching to punch in airfield attacks. Chinooks and Cougars came in with underslung loads, three F16s practised a mock 'hook-up' with a KDC-10, and all the helicopters returned in mass formation while fifteen F16s flew above in tight formation. Accompanied by air spares, the F16s returned later in the best airfield attack seen since way back in the days of the F100s at Wethersfield. Accompanied by the compulsory pyrotechnics, wave after wave simulated recce, strafing runs, toss-bombing and general fun accompanied by the gun-toting Apache AH-64s, Bo105s, Chinooks and C130s (one of which stayed to grace the static line with its 55 years of 334 Squadron special colour scheme). The party was bought to any end after about twenty minutes of fun, but was a truly memorable item in the programme and one to be emulated elsewhere, we feel (RAF please note!).
Saturday morning was given over to the Legends of the past, with a full programme of performances from those aircraft that have played a part in the air history of Holland and its neighbours. Formations were the name of the day, and types of pre-war vintage, WW2 and the years proceeding acted out ballet-like scenes over the airfield. Interesting combinations of Beaver, Beech twin and Harvard somehow managed to keep together while avoiding formations of Spitfire, Mustangs and the like. The day then repeated the heavy metal of Friday this time in torrential rain.
Many comments were heard concerning the surprisingly short distance crowd-line to display line. It was particularly noticeable when the teams were performing, just how close to the crowd they were no complaints from your scribes though. The battle for the highest "alpha" pass was enjoined in the air between Viggen, Mig-29, Typhoon and Rafale with a brave attempt also from the Austrian Draken (08) in its vibrant red colour scheme seen at Mildenhall this year. Immaculate performances came as ever, from the "professionals" of the Red Arrows and Patrouille de France, each managing somehow to squeeze a little blue sky out of a cloud ridden sky in which to complete some of the high manoeuvres.
Having watched the alternate half of each days programme the call of the Seacat from Ostend made us leave Volkel at 1500 hrs on the Saturday with the oncoming storms not boding well for the rest of the day. The Dutch spectators, with some three to four kilometres to walk to their cars parked off-base must be admired for their resilience in putting up with the rain of the two days, but it was with heavy heart that we left early from one of the best shows in Europe this year. It was well organised, friendly and only makes one long for the 2001 show at Leeuwarden with the news of the return of the night-boat service from Harwich to the Hook of Holland BY PUBLIC DEMAND, making that journey just a little more feasible! See you there?
Air-Scene UK acknowledges use of the excellent checklist provided by Spotting Group Volkel in the completion of this article.