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Final flypastMerlin's gone too...

Hugo Mambour & Vincent Pirard / AviaScribe look at the withdrawal of the Merlins and HS 748s of the Belgian Air Force in February 2002.

On 20 February, the 15th Transport Wing of the Belgian Armed Forces Air Component (the Belgian Air Force's new name, since 2 January) simultaneously withdrew its five remaining Fairchild-Swearingen Merlin IIIAs and three Hawker Merlin CF-06 - now retiredSiddeley HS 748-288 Series 2As. At the end of a brief farewell ceremony and under a dull sky, a single Merlin and one HS 748 symbolically flew over the hangars of their Melsbroek home base - the military part of Zaventem's airport, also known as Brussels-National - before their last landing.

Since last summer, four Brazilian-built regional transport aircraft have gradually replaced the two former aircraft types; they are two Embraer ERJ-135LRs with a capacity of 37 places (CE-01 and CE-02) and two ERJ-145LRs (CE-03 and CE-04) able to accommodate up to 50 passengers. Ordered in October 2000 for about 90 million Euros, these new aircraft were delivered between June 2001 and January 2002*.

Merlin through the ages
Early scheme on CF-01
More modern day scheme on CF-04

The Merlins and HS 748s were introduced into service a quarter of a century ago, respectively in March and June 1976, to replace twelve Percival Pembrokes and a handful of DC-3/C-47s and DC-4s. On strength with 21 'Red Sioux' Squadron, they logged a total of over 62,000 flying hours divided almost equally between both types.

The BAF HS 748s, which were equipped with a large fuselage cargo door and had a maximum range of about 3,000 km, fulfilled various transport missions mainly in Europe and in the Mediterranean area in support of all the Belgian armed forces services, moving men as well as freight. In passenger configuration they could accommodate up to 40 people. With the end of the Cold war, their use as tactical transport aircraft also ended and the BAF HS 748s swapped their original camouflage for an almost civil livery during the 90s - white with a blue sheet line.

Camera windows under a MerlinThe Merlins, built by the American aircraft manufacturer Swearingen (later Fairchild), had a range of about 4,000 km and embarked a maximum of eight people, crew included. They were mainly dedicated to liaison duties, aircrew transport and navigation training. Two of them, CF-05 and CF-06, were equipped to check and calibrate navigational aids and also to perform photographic mapping missions thanks to specially designed fuselage belly windows. A dramatic episode shadowed the career of these peaceful twin-engine aircraft - on 16 April 1980, CF-03 crashed at Lille-Lesquin, in France, after a touch and go on one engine, causing the death of its two pilots.

HS748 history
Early camouflage on CS-01
Later white scheme on CS-03
Final colours for CS-01

The HS 748s (as sometimes (but more rarely) the Merlins) used to transport members of the royal family and the government, diplomats and representatives of the NATO General-Secretary, despite their relatively low speed and poor level of sound comfort that did not make them popular with the VIP users.

The immediate fate of the eight aircraft is known. They will be transferred to the storage centre of Weelde (where two of them were moved on 1 August 2000 - Merlin CF-01 and HS 748 CS-03) and put up for sale, with the exception of the single VIP HS 748 (CS-01), which the Belgian State intends to offer to Benin. This African country is in a full democratisation process and Belgium has for some years now been developing an ambitious co-operation and development programme, including important military aspects. Five Beninese pilots and twelve mechanics have just finished a conversion on the type at Melsbroek - and waiting for the final political decision to transfer, the last Belgian qualified crews still dream to fly their beloved ship to Africa.

*CE-01 (s/n 449) dd 02 June 2001; CE-02 (s/n 480) dd 18 August 2001; CE-03 (s/n 526) dd 11 December 2001 and CE-04 (s/n 548) dd 19 January 2002. The dates mentioned are those of the delivery at the Embraer plant of Sao Josť dos Campos (Brazil), see http://www.aerohobby.net/03_145.htm

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