Every now and then, the stars align, and the trip you often dream about lands in your lap. Events over the last five years came together over a few days, and the decision to attend the 2015 Sanicole International Airshow in Belgium was made. As a bonus, while researching the trip from Vancouver, Canada, I came across the opportunity for an air-to-air photoshoot. How could I refuse? One new camera and two new lenses later…
DAY 1: Vancouver to Toronto on Air Canada & Toronto to Belgium on Jet Airways
It’s been close to 20 years since I’ve flown business class (never on my own dime), so I was excited to start my trip in the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge in Vancouver (YVR). I work at the airport, so it’s always nice to get a new viewpoint of the apron. I knew I’d be eating non-stop for awhile, so I made do with just a quick coffee and muffin in the lounge, before heading to the gate.
My first flight was a domestic connection from Vancouver to Toronto (YYZ) on an Air Canada 777. I boarded, and settled in seat 2A, which I had pre-selected. This was the first time I had experienced angled seats, and it was kind of weird being able to look at the person sitting across the aisle with just the slight turn of the head. It was also weird having to look back over my shoulder to look out the window. I’d comment on the quality of the headset, but since it was down to bare plastic with no padding at all, I’ll skip the IFE review. Breakfast was a rather pedestrian omelette, with sausage and potatoes. A Dirk Pitt adventure on my e-reader filled the rest of the flight.
By the time I arrived at the gate in Toronto, boarding for next flight – a Jet Airways A330 to Brussels – had already commenced. The process was a little confusing, with many strollers and wheelchairs for the other passengers continuing on to Delhi.
Once through the door, Premiere Class passengers were escorted to their seat by a flight attendant – mine was 4K. The cabin crew then distributed socks, a heavy blanket, an amenity kit, and pajamas as well as offering juice or water.
Mine was one of 12 single seats in the 34-seat cabin. Seats are staggered so that when someone reclines or go flat, their feet go into a cocoon beside the seat ahead of them. Next to the seat is a small cabinet. The front half of the cabinet contains the headset, and the back half contains IFE for the seat behind. I found the layout very blocky compared with the sleek curves and contemporary designs on the Air Canada 777 earlier. I would say I prefer Jet Airways’ layout, as it was much more private. Being able to easily look out two windows was an added bonus!
The dinner service started shortly after takeoff. The first course was a spectacular grilled watermelon salad, followed by a curried fish. Desert was a vanilla rice pudding with saffron. Certainly the best Indian cuisine I’ve ever tasted – that is saying something.
Arrival to Belgium
I arrived in Brussels on-time only to find that my checked bag, with my 70-300mm zoom lens in it, was missing. Since the primary purpose of the trip was to photograph an airshow, not having this lens would be a big problem. I filed the missing bag report and let the airline know where I would be for the next two nights.
Next, it was off to the rental car with my personal GPS, preloaded with Belgian maps — an absolute must in Belgium, as it turned out. After driving about 90 minutes east, I made it to my first hotel stop in Genk, then it was on to the photoshoot up the road in Zwartberg. Since my rain jacket was in my missing bag, the only choice was a basic shell from the golf course pro shop; only €200.
I was ready for my air-to-air flight, but the weather was not looking good. Clouds and rain were blowing in and out every 10 minutes or so. After a couple of hours of nervously checking the weather info, the photo aircraft turned up, the weather somewhat cleared, and we took off.
There were lenses taped to bodies, lens caps were left behind, 11 photographers were harnessed into the Short SC-7 Skyvan, and cameras were secured to the harnesses. After climbing to 6,000’ we waited for our targets. In a few minutes, two Belgian F-16s gracefully slid into formation behind us.
I’d never done an air-to-air shoot before, so I was amazed and in a bit of a panic. What if I screwed up? I said a quick prayer for my new, untested camera, and started firing away, pausing only for quick checks of the images, and the occasional video of my two new best friends – the F-16s. The fighters flew with us for about 30 minutes, with different formations, and even firing off flares right behind us. Back on the ground, I was still a bit stunned about what I had just witnessed.
DAY 2: Antwerp
After checking into my hotel in Antwerp, I found my bag waiting for me, much to my relief. I was free to explore the city and not agonize about searching local camera shops for a new lens. It felt good, but a day with no planes left me wanting more.
DAY 3: Sanicole Sunset Show
The gates opened at 5:00 pm, with flying starting at 6:00 pm. The show line was oriented east-west, so the sun was going to be setting off to the right. Not having seen any of the performers before, I had to guess where they were going to be and what they were about to do, then plan my shooting accordingly. Many teams used flares, however it was hard to anticipate when they were going to be fired off.
Although there was not a lot of time, they still managed to fit in the RAF Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France, and lots more. The highlight was a pass with one from all five jet teams. A few sprinkles dampened the show, and full showers opened up over the last few acts. My trusty new poncho saved the day.
DAY 4: Spotters Day – Luchtmachbasis Kleine-Brogel
An uncommon event for North Americans, day 4 was a spotter’s day at Kleine Brogel airbase. For this event, normal base operations were suspended and several thousand aviation enthusiasts were allowed to line one of the parallel runways to watch the teams come and go from their practice flights. A few pilots even put on displays for those present.
From the schedule, I thought I would have lots of downtime, but there were a lot of unannounced surprises that kept me busy from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. The weather was pretty gray all day with a few light showers, however the sun did eventually come out at the end of the day.
The highlight of the day was a walkthrough of the Breitling Super Constellation and close-ups of so many teams that I had only ever seen photos of.
DAY 5: Sanicole International Airshow
Now for the main event. The Sanilcole Aeroclub hosted the show on a small GA field outside the town of Leopoldsburg – hardly the site you would expect for such a major airshow. The show site was long and thin with lots of vendors, including many of the display teams; some with their own branded beers.
The show commentary was in both Flemish and English. Flemish commentator Chris Christiaens was joined by Canadian Ric Peterson. A small sampling of the UK airshow regulars were quite impressed with his work.
Starting the eight-hour show were a number civilian aerobatic displays. One outstanding act was the Pioneer Team from Italy, flying a quartet of Alpi Pioneer 300s with an incredible variety of colored smoke. I also found the Victors Formation Team, flying four Piper PA-28 Cherokee aircraft, especially impressive as a GA pilot.
A very unusual display came from Hugues Duval in his electric-powered Columbian Cri-Cri. The coolest part of the Cri-Cri’s display is how it gets airborne – Hugues and the Cri-Cri launch from on top of a Max Holste Broussard utility aircraft, before performing some close formation passes.
For historical fans, the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flew their DC-3. The Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight also participated with their duo of a TB-25N Mitchell and Spitfire IX, which performed both paired and solo flights. Also flying was a beautiful Dutch 1941 Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina. The only airworthy Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation CAC-13 Boomerang – Australia’s first indigenously-built fighter aircraft – made quite an impression. These were topped off with displays by a T-28 and an O-2.
Rotorcraft fans were not disappointed either. Displays included a Belgian Agusta A109BA, two variants of the new NH-90, and a Sea King on its retirement tour. An RNAF Apache put on a fabulous display with incredible use of flares.
Fast jets? Lots of those. F-16s from Belgium and Portugal, along with a Swiss F-18C ripped up the sky, many with incredible flare displays.
Of course, the jet teams were another highlight. The show included the Swiss Air Force’s Patrouille Suisse, flying six Northrop F-5E Tigers. They teamed up with the Breitling Super Constellation for an incredible aural mix of jet and radial power.
DAY 6-8: Brugge, Ypres, and Brussels
With the airshow events now out of the way, it was time to spend a few days taking in Belgium for everything it is – chocolate, beer, waffles, scenery, and history.
DAY 9: BRU-YYZ (Jet Airways) YYZ-YVR (Air Canada)
On my final day in Belgium, I skipped the hotel breakfast and took the train from Brussels-Midi railway station to the airport. The Jet Airways Premiere Class check in was efficient, and I was done in minutes. Despite all kinds of official Canadian government warnings about increased terrorism risks, security lines were light and the screening procedures were no different than you would expect.
Although the westbound flight is longer than the eastbound one, it is a daylight flight so there were no special perks other than juice or water offered on boarding. There was nothing much different or special on my Jet Airways A330 flight home.
Arriving in Toronto was straightforward. After picking up my bag and clearing customs, I placed the bottle I had bought from the onboard duty free in my bag and placed it on the transfer belt just outside the customs exit. I already had my boarding pass, so I went directly to the Air Canada lounge and settled in for a six-hour wait. While quite large, the lounge seemed dated and the carpets and furnishings had definitely seen better days. There were some business types in the lounge, but I suspect the majority of customers were there for the free food.
Although I had tried to avoid a narrow-body for the flight back to YVR, I couldn’t manage to make it work — I was on an A320. I had paid about $3000 less than the going rate with Lufthansa, British Airways, or KLM, so I think this had something to do with it. I settled in to seat 2F, which I found to be reasonably wide, but with little recline – standard for the small cabin. The seats had seen lot of rear ends, and by the end of the five-hour flight, mine was getting sore. Dinner was a well-done piece of salmon, rice, and a tablespoon of lemon dill sauce. White wine? Sorry, only one red available.
My bags were delivered quickly (thanks to all my YVR co-workers), and customs was a snap.
Interested in attending an airshow in Europe? (You should be!) Here are a few tips:
- Examine the schedule closely. Not all teams that are listed may fly every day. Remember that with Europe being so compact, it’s easy for a team to fly in separate airshows on the same weekend.
- Expect to pay to use the toilet. Rather shocking was the €2 wristband required for entry – even with upgraded seats that provided free beer. I was wondering why I saw so many guys using the bushes.
- Arrive early – stay late. This isn’t the same airshow you visit every year. Make the most of your time.
This story was written by Mike Butorac for AirlineReporter. He works for the IT department of a major international airport, is a certified private pilot, and takes one or two decent airplane photos a year.