Into the Jet Age

 

From an early stadium the Belgian authorities were interested in obtaining modern jet equipment and alreadyin May 1949 the Belgische Luchtmacht/Force Aérienne Belge, (as the force was renamed since early 1949) received the first Gloster Meteor F.4's equipping both nos. 349 and 350 squadrons. With the outbreak of the Korean war and Belgium joining NATO, the re-equipment of the Air Force got into a faster pace. The Meteor F.4 was replaced with some 240 aircraft of the later and improved F.8 models and in the framework of the Mutual Defence Assistance Programme (M.D.A.P.) the United States delivered some 234 F-84E and G Thunderjets to the fighter-bomber wings at Florennes, Kleine-Brogel and Bierset. Meanwhile a huge construction programme was in full swing modernising existing air bases and establishing new ones. 


By 1955 the Belgian Air Force could boost no less than 650 aircraft spread over 24 squadrons for a total manpower of 21.000 officers and men. However, the enormous budgetary effort needed to maintain this force could not be sustained and the final aim of 27 squadrons did never materialise. Pilot-training in the mean time was transferred to Kamina Air Base in the Belgian Congo and logistical support for the colony was assured by a large transport element essentially composed around some 37 Fairchild C-119G Flying Boxcars. At the same time, a new re-equipment programme, still in the framework of M.D.A.P., allowed the replacement of the F-84E/G Thunderjet by the much improved F-84F Thunderstreak and the adoption of the Hawker Hunter F.4 and later F.6 as the standard day-fighter. 


For the first all-weather wing, the choice fell on the Avro-Canada CF-100 Canuck for which Belgium was the only export customer. In those days of big spending, equipment didn't last long and already in April 1963 the bi-sonic Lockheed F-104G Starfighter was delivered to Beauvechain airbase, replacing the CF-100's which were merely six years old. 

With signs of détente more and more evident in the sixties and Congo gaining its independence, a considerable effort was made to rationalise and streamline the service. This, however also meant disbandment of such fine units as the 7th fighter wing at Chièvres (famous for their "Red Devils" aerobatics team on Hunters) and the 9th fighter wing at Bierset air base. Three wings equipped with the Nike-Ajax and Nike-Hercules ground-air missiles were established in Germany as well as a very efficient air-sea rescue unit at Koksijde with Sikorsky HSS-1 helicopters. Up to now Belgium and The Netherlands tried to expand collaboration not only on the level of common pilot instruction but also in the choice of equipment. 

However in the early seventies Belgium choose the French Dassault Mirage as the successor to the
venerable Thunderstreak whereas Holland preferred the F-5 Freedom Fighter. The seventies were also very important for the transport element of the Belgian Air Force as it saw all of its equipment replaced. Having been relieved of the long distance flights to the Belgian Congo the C-119 force could be replaced by some twelve C-130H Hercules aircraft. The HS748 and Fairchild Merlin III efficiently replaced the ageing C-47B's Dakotas and Percival Pembrokes and two ex-Sabena Boeing 727 were added for the transport missions previously assigned to the DC-4's and DC-6's. Finally, in 1976 the Sikorsky HSS and S-58 helicopters were replaced by the Westland Sea-King Mk.48, the efficiency of which was more than proved during Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, in which three no. 40 squadron helicopters rescued no less than 35 people . 

Having received their first F-16 as early as January 1979, Beauvechain's no. 349 squadron was the first non-US unit to be declared operational on the Fighting Falcon on 6 May 1981. Equipping three wings (1 Wing at Beauvechain, 2 Wing at Florennes and 10 Wing at Kleine Brogel) the F-16 became the backbone of today's Belgian Air Force.

Daniel Brackx

Last Updated 06/11/11 16:09   Daniel Brackx