300,000 flying hours in 40 years

During the prolonged National Holiday weekend of 20 and 21 July 2009, the Belgian Air Component celebrated the 40 years of service and 300,000 flying hours accomplished by its 45 SIAI Marchetti SF.260M and SF.260D basic flying training aircraft. The festivities at Beauvechain Airbase started on 20 July 2009 with a reunion of all personnel involved in one or another way with the type during the past forty years. On the National Holiday, an Open Door was organised allowing all sympathisers of the type to take part in the celebration. Two days long, numerous rare training aircraft from all over Europe could be admired in a static show, while most of the types nowadays in service with the Air Component performed solo displays, formation flights or flypasts.


40 years badge

 Forty years ago, the Belgian Air Force became the very first user of the military variant of the SIAI Marchetti SF.260, which was appropriately called SF.260M(ilitary). Belgium acquired 36 SF.260M trainers, which were delivered between November 1969 and June 1972 carrying the serials ST-01 to ST-36. A second batch of nine SF.260D variants, ST-40 to ST-48, had an uprated engine and improved avionics and entered service between February and June 1992.

ST-01 made its maiden flight in Vergiate, Italy, on 11 June 1969 and was transferred to Goetsenhoven, home of the Elementaire Vliegschool / Ecole de Pilotage Elémentaire, on 27 November. Barely a year and a half later, on 21 April 1971, it crashed during formation flying over Goetsenhoven airfield, killing its pilot. In forty years of service, 13 aircraft were lost in accidents, claiming the lives of five crew members.


In what was probably his last public speech as Commander of the Belgian Air Component, Lieutenant General Gerard Van Caelenberge praised the excellent qualities of the SF.260M as a basic flying trainer as well as those of the SF.260D as a specialised IFR-trainer. During forty years of flying at Goetsenhoven and Beauvechain, nearly 3,000 student-pilots from Belgium, the Netherlands and a number of Central African countries made their first flight on the type.


In his occasional speech, Colonel Patrice Laurent, Commanding Officer of Beauvechain Airbase and Director of the Competence Centre of the Air Component, sketched the important role the SF.260 has played and still is playing in the education of Belgian military pilots. With its retractable landing gear, powerful engine and modern avionics it meant a giant leap forward compared to its predecessor, the venerable Stampe & Vertongen SV.4B biplane, the design of which dated back to the 1930s. With its new wings, improved engine control system and updated cockpit, it still fulfils all requirements for a modern basic flying trainer forty years later. Like the aircraft, flying training too was modernised during the past four decades. Today’s young military pilots are all officers, with a theoretical education at the Royal Military Academy in line with civil aviation requirements, which not only improves the quality of pilot training, but also increases the appeal of the profession. New pedagogic concepts and recent organisational changes brought basic flying training to such high levels that it allows streaming students into the specialisation of combat, transport or helicopter pilot at the end of this training phase. Looking at the future, the close collaboration between Belgium and France in pilot training represents a first careful step into the direction of a single integrated European military pilot training.


The mark of 300,000 flying hours on Marchetti was passed on 2 March 2009. To celebrate this memorable event, SF.260M ST-30 was painted in a special colour scheme with 300,000 hours markings. The aircraft was officially rolled-out on July 20th. In Belgium, the SF.260 is generally known as “the Marchetti”. In fact, it should have been renamed in 1983, when SIAI Marchetti merged with Agusta, and again in 2000, when it became part of the Aermacchi Group.

As the SF.260 was designed by the Italian engineer Stelio Frati and as it is still being built in Italy, the Aeronautica Militare Italiana is one of the type’s obvious customers. The new-generation SF.260EA primary trainer is the most recent variant built for the Italian Air Force. The final aircraft of a contract for 30, signed in 2005, were delivered by Alenia Aermacchi on 27 July 2007. MM.55127/70-36 serves with 70° Stormo – Scuola Volo Basico Avanzato Elica (70th Wing – Advanced Flying School for Propeller Aircraft) in Latina. It is equipped with the enlarged bubble canopy, which can also be found on the Belgian SF.260M++ ST-34.


The Italian counterpart of the Belgian Alpha Jet 1B is the Aermacchi MB.339CD. MM55064/61-130 is based at Lecce-Galatina with 61° Stormo – Scuola Volo Basico Iniziale su Aviogetti (61st Wing – Basic Flying School for Jet Aircraft).


Until 2007, French student pilots received basic flying training solely on the Socata (former Aérospatiale) TB30 Epsilon of the Ecole de Pilotage de l’Armée de l’Air 00.315 (EPAA 00.315) at Base Aérienne 709 in Cognac. Since then, 18 new Grob 120A-F light trainers serve alongside the Epsilon in the role of instrument flying trainer. Supply and maintenance of the Grob aircraft was awarded to EADS in 2006 in the framework of the privatisation of technical support to the EPAA. Epsilon 69/315-WL is still painted in the original overall white colour scheme.


In 2004, the first Socata TB30 Epsilon of the Ecole de Pilotage de l’Armée de l’Air 00.315 (EPAA 00.315) appeared in a new grey colour scheme as worn by 118/315-YI. Grey is becoming the standard colour for training aircraft of the Armée de l’Air.


 After completing basic flying training on Marchetti in Beauvechain, future Belgian helicopter pilots are trained at the Ecole d’Application de l’Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (EAALAT) in Dax, France. The EAALAT operates the venerable Aérospatiale SA.341F Gazelle, like this 1690/BDE.


Around 2,800 Aero L-39 Albatros still serve with over 30 air forces worldwide in the training or light ground attack role. L-39ZA 2433 is operated by the Czech Air Force for armed training and light attack and flies with the 222nd Tactical Squadron at the 22nd Airbase in Náměšt. In 2008, the aircraft’s vertical tail fin was adorned with a special colour scheme to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the type’s first flight on 4 November 1968.


By December 2002, the Swiss Air Force withdrew the last of its 19 remaining British Aerospace Hawk T.66 jet trainers. Their replacement aircraft, six Pilatus PC-21 turboprops, were delivered in 2008. In the meantime, the Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II was used as a stopgap jet trainer. The arrival of the PC-21 meant a revolution in jet pilot training in Switzerland. Four PC-21s, A-102 to A-105, arrived at Beauvechain Airbase on 17 July 2009 for a squadron exchange with No. 5 Squadron in return for a visit made earlier this year by three Belgian SIAI Marchetti SF.260Ms to Sion Airbase.


 Shorts Tucano T.1 ZF210 of No. 1 Flying Training School (1 FTS) at RAF Linton-on-Ouse is adorned with the type’s new fin flash as well as with the unit’s 90th anniversary titles.



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© Jos Schoofs (July 2009)

Last updated 24/01/16 12:10   Daniel Brackx