On December 11, 1978, the first Belgian-built F-16 (FB-01, an F-16B block 1) flew its first flight. It was accepted by the Belgian Air Force in January 1979. That same year the Belgian Air Force started the F16 demo team, performing at air shows every year. Since then, 16 demo pilots have flown the F-16 demonstration as ambassadors of the Belgian Air Force. Number seventeen is Captain-Commandant Tom De Moortel, nickname “Gizmo”, and this is his last season flying the demo. He became a pilot by going to air shows and watching flying displays as a little boy. He starts the story: “By the time I was eight years old my mind was set. I was always convinced that I would be a pilot. I never had a single thought about doing something else.” He joined the air force in May 1996 and started his military basic training at Saffraanberg.
He started the flying training on the Alenia Aermacchi (formerly: SIAI Marchetti) SF-260M/D. Subsequently, he did the basic flight training and initial training on Dassault-Breguet/Dornier Alpha Jet 1B. He flew 3 years on the C-130, returned to Bevekom in 2001 as an instructor on the Marchetti, and moved to Kleine Brogel at the end of 2005 to start the conversion on F-16. “I arrived in 31 Squadron in 2006, and went through the standard follow on training. Over the years I became Tactical Instructor Pilot, Bomb Commander, eventually Force Lead, and in 2013 I became the Wing Aviation Safety Officer for Kleine Brogel, which I did until July 2017, and since then I became part of the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) as instructor to train our new pilots for conversion to F-16.” Gizmo has over 4,700 flight hours of which 1,800 hours on the F-16 MLU.
In the Belgian Air Force, it is a custom to change the demo pilot every three years. It is an interaction between Kleine Brogel AB and Florennes AB to balance the home base of the demo team in Belgium. Every three years, the position of demo pilot will be opened and every F-16 pilot can be a candidate if he meets the minimum requirements in terms of experience. Then in consultation with the base commander, there is a selection committee in Brussels, chaired by the Chief of Staff, who make a choice from the candidates. If you are chosen, you are assigned to be the F-16 display pilot for the Belgian Air Force for three years, in addition to your standard day-to-day job within the Air Force.
‘Gizmo’ himself is little involved in the selection of the next candidate: “I know the people who have applied and I am waiting for a decision from our headquarters to know who will be my successor. In the second part of the season, he will occasionally go with me in the spare aircraft to find out what it is like, and so that I can introduce him to a number of people and that he can start preparing. » Gizmo adds: “Any pilot can fly all the maneuvers, but the fact that we are going to fly so close to ground level is something we are not used to on an everyday basis.”
In the fall, before the first display season. The display program is designed. The team has a very great freedom to design the routine, as long as everything remains within the limits of the constructor, and it is practically doable. That program is drafted in consultation with the previous display pilot and is then given to COMOPSAIR (Command Operations Air) for approval. The Aviation Safety Directorate will screen the program, they will make sure that there are no prohibited maneuvers, and then the pilot will actually get the permission from the general to start the training.
Gizmo explains: “First, we will practice the display a few times at 10,000 feet, just to master the routine, those are only a few flights. Afterwards, we fly at 5,000 feet over the air base practicing the routine, and so we go lower to 3,000 feet and to 1,000 feet to finally end at 300 feet. Depending on the weather, there are 17 to 25 flights to reach 300 feet from a start at 10,000 feet. After the training flight, we will always do a full debriefing, all flight data and images from the Head Up Display are constantly recorded. Once we’re under 3,000 feet, everything gets recorded on video from the control tower.” Every training is under the supervision of the Commander Flying Group, who remains ultimately responsible, but coaches will constantly follow the flights on the tower too. There are two coaches for this team, which are no display pilots, but there are also two former F-16 display pilots who are always involved in the routine.
“We will also test the routine regularly in the flight simulator. First, we’ll see how long the routine takes, and if the design is realistic in terms of performance of the machine and in terms of fuel consumption. We will also start simulating a number of emergency situations in the flight simulator. We will introduce engine failures and flight control problems.”
As the training progresses, the aesthetic aspect is also given attention helped by the coach standing on the tower. It is also important to see what it looks like from the public’s point of view.
“The routine is changed every year. Actually by the time it is approved, you will want to make adjustments allready as you only get really into the routine by now. Those ideas are mostly kept for the next season. During the season, you’ll also see videos on the internet and you’ll see things that you want to customize.” But that’s not the only reason for ‘Gizmo’: “It’s also to make it more challenging for myself and for the public. There are some shows, such as Sanicole, which we do annually, and you do not want to show the same thing every year.”
Before the season begins, all display teams come together, to perform their acceptation demos. There are people from the Aviation Safety Directorate, there are the chiefs of any operations branch, whether it’s helicopter or fast jet. The theoretical part consists of the briefing, to discuss the full routines and what-if-scenarios in detail, and questions are then asked by specialists. On the second part of the day, all routines are flown, supervised by all those persons. The acceptance day is chaired by the Air Component Commander or the Chief Of Staff and at the end of the day, the Air Component commander will decide if he takes the responsibility to allow the pilots to fly their displays to an audience.
There are two types of display, the high or full display, and the flat or bad weather display. The high display requires a 3,500-foot ceiling and for the flat display, a 1,000-foot ceiling is needed.
Spare time and planning
Being an F-16 demo pilot asks a lot of spare time from the pilot. ‘Gizmo’ elaborates: “You must count on being abroad every other weekend from May till October. You can take a day off on Tuesday, but you must also compensate for work that doesn’t get done while away.” Their day-to-day job within the air force still has to be completed, despite flying the demos and training. “What people do not see is that you’re also busy in between seasons. When the season is ongoing everything is going on and it’s « only » day-to-day issues that need to be solved. But the biggest part of the schedule is already planned. It is between the two seasons that you have to make a new display, you have to practice the new display, you have to get the agenda together with COMOPSAIR, but you must also plan the ferry flights. We also combine some airshows on the weekends, then you need to see if it’s realistic to fly from one place to another. For each ferry flight you need to apply for diplomatic clearance, request PPR numbers, do fuel calculations, so there will be quite some time spent in February, March, and April in the preparation of the demo season.”
So what does it feel like before flying the demo? Gizmo: “Initially, there’s a bit of nervousness of course, which is still there for every display I’m going to do. It’s close to the ground maneuvering, so there’s little room to make mistakes, although of course we keep enough margin for error. Actually I don’t notice whether I’m performing a demo training, or if I’m flying for a public. The moment I actually go to the aircraft, and the startup, then I’m always a bit more nervous, but once the aircraft turns on the runway, it passes, and concentration takes over.”
Physically, he says the demo is not extra demanding over his regular job. “It takes some getting used to, but it’s no more than we’re practicing every day. When we’re going to train aerial combat missions, you’ll find the same G-forces. A demo takes around ten minutes, shorter than most air combat missions. Most people think that it’s very unpleasant to fly inverted with many G-forces, but you’re getting used to it fast. Your body also anticipates because it knows what’s going to happen. If my right hand will make a sharp turn, then the rest of my body knows what G-forces will come and it will start to anticipate.”
The airshow agenda is compiled by the Public Relations department in consultation with the display teams. They receive a number of invitations and then ask the team for a wish list of where they want to go. Some airshows are important to go to, because they are in nations that have already delivered support in the past few years, or because the Belgian Air Force wants to invite a nations team for their next airshow.
During the routine, there are some moments ‘Gizmo’ has time to look around. During a slow speed pass, for example, he often watches how many people there are. “Sometimes, there are also beautiful landscapes to fly in, like in Zeltweg or this year in Sion.”
Around the demo, the team tries to contact, and interact with the audience. As an ambassador of the air force, it is also part of the display pilot’s job to inspire people to join the air force. “We try to motivate young people. You’re part of the recruitment of defense, so I try to be available to my audience as much as possible. Sometimes if you’re going to combine air shows this does not work because then it’s time to get ready for the next show. Those are long days.”
The most frequently asked question on airshows is about the G-forces. Gizmo finds it’s most rewarding to see how little kids are impressed and how they stand in line to get their picture taken or to get a poster.
Maintenance and teams
To ensure that the aircraft is in optimal condition, the maintenance group must perform the inspections on time so that the aircraft is always available during the season. They make sure that the aircraft is in a clean state, and take it very personally to polish the aircraft and make sure it’s tidy comes show day. ‘Gizmo’ explains: “We have three teams, but we often combine airshows, so we have two teams abroad on a lot of weekends. Each team has a team chief and 2 crew chiefs. We also have weapon specialists who take care of the Smokewinders, and ensure that the Smokewinders are always performing. Those need daily maintenance, so after each flight, the specialists will ensure that they are kept in good order and filled back up for the next flight. They will also ensure that there are flares in the aircraft.
The F-16 entered service with the Belgian air force in 1979, but despite its age, it is still the sharp end of the spear because of numerous upgrades. The Belgian Air Force started upgrading the F-16 to a Mid Life Update (MLU) in the 2000s. “I’m now flying with an MLU Operational Flight Program (OFP) M6.5, soon we will transition to S1, but that software will continue to evolve and we will keep putting new hardware and software into it. For example, for my flares, I can write specific sequences for the demo, which is a lot easier than a few years ago. I do not have to count anymore, I just let the program do its job.” The aircraft with serial FA-123 that ‘Gizmo’ flies is dubbed ‘the Blizzard’ because of its sharp looking paint-job. He knows the aircraft like the back of his hand and doesn’t like to fly his demo in another one. “To go to a display with an aircraft that you don’t know isn’t comfortable. There are reasonable differences per aircraft. Each time they replace the engine in ‘the Blizzard’, I will request a practice display to feel what that engine is like. There are indeed performance differences per engine, and then some flight controls feel different per aircraft. I know ‘the Blizzard’, which always does what I ask.” The spare aircraft is always the same one as well, for the same reason. For the 2015 and 2016 season, the FA-136 was used, but this year the FA-134 is acting as a spare. A shared function of the spare airplane is to bring spare smoke launchers and extra flares.
After the season ‘the Blizzard’ must be in for inspection and will be painted back to its operational gray color scheme, but during that time another demo aircraft will be painted. The Blizzard is limited if no display is flown. The three seasons that an aircraft is deployed as display aircraft, it will be limited in the number of G’s it can pull and also in flight hours, to make sure it doesn’t reach a phase inspection before the season is over. “We have 300 hours between two phase inspections, and we make sure we use them for three seasons. But the aircraft is very limited if it is not used for display, to divide the overall fatigue. We will always perform the work-up training of the season with the spare aircraft so that the metal fatigue will be balanced there too.” Aircraft are monitored on the overall fatigue index.
Logistics are an important part of deploying the team and both aircraft. The team chief and team manager will coordinate together to meet all of the logistic needs. They have a flyaway kit with a number of spare parts, with the PR and other necessary materials. If ‘Gizmo’ deploys on Friday, they will get up very early to get to the demo location with a C-130 or an Embraer support aircraft. In case the deployment is not too far then they may do so by road transport, but they try as much as possible to go by air transport to minimize overall deployment time because otherwise, the workload gets very high on the maintenance group as other people have to fill the voids.
One of the coaches will fly the spare aircraft if they are available, but for them, it is also a job in addition to their day job. These coaches are operational pilots that are still working daily, which means that they are not always available. Any pilot can go, but Gizmo prefers one of the coaches to go along. “I have the most help from them during a display and they can also provide the best feedback to keep tuning the display during the season. I was lucky that the ex-display pilots were still here, ‘Mitch’ who had been displaying a few years ago, and ‘Mickey’ was also working on base, so that was useful to me.”
Gizmo has had no noticeable incidents during his career, but he recalls a stall from the afterburner section during a display in Zeltweg. “That looked very bad, but it wasn’t actually that serious. Because the engine solved that problem very neatly. But of course, because there was unburned fuel in the afterburner section, it burned itself in the air behind the aircraft, but inside I got the stall warning, all indications were kept nicely within all limits and I landed preventively. But I must say in all honesty, that so far all displays have gone according to the booklet. My main goal is a safe display for everyone.”
‘Gizmo’ reviews with pride: “It has been a very interesting experience, as a pilot it is a pleasure to do this. It has also been a very intense period of much workload, and the life from one airshow to another. Unpacking, washing, packing up again. It has been very intensive, but I look back very satisfied. I wouldn’t mind doing it again for another year.” But he’s also looking into the future: “After the season, I will continue my job in the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU). My job will be to fly as an instructor on the F-16. We still have to see what the future brings, but as long as my body says I can fly F-16, I will. I am still motivated and enjoying it!”
For the Blizzard, it is also the last year. The next demo aircraft will have a completely new and unique design. In a few years’ time though, all Belgian F-16 airframes will reach the end of their life-cycle, which means the search for a replacement is actively ongoing.
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