Interview – Belgian Air Force A109 Display Team

Photo: Belgian Air Force A109 Display Team

First of oll thank you very much, please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us about your pilot career. Tell us a little history of the A109 Display Team. 

The Display Team has a completely new configuration this year. The Display Pilot is Captain “Stijn” Soenens: he is an instructor on the A109 since 2017 and has flown about 1300Hrs on the helicopter. He first was part of the team as the non-handling pilot and has now shifted to the right hand seat. The non-handling pilot as from this year is Captain Jo “J.J.” Jacobs. He has about 1000 flying hours on the A109. Something really special about this team is the fact that “Stijn” and “J.J.” have almost known each other their entire career. They started together in the Military Academy in Brussels for a theoretical education of five years. Afterwards they started their basic flying training on the single engine aircraft Marchetti SF-260 and continued their education on the EC-120 helicopter in Dax, France. After a last conversion on the A109, they then joined the 17 Squadron in Beauvechain, Belgium. They are supported by a team of six technicians who are joining them at all the air events: “Yves” “Koen” “Marvin” “Thomas” “André” “Bart”.

The A109 is a well known helicopter, but tell us your opinion, what is it like to fly?

The A109 is a very agile helicopter which has an impressive maneuverability. This is one of the characteristics that we like to show during the display. Even after already performing some flights on other types of helicopters, the A109 stays our favorite.

Why the Wolf on the helicopter?

The painting on the helicopter (H29) represents our Wing, which has a Wolf as emblem. We have another helicopter (H24) which has the painting of a Griffon, which is the emblem of the 17 Squadron.

How many people are in the team, including ground crew?

The Display Team has a non-handling pilot and a handling pilot. They are supported by six technicians.

How can someone become a display pilot?

First of all, a display pilot starts his display career as a non-handling pilot for two years. After a specific training given by the handling pilot, he will then take his place for two more years as handling pilot. The higher command of the Belgian Air Force will then open a place for a new display pilot. The candidates who answer to the needed qualifications (number of flying hours, motivation, tactical qualification, etc.) will have to perform an interview before a commission and they will then chose the next display pilot.

When did you start your display training, and where do you usually train?

We started our display training already in the beginning of February because the leaving display pilot Kevin “Q20” Beckers has to perform a lot of training flights with “Stijn” and training flights with “J.J.” Only from the moment that he gave his “GO”, “Stijn” and “J.J.” could start their training together, so we started quite early with the training sessions because you can imagine that this takes a lot of time.

Who decides where does the team fly, at which airshows?

The higher command of the Air Force has a special cell that is in charge of everything concerning Image and public relations. They are responsible for the Display Teams as well, meaning the general support of the teams as well as the planning of the air show calendar.

You have released your calendar already, any airshow you personally eager to wait to perform at?

The display calendar has been released in the beginning of March. Every airshow or event has his specific characteristics and we are really happy about our calendar of 2018. We have three events planned in the United Kingdom at Eastbourne, Cosford and Fairford, so we are really looking forward to meeting the fans from the UK.

Any change in your program, or it will be the same from 2017?

We have two flying displays: A good and a bad weather show. The bad weather show has stayed the same, but the good weather show has been adapted a bit. We kept the same maneuvers, but we changed the sequence to keep the show quite compact and we aim to stay a bit closer to the crowd.

Why do your perform with two pilots?

The handling pilot is flying the entire sequence using outside references all the time. The non-handling pilot keeps a sharp look-out over the instruments so that the power limits of the machine stay respected all the time and he is responsible for the firing of the flares as well.

The A109 Display Team is very famous for its flares, not too many helicopter display team use it. 

We try to use our flares every air show but we have a big restriction concerning the loading and unloading of the flares since the host of the event has to foresee a special parking spot, which is not always easy on non-military airfields.

When you not perform as the pilot of the Display Team, what do you do in the Air Force?

When we are not performing our displays, we have our tasks within the squadron. We fly training missions or real life support missions and in addition to this “Stijn” is responsible for the instruction flights within the squadron, while “J.J.” helps to make the flight planning for the squadron.

How a week looks like in your life?

During our standard week we can have up to 5 or 6 training flights or missions and all these missions need some preparation of course. Besides our flights, most of the pilots have some administration to take care of or some national or international exercises to prepare.
We combine these tasks with our training flights for the display team and all the administration that the navigation to the air shows require. We also are responsible for the design of our own patches, stickers, flyers, etc. but luckily we are able to have a big support of motivated civilian and military volunteers to help us out with these tasks.

Are you in contact with the other Belgian Demo Teams?

We have a lot of contact with the other Belgian Demo Teams. We have a lot of activities together like for example press conferences or public presentations and we meet each other quite some times during common air events. It is not really possible to do a formation flight with the F16, but we already had a couple of formation flights with the Red Devils, flying on Marchetti-SF260.

Does the team have any webpage?

We don’t have an official webpage, but we are active on facebook (Belgian Air Force A109 Display Team) and instagram (bafa109displayteam), so don’t hesitate to take a look at our pages and definitely don’t hesitate to share or like messages or use the #a109displayteam

If you could choose any airshow to perform with the team, which one would it be?

We are already really excited to perform our airshows in the UK because the response from the fans is already impressive. But we would also dream to perform at an airshow in the United States, but we’ll have to see how realistic that will be. Another airshow that made a big impression on us was the Air Power demo in Zeltweg, Austria, so we would like to return there as well someday. Then again, we haven’t personally flown an airshow in the UK yet, so maybe the answer to this question will rapidly change within a few months.

Any other demo team from Europe you like?

We have a good connection with our Czech Mi-24 colleagues and we like their display a lot. Of course we are always looking forward to the performances of our Belgian F16 display team and the Red Devils. We are not only saying this because they are our colleagues, but because both shows are really nice to watch. Of course the performances of the bigger teams are always quite impressive as well, so for example the Red Arrows always have a nice show to watch.

Helicopter or fast jet?

A short and solid answer: Definitely helicopter!!

Thank you very much, any final words to our readers?

We are really excited to come over to the UK this year and hope to present a nice show to all of you. Do not hesitate to share your pictures and follow us on social media and if you have to opportunity to visit one of the airshow, you are more than welcome to have a small chat or pictures with you at our stand.