The 40th Squadron of the Belgian Air Force held the 2016 International Search and Rescue Meet in October at Koksijde Air Base. Between October 10 and October 14, the exercise was executed. The competition-style practice brings together several search and rescue units to hone their abilities.
The Belgian Air Force celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2016, but there were also two additional milestones marked in Koksijde: the Sud-Aviation Alouette III’s 45 years of service and the Sea King’s 40 years of operations, both of which are helicopter units operated by 40 Squadron. The Belgian Air Force did something really kind by hosting a Media/Spotters Day on one of the days of the event because such units are not always present at other aviation events due to their standby operations around-the-clock. There were only 400 participants in the Media/Spotters Day, and it was exceptionally well run.
It was impressive to see the initial list of participating nations and helicopters, which included Austria, Belgium as the host nation, France, Germany, Portugal, Poland, Norway, Latvia, and the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the organisers and enthusiasts who planned to attend the SAR Meet, numerous cancellations occurred, leaving the exercise with helicopters from Belgium, Austria, and Germany, with a last-minute addition to the Spotters day being a helicopter from the Belgian Federal Police Air Support Unit.
The SAR Meet offered more than simply flying for the aircrews; it also featured team-building activities like the Highland Games Competition, a winching exercise, and a survival exercise at the Koksijde Beachfront Swimming Pool.
As indicated above, the home base of the 40th Squadron, Koksijde, in 2016 operated three different kinds of helicopters. The Westland Sea King Mk.48, the Sud-Aviation SA-316B Alouette III, and the NH Industries NH-90NFH, which has been in service since 2015.The Sea King and the NH-90NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter), the only two models typically used for SAR standby duty. However, the Alouette III is mostly used on frigates and for logistical support for the Belgian Navy at sea.
The southern portion of the base, where the Media/Spotters day was held, offered perfect picture opportunities for everyone in attendance. The event was against a fee of €20 to attend, but attendees also received a goody bag from the Belgian Air Force that included a commemorative T-shirt, stickers, patches, and a challenge coin highlighting the SAR Meet as well as the anniversaries of the Alouette and Sea King.
We discovered a Belgian Air Force Sea King Mk.48 with specially marked panels celebrating 40 years of service as well as the 2000+ lives saved during its operational career as soon as we entered the Spotters/Media enclosure. There were only two years left before the Sea Kings were decommissioned in 2018. An MD900 Explorer from the Belgian Federal Police Air Support Unit was also present on the static.
On the day we were there, the exercise’s first significant flying task took place. All of the participants flew out of the base at regular intervals for this navigation assignment, stopping at various waypoints, and then flying back to the base. Beginning from the area in front of the media/spotters, before taking off, all of the participating aircraft paused to pose for pictures from various viewpoints with the city of Koksijde in the background.
Belgian AF Sud-Aviation SA316B Alouette III was the first aircraft to depart; the elegant and stunning Alouette provided excellent photo opportunities.
After that, it was the turn of the German Navy’s Westland Sea King Mk41, that was sent on this deployment from its home base of Nordholz, they are part of the Marinefliegergeschwader 5 (MFG 5).
The Austrian Air Force Sud-Aviation SA316B Alouette III, the second foreign unit in attendance, was the third aircraft to take to the sky. The Luftstreitkräfte provided a striking artwork with a color scheme that included an eagle, mountains, and the Austrian flag.
It was time for two more aircraft that form part of the “home team.” First, we saw the NH Industries NH-90NFH, which would eventually take over all Sea King Mk. 48 and Alouette III operations after the Belgian Air Force purchased four of the type.
The last helicopter was a Westland Sea King Mk48 with serial number RS05, which had Belgian flag colors and some special insignia applied when the Sea King celebrated 25 years of operations.
Both the Sea King and NH-90 aircraft gave a SAR demonstration to the audience upon their return.
The following awards were given out during this year’s SAR Meet in keeping with tradition:
- Navigation Contest Austrian Alouette III Crew
- Winching Contest Belgian Sea King MK48 crew
- Survival Contest Belgian NH90 NFH Crew
- Highland Games German Sea King Crew
- International Evening Portuguese Merlin Crew
The MD900 Explorer from the Belgian Federal Police Air Support Unit gave a nice treat to the Spotters at the end of the event when it departed.
Despite the short duration of the exercise, we were lucky to be at the International SAR Meet and had great coverage opportunities. Jozef van den Broeck of the Belgian Air Force deserves special commendation from Horizon in addition to the 40th Squadron.