The Viper story ends here – Belgian F-16 display team disbanded

On 19th February 2024, the Belgian Air Component (Luchtcomponent / Composante air, still commonly referred to with its former designation, the Belgian Air Force – BAF) officially announced the end of the country´s ´F-16 Solo Display´ team. The statement was made through the official BAF social media accounts.

According to the announcement, despite the wonderful and successful 2023 air show season, the Belgian F-16 display activities will not be renewed in 2024. Therefore, the past season was also the last one in forty-four years long history of the country´s F-16 demo team.

The reasons behind that decision, as mentioned in the statement, were the ongoing transition to 5th generation fighters, successive withdrawal of the Belgian Vipers from active service due to reaching their service life limits, as well as the country´s contribution to training of Ukrainian pilots, consuming most of the BAF resources.

Totally understandable, in the face of resources shortage, training of the Belgian fighter pilots and effective transition to the F-35A Lightning II jets, as well as fulfilling the operational commitments were prioritized over maintaining the display team activities. Therefore, the BAF leadership decided to cease the future operations of the Viper demonstration team.

Indeed, for many decades now the Belgian F-16 fighters were intensively exploited during training and combat missions, being deployed in several NATO operations, such as Baltic Air Policing, the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, Operation Desert Falcon in the Middle East and many others.

Cpt. Steven ´Vrieske´ De Vries and his ´Dream Viper´ – Belgian Air Force Days 2023

In 2023, the aircraft FA-95 reached its structural design limit of 8,000 flying hours. That Viper was retired from active service in September of that year, during a solemn ceremony held at the Belgian Air Force Days show. At the same time, the Belgian press informed about cracks that were found in fuselage structure of several aircraft. They were of different size and location, however confirmed the fatigue of the Belgian jets and accelerated their retirement process.

In addition, it should be mentioned that the aforementioned intensive exploitation of the Belgian Vipers allowed the BAF pilots to gain exceptional experience in combat operations. In March of 2021, Steven De Vries, an F-16 pilot from the 31st Squadron, became the first non-US pilot (and only sixth in the world) to achieve the milestone of 5,000 flying hours with the Viper, accumulated during training and combat missions he flew with the Belgian Air Force.

Nevertheless, the decision of ceasing the Viper display activities was received with sadness and resentment of literally all aviation enthusiasts, as the Belgian ´F-16 Solo Display´ was one of the most beloved military jet display teams in Europe. For more than four decades the Belgian Vipers toured the domestic and international aviation events, always being among the highlights of any show and performing spectacular flying displays. Moreover, it seems that the aforementioned decision was also a surprise to the demo team itself – until last week, through its official accounts on social media, the ´F-16 Solo Display´ informed about the team´s preparations to the new, 2024 season.

Although it is completely clear that operations of the display team is not a priority for any air force and means just an additional activity beyond the main defence tasks, it is really a pity the Belgian display team was not allowed to complete its final year of three-year rotation. Especially, that 2024 is marked by the 50th anniversary of the F-16 Fighting Falcon maiden flight, as well as 45th anniversary of that type of aircraft on duty with the Belgian Air Component.

Cpt. Tom ´Gizmo´ De Moortel and his ´Blizzard´ during a joint display with Supermarine Spitfire – Sanicole Sunset Airshow 2016

The Belgian ´F-16 Solo Display´ was established already in 1979, the year the first Vipers entered operational service in Belgium. The first aircraft – F-16B Block 1, FB-01 – was completed in December of 1978 by SABCA and then acquired by the Belgian Air Force in January of the next year.

Yet in the same year, the Belgian F-16 Fighting Falcon was shown to general public through the display team. Its first demo pilot was Major Jozef ´Jef´ De Heyn, the future commander of the Kleine-Brogel air base, and the Belgian defence attaché in the United States of America. De Heyn concluded his career with the BAF in the rank of Brigade General and, regrettably, passed away in 2014.

A total number of nineteen display pilots flew the displays during forty-four years of the team´s history. Each of them pushed the Viper to its performance limits and soon the Belgian F-16 display became widely loved by aviation fans all over Europe.

Since the 1990s, the three-year rotation was established within the team. It meant that every three years, a different squadron of the BAF had to assign the pilot, the aircraft and the maintenance team to perform the display within the next three seasons. The only exception from that three-year rotation rule was caused by coronavirus outbreak and cancellation of most of the air shows that followed. Therefore, Senior Captain Stefan ´Vador´ Darte, flying the ´Dark Falcon´, was the official Belgian F-16 display pilot from 2018 to 2021. In 2022, the relay baton was taken over by Captain Steven ´Vrieske´ De Vries (and his ´Dream Viper´), who – according to aforementioned rule – was expected to fly until the end of 2024 aviation season.

The ´F-16 Solo Display´ is already the second Belgian display team that concluded its activity with the end of the 2023 air show season. The first was ´A109 Display Team´, which flew the Agusta A109 light multi-purpose helicopter. The ´Razzle Blades´, as the last display helicopter was nicknamed, performed its final display in September of 2023, during the Belgian Air Force Days at Kleine-Brogel.

Cpt. Stefan ´Vador´ Darte and his ´Dark Falcon´ – Sanicole Sunset Airshow 2019

In addition, the upcoming withdrawal of the Belgian F-16 from active service means also the end of another, although informal, display team. It means the formation of four F-16AM jets from the 31st Squadron at Kleine-Brogel, nicknamed the Thunder Tigers.

Therefore, the Belgian Air Component will now have a very limited possibility to showcase its air power by performing flying displays during domestic and international aviation events, as well as advertise the air force to young people. The only two remaining military demo teams that left in Belgium are the NH90 SAR display and the Red Devils aerobatic team.

However, the Red Devils just retired one of the team aircraft, SIAI-Marchetti SF-260 ´ST-35´, and during the current season the group is going to fly in formation of only three aircraft. In addition, there are rumours that the 2024 season will be also the final one for the Red Devils.

In addition, there is a little chance the situation will improve in the future. Establishment of the Belgian F-35 display team – to an extent comparable with the Viper demonstration – is rather impossible, due to high operational costs of the 5th generation fighters (more information related to future of European military display teams here, in one of our latest articles focused on that subject).

In conclusion, we would like to thank Captain De Vries, and the whole Belgian ´F-16 Solo Display´ team for two wonderful seasons and outstanding flying displays. Our thanks also go out to all previous pilots and maintenance personnel of the BAF, who brought more than four decades of amazing experience to all aviation enthusiasts.

Below, you may find a complete list of the Belgian ´F-16 Solo Display´ pilots, together with years of their assignment to the Viper demonstration team:

Jozef ´Jef´ De Heyn, 1979 – 1981
Jean-Marie ´Toutou´ Toussaint, 1982 – 1983
Marc ´Mark´ Anthony, 1984 – 1987
Daniel ´Danny´ Faye, 1987
Erwin De Decker, 1988 – 1990
Nathan ´Langste´ De Permentier, 1988 – 1992
Marc ´Jozef´ Bongartz, 1993
Jean-Jacques ´Bwana´ De Wael, 1993 – 1997
Rudy Theys, 1994 – 1996
Danny ´Ket´ Meersman, 1998 – 2001
Rudy ´Chouke´ Schoukens, 2000 – 2002
Michael ´Puke´ Koos, 2003
John Vandebosch, 2003 – 2005
Michael ´Micky´ Artiges, 2006 – 2008
Michel ´Mitch´ Beulen, 2009 – 2011
Renaud ´Grat´ Thys, 2012 – 2014
Tom ´Gizmo´ De Moortel, 2015 – 2017
Stefan ´Vador´ Darte, 2018 – 2021
Steven ´Vrieske´ De Vries, 2022 – 2023