15th Air Transport Wing, Belgian Air Force, in transition
On December 22, 2020 history was written when the first Belgium Air Force Airbus A400M “Atlas” landed at Melsbroek Airbase near the capital of Brussels. The aircraft with serial CT-02 was the first out of seven aircraft destined for 20 Squadron of the 15th Air Transport Wing (ATW). Together with the CT-01, owned by Luxembourg, all eight aircraft will be operated from and maintained at Melsbroek. The landing of the first aircraft marked a milestone in the transition to the new tactical and strategic military transport capability for the Belgium Armed Forces.
Commander of the 15th ATW is Colonel Frank Vandenbussche.
As a former F-16 pilot he is currently flying the Dassault Falcon 7X jet, part of the so-called white fleet. He has been in charge of the wing for 2 years and is responsible for the large transition of the Belgium air transport fleet. The wing, as part of the Air Component of the Belgian Armed Forces, consists of two operational flying squadrons, 20 and 21 Squadron, and the Transport Conversion Unit to educate and train pilots, cabin crew and loadmasters. 20 Squadron operates the C-130H “Hercules” and A-400M “Atlas” aircraft, 21 Squadron operates two Falcon 7x jets.
Col. Vandenbussche explains the transition: “Under project “Geronimo” we are currently building the fundament for a new organisation consisting of four pillars; people, material, infrastructure and compliances. With the phase out of the C-130H “Hercules”, after almost 50 years of operation, we are creating a new legacy for the upcoming 50 years.”
The wing is in the transition to a new fleet with eight brand new Airbus A400M “Atlas” aircraft and the lease of two Dassault Falcon 7X jets for not only transport of high ranking officials, but also to project small detachments of troops into theatre.
Furthermore, the whole infrastructure of the airbase will be thoroughly modernized in three phases. The first phase consists of a new 400M flight simulator center and a large hangar with office and storage space for spare parts. The hangar is capable of housing two A400M “Atlas” aircraft and one Airbus A330 MRTT at the same time for overhaul and repairs. In close collaboration with Airbus, 15th ATW performs the 300 hours S-checks here, only for larger overhaul the aircraft will go to Seville. The hangar was finished in the third quarter of 2021, the flight simulator is expected to be operational by the summer of 2022.
In the second phase all current buildings on the air side will be demolished, creating a much larger ramp. This will enable the aircraft to be parked parallel to the runway facing the wind and no longer needing push back assistance for each flight. New facilities will be built for the staff and a new terminal will be created. This whole infrastructural make-over should be ready by 2026.
In the third phase the base on the land side, housing a.o. a museum and information center, will be more frequently opened to the public creating an increased interaction with the community amongst for recruiting purposes.
C-130 Hercules activities
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent delays in the overall program, the 15th ATW is on schedule to realise the next steps in the transition to the new Airbus A400M “Atlas”. This is necessary as the reliable workhorse of the Belgium Air Force left service after almost 50 years at the end of December 2021.
The Belgium Air Force ordered 12 C-130H “Hercules” aircraft in 1970 and received the first one in July 1972 and the last airframe in April 1973. In all the years of operation the wing lost two aircraft and received a thirteenth airframe with serial CH-13 as a replacement. It was taken in to service in March 2009.
In 1996 one aircraft was lost (serial CH-06) due to a bird strike and consequent crash landing at Eindhoven Airbase in the Netherlands. The tragedy resulted in the loss of 34 lives out of 41 persons on board (four crew members and 30 out of 37 members of the Royal Netherlands Army brass band). The high number of casualties was a direct consequence of miscommunication between air traffic control and the fire brigade as the number of passengers was not communicated. The second aircraft with serial CH-02 was destroyed in 2006 during a fire in one of the hangars at SABENA Technics.
Between December 2017 and December 2020 five airframes were written off. Airframe CH-13 left service in April 2021 and was flown to Beauvechain Airbase to be preserved as sole aircraft in the inventory.
The Belgian government announced the sale of eight airframes including engines, propellers, spare parts and ground support equipment in July 2021. Five of the aircraft remain flying, three will be used for spare parts. New owners and operators of the aircraft will be Sabena Aerospace and Blue Aerospace.
In June 2001, Belgium and Luxembourg signed a bilateral agreement to jointly acquire seven Airbus A400M military transport aircraft for Belgium and one for Luxembourg. With the actual delivery of the first A-400M “Atlas” in October 2020 the so-called
Belgium-Luxembourg Binational Air Transport Unit A400M (BNU A400M) took shape. Under the operational control of the European Air Transport Command (EATC) at Eindhoven Airbase, the BNU A400Ms will conduct missions on behalf of Belgium and Luxembourg. Under the cooperation between the two nations Belgium operates and supports all aircraft. Luxembourg on their part contribute with fundings and six pilots and three loadmasters to 20 Squadron. Luxembourg has not been operating its own aircraft since 1968. However, it has been contributing to NATO by being a member of the Multinational MRTT unit operating the Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft and has the NATO E-3A AWACS fleet registered to its flag.
Responsible for the transition from the C-130H to the A400M “Atlas” is Major Nicholas Dhont, Commanding Officer of the Transport Conversion Unit (TCU).
Major Dhont has been active as a C-130 pilot since 2007 and has spent around seven years in the USA operating as an instructor on the HC-130J within the 347th Rescue Group at Moody AFB, Georgia. Since June 2018 he has been in charge of the TCU and been preparing for the arrival of the new aircraft. Major Dhont explains: “The TCU is home to the school house and the Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) team. We have a core team of three staff members for the school and five for the OT&E. In total around 25 men and women are involved in the transition and training on both types until the end of this year when we stop flying the C-130. The main objective of the TCU is to help keep the wing fully operational in this period, without any gaps in coverage between the two types.” The 15th ATW is responsible for the so-called Non Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) task. This requires the unit is capable at any time to fly back Belgium citizens from potential crisis areas around the world in case of required evacuation.
Currently the 15th Air Transport Wing operates six A400M airframes, number four arrived in September 2021. Number five and six arrived in the last quarter of 2021. Number seven should arrive in 2022 and the last of eight aircraft is planned for 2023.
The first six aircraft are so-called Batch 6 aircraft, the last two airframes will be Batch 7 aircraft, the most modern “Atlas” aircraft flying. The first airframe was delivered five months later due to the pandemic. The pandemic also caused delays in the type rating training of the crews as the training center in Seville, Spain was closed for a number of months. On top of the closure the flight simulator facilities received a six months upgrade, requiring crews to train at Zaragoza, Spain, at Orléans, France and at RAF Brize Norton, UK.
Despite the setback in the planning the pandemic also turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Major Dhont explains: “Due to the nature of the pandemic, we could focus our training on flying the line within Europe. It allowed the TCU to closely monitor students and offered the opportunity to maximise the training hours for the crews on the new aircraft. Crews could be much faster trained compared to a situation where they fly regular missions and train on the side. We are capable of training our crews within a period of six months and still maintain the required safety levels.”
Major Dhont continues: “We act according to the “crawl, walk, run” principle with a steep learning curve. We are a small air force and have to be adaptive in our program due to limited resources. Beside we are the final country to start operating the aircraft and have the possibility to learn from other operating nations.”
Training & mission readiness
The training of the Belgian crews starts with a two months type rating, which is done in Seville at the Airbus International Training Center. Belgium, Turkey and Malaysia train with Airbus, while Spain, France and Germany have their own type rating facilities.
After the type rating a two weeks simulator course is done at Brize Norton, UK. This course helps the students to bridge the gap between the basic type rating course and the different aircraft model used in service. The Belgian Air Force flies the most modern aircraft (Batch 6), which for example has a three dimensional terrain following capability and a computerized air drop system. The 15th ATW will receive its own simulator in September 2022 at Melsbroek.
After the simulator training the crews will come back to Belgium for a number of trainings. These are ground training, differences training and three basic 1.5 hours mission trainings performing IFR and VFR approaches. To become mission stick ready and operate as co-pilot the crews will fly an additional eight line training missions. The official program to become a captain pilot still has to be determined, but four pilots so far have received 20-25 hours of extra training by Airbus pilots.
Belgium is currently the sole “Atlas” operator, where co-pilots are trained in both seats from the beginning. Allowing them to progress quicker and start managing missions sooner without having to make them go through left seat training separately. Even though it is a direct consequence of the limited number of crews available it is a situation that might resume as it seems to work well. The fully digitalized cockpit lay-out of the “Atlas” is equal on both sides and crews have access to the same systems. As the aircraft fully operate fly-by-wire, both pilots are able to concentrate mainly on their mission management.
Major Dhont explains: “The transition from a three person crew concept to a two person crew requires a mindset change. As the flight engineer has left the deck, mission management becomes more important and the crews have to learn to operate as one team. The aircraft is extremely easy to fly, allowing pilots to focus on dynamic mission changes. On the other hand the information on board with the full glass cockpit is enormous. It takes time to learn to operate the aircraft and use all information to its full extend.”
In the last five years the cooperation between the RAF and Belgium Airforce has been further developed with the exchange of a Belgium transport pilot to the UK. He returned recently and brought valuable knowledge and experience to the wing. It is expected with the upcoming phasing out of the C-130s in RAF service, that the tactical knowledge and skills at squadron level in the British A400 community will increase considerably. The Belgians could also further benefit as the next exchange pilot is currently in the UK .
The bond with the French A400 community is also quite close, although more or less based on personal contacts. The exchange of information and tactics between operating nations of NATO is embedded in the Airbus community. Airbus organises a tactical training in Spain for pilots with 150 hours+ experience, however slots are limited and difficult to obtain. Belgium, for example requested 5 spots, but got only two assigned.
Although the near future outlook is bright and the milestones ahead are clearly defined, there remains enough to be managed under project “Geronimo”. Especially tactical flying and more specifically in a threat environment is next on the wish list. Major Dhont has set his mind on participating in the next Transport Weapons Instructor Course at Leeuwarden Airbase, the Netherlands, in 2024.
Both Wing Commander Vandenbussche and Major Dhont are very proud of the steps taken by their teams so far. Colonel Vandenbussche explains: “We have made tremendous progress in the last year and I am very proud of the entire team. As a relatively small air force I firmly believe in the youth of our organisation. Our new fleet offers incredible opportunities, which we as seniors cannot yet fully comprehend. Empowering young people to stand and speak up, while we seniors remain silent and listen is our challenge. Let them feel the freedom to do their job on this machine. After all we are not implementing a C-130+ platform but a state of the art A400M!”
Northern Skies Aviation would like to thank the 15th Air Transport Wing and more specifically Colonel Vandenbussche and Major Dhont for their cooperation with the photo opportunities and writing of the article for the AFM February 2022 issue!