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Goodbye BAF C130

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As in many other countries and air forces, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules has also been the workhorse within the Belgian Air Force for many years. This military transport aircraft has proven its value several times during numerous military missions and humanitarian deployments and was an essential part of military logistics and tactical transport within the Belgian armed forces. 

The Belgian Air Force ordered twelve Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft in 1970 to replace the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar which had been in service since 1952. The first C-130 for the Belgian Air Force was delivered in 1972 and became part of the 15th Air Transport Wing at Melsbroek Air Base (EBMB). Within the 15th Air Transport Wing the C-130’s are part of the 20th Squadron. During the first years of their operation, the C-130’s of the Belgian Air Force wore a ‘Vietnam’ camouflage scheme which was later replaced by an overall grey color scheme. All twelve C-130’s of the Belgian Air Force were numbered CH-01 to CH-12. Over the years, all C-130 aircraft of the Belgian Air Force received various updates and modifications, whereby the aircraft were provided with updated wings, a digital cockpit and a self-protection system. These updates and modifications increased their lifespan until 2020. Thanks to the four powerful Rolls Royce/Allison engines, these C-130’s can perform Short Take Off & Landing (STOL) maneuvers in areas with little or poorly prepared terrain. This is why the C-130’s of the Belgian Air Force were often used in challenging conditions during military exercises, humanitarian missions or non-combat evacuation operations (NEO). 

The main task of the 20th Squadron and its loyal C-130 transport aircraft is tactical air transport. An important part is transportation of troops and dropping of para commandos where their intervention is required. The relationship between para commandos of the Belgian Army and these aircraft has always been very close. In recent decades, the special collaboration has been successfully demonstrated during various emergency evacuations from Central Africa. The second most important task of the 20th Squadron is to support humanitarian missions. Thanks to the support of many humanitarian missions in Africa, the 15th Wing of the Belgian Air Force built a strong worldwide reputation. For example, the C-130s of the Belgian Air Force were deployed for humanitarian missions in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali following the Sahel droughts. Other humanitarian aid missions were carried out in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. During these humanitarian missions, the C-130s of the Belgian Air Force were responsible for, among other things, dropping food packages and the transport of medication and people. In 2014, a Belgian Air Force C-130 also delivered 13 tons of relief supplies to victims of the Islamic State terror group in the north of Iraq. Also when F-16 fighter jets of the Belgian Air Force were deployed in the Middle-East or Afghanistan, the C-130s of the 20th Squadron played an important role as they were used for the transport of material and essential components. 

On January 11, 2007 a final replacement agreement was signed by the Belgian Air Force and Sabena Technics to replace the Lockheed C-130 Hercules CH-02 that was destroyed during the fire at hangar 40 with a second hand C-130, similar to the other C-130’s of the 15th Air Transport Wing. Sabena Technics acquired a former Lockheed C-130E of the USAF, at that time owned by the American civil airline Evergreen Aviation. Built in 1965, this C-130 aircraft was converted into a weather reconnaissance aircraft and operated from Guam (Andersen Air Force Base) in the Pacific Ocean and from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. This C-130 was used by the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, nicknamed ‘Hurricane Hunters’, which the USAF used to fly into hurricanes, cyclones and other tropical storms for the specific purpose of directly measuring weather data in and around these storms. In July 1993 this C-130 was withdrawn from service and was stored at the famous desert boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Base in Arizona. Eventually this C-130 was bought in 1999 by the American airline company Evergreen Aviation which used it as a transport aircraft for a short period of time. The aircraft ended up in a museum where it was on standby for a possible buyer. In the evening of April 8th, 2007 the  Lockheed C-130 Hercules ‘N130EV’ finally arrived at Melsbroek Air Base. After its arrival in Belgium, the C-130 ‘N130EV’ was converted for 20 months to bring this aircraft up to the same standards of the already modernized fleet of C-130’s of the Belgian Air Force. 

On Friday, December 2 2016 a remarkable event took place at Melsbroek Air Base in Belgium. A Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft of the Belgian Air Force, equipped with a red nose and some special stickers was shown to the public and people of the media. This unique project was developed by the department Image and Public Relations (IPR) of the Belgian Air Component in support of the Red Nose Day. For the second year in a row the Flemish television channel VTM, the radio station Q-music and the Belfius Bank organized on December 3rd, 2016 the event ‘Red Nose Day’. This charity event was created to raise money for better care for young people with mental health problems. As the symbol of the Red Nose Day is a little red nose that anyone can buy, the Belgian Air Component came up with the idea to provide a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft with a special red nose. The C-130 aircraft which was selected for this unique project was the CH-11. Besides a red nose, the Belgian C-130 Hercules was also equipped with some special stickers showing the faces of the logos of the Red Nose Day. Because the Belgian Air Force wanted to do something extra, 25 young people with mental health problems were offered a flight on a C-130 Hercules so that they could forget their worries for a while. During the flight, which lasted about half an hour, at a height of almost three kilometers the load masters also opened the cargo door of the C-130 Hercules so the passengers had an unforgettable view of the clouds and the Belgian countryside beneath them. The Belgian Air Force supported the Red Nose Day also financially by auctioning a unique photo. The winner of the highest bid was offered two seats on board the C-130 Hercules.

After almost 45 years of loyal service, the first C-130 of the Belgian Air Force (CH-08) was officially taken out of service on December 27th, 2017. At that time the CH-08 had more than 22 200 flight hours on its counter. The aircraft was transferred to the Beauvechain Air Base where components of the CH-08 served as spare parts for the operational C-130’s of the 20th Squadron. A second C-130 of the Belgian Air Force (CH-03) was taken out of service in October 2019. In May 2019, a large-scale deployment of the C-130 of the Belgian Air Force in an international context also came to an end. Since May 2018, a C-130 of the Belgian Air Force has been constantly in Mali to support the operation MINUSMA of the United Nations. The core tasks of the Belgian Tactical Air Detachment (BELTAD) were to transport personnel and equipment, to provide air supplies over hostile territory and to carry out medical evacuations. When the Norwegian Air Force took over these tasks from Belgium in May 2019, the long-term, large-scaled deployments of the C-130’s and its crews of the Belgian Air Force came to an end. In 2019 and 2020 more C-130 aircraft of the Belgian Air Force were retired prior to the transition towards their successor; the Airbus A400M Atlas.

In December 2001 it was decided that the European Airbus A400M Atlas would replace the C-130 aircraft of the Belgian Air Force. Belgium bought seven A400M’s. The Airbus A400M Atlas is a European four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed by Airbus Defence and Space as a tactical airlifter with strategic capabilities to replace older transport aircraft, such as the Transall C-160 and the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The A400M is in between the C-130 and the Boeing C-17 in size, it can carry heavier loads than the C-130 and is able to use rough landing strips. An eighth A400M was purchased by Luxembourg and will be stationed at Melsbroek Air Base in Belgium. This aircraft, which will fly with a Belgian registration, is part of a joint fleet operated by the “Belgium-Luxembourg Binational Air Transport Unit A400M” (BNU A400M) in which Belgians and Luxembourgers will work side by side. Since Belgium was involved in the A400M program from the start, the Belgian industry also managed to play an important part in the development and production of the A400M. For example, the belgian aerospace company SABCA supplies the mechanisms of the wing flaps and the composite lining of those flaps. Because the Airbus A400M is much larger than its predecessor, construction of a new modern hangar already started at Melsbroek Air Base. This new hangar has a length of 183m, a depth of 75m and a height of 30m. After the first A400M with Belgian registration rolled out of its hangar in Seville, Spain and passed some crucial tests, the Airbus A400M ‘CT01’ arrived at the Melsbroek Air Base in Belgium on October 9th, 2020. Especially for this special occasion, the Airbus A400M ‘CT01’ made a fly-past over Belgium and Luxemburg at low altitude and was accompanied by some F-16s of the Belgian Air Force. Now that the first Airbus A400M has arrived at the Melsbroek Air Base, the Belgian Air Force can start a new chapter in its rich history of tactical air transport. 

Text & photos: Kris Christiaens

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