40 years ago...

 

 

Interview : Serge Van Heertum - Pictures : Serge Van Heertum, SBAP archives, 1st Wing archives (others as mentionned)

 

In my favourite illustrated periodical back then, I discovered a drawn poster of this renowned team (aaahh, the posters of Jean-Luc Beghin). It was the time I began to wonder on the airbase tarmac of the Air Force getting acquainted with the world of  air shows. I heard numerous rumours about this audacious team and you can imagine my joy bumping fortuitously in on these 2 pilots during the international air show at Beauvechain. I can remember this encounter as it was yesterday, really nice guys and particularly close to the public. 30 years after their founding, I had the privilege to meet those 2 heroes and their mechanic again and would like to share some souvenirs with you of the good old days of the 'one-o-four' and the Slivers.

 

The famous "slivers" poster The fabulous cockpit drawing of Jean-Luc Brghin

 

The Slivers gave their first public demonstration on May 14, 1969 during the international meeting at Brustem. Their show was based on synchronised high speed crossings with the runway axis as a reference point. The aircraft were painted in the traditonal 'vietnam' camouflage - 2 tones of green, tan and grey on the underside. In these first years the planes wore an insigna on the air intakes depicting 2 silhouettes of a F-104 crossing on a red disc. This insigna disappeared to be replaced by the teams name from the 1972 season on.

The Slivers disbanded in July 1975 as Major Steve Nuyts was called upon other duties and there were no candidates to replace him. This sounded the funeralbell for a team, which during 68 official presentations, made the crowd shiver in 5 European countries - Belgium, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy.

 

synchronised high speed crossings Split up (courtesy Walter Van Bel)

 

SBAP :             Where did the team Slivers originated from  ?

 

Slivers :            Commandant Bill Ongena was the official demonstrator of the F104 during the years '66-'67. Having been promoted to a higher rank, he was assigned a function at the cabinet of National Defence. "Susse" Jacobs took over but for the meeting of 1967 it was decided to give a demonstration with two 104 (the only time this happened). After this meeting I had training sessions with "Susse" Jacobs, but this was not obvious given the differences in our characters. Some times later "Susse" crashed during the shooting of an episode of the 'Chevaliers du Ciel'. This crash was fatal for him.

As a result the general staff of the Belgian Air Force banned all the demo's of the F-104. After many negotations and thanks to the persistency of Colonel P. Dewulf, then a Base Commander, an authorisation to demonstrate the F-104 again during air shows was given, but including many restrictions regarding the flight manœuvres.

The idea germinated to present a team of 2 F-104 and the OSN of that time, Lieutenant-Colonel Castermans expressed the wish to have a pilot of the 350 Sqn and one of the 349 Sqn. This 'stipulation' highlighted the difficulty to coordinate the timing for the two pilots. However this was to be, I volunteered for the 350 and Captain Pierre Rassart was candidate for the 349. As this last one changed his carreer to the civilian market, the project was likely to fail, so I pressed forward that it might be easier to have two pilots of the same squadron. The idea was accepted and the second candidate was Captain Henrotte. This candidature also failed and luckily I could convince Adjudant Chef Palmer De Vlieger to join me, although at first he was not really 'keen' on the idea.

Finally the team had his two pilots and after a training period (outside our regular missions frame) we gave our first public demonstration on May 14, 1969. 40 years ago now.

 

Briefing To the planes
   
A last overview Preparing

 

SBAP :             Why the name 'Slivers' ?

 

Slivers :            The American testpilot Glenn Reaves nicknamed the prototype of the F-104 the 'Silver Sliver' due to its pointed shape. This name pleased us and characterised quite well the silhouette of the one-0-four. So we called ourselves 'the Slivers'.

 

Serge :             At the beginning, the aircraft wore an insigna on the air intakes to be replaced later by the team's name. Why this change ?

 

Slivers :            We choose to paint the same insigna on the air intake as we had on our helmets. Unfortunately the red paint we had at our disposal was from a bad quality and after some flights the insigna lost its colour and our mechanic had to do the work all over again. On the other hand, the white paint stayed on very well so we decided to just paint the name of the team in white

 

Note the insigna on the air intake since 1972 the insigna was replaced by the name of the team

 

SBAP :             In fact, the Slivers were not 2 but 3 teammembers, including your mechanic. Were you the sole mechanic for the team ?

 

Slivers :            No. At the beginning, the mechanic was designated among the volunteers, but it appeared very quickly that changing from mechanic each time was not as evident as it might seem. Some of them even lacked the feeling to solve any problem that could occur. One should not forget that during a mission, one had to take care of everything : folding the drag-chute, solving mechanical, electrical or even logistical problems… So after 5 or 6 shows, choice was made to have only one mechanic dedicated to the team and fortunately I was picked. Once in a while, if necessary, 1 or 2 other mechanics came along with me.

 

SBAP :             Did you encounter many problems during your 7 years with the Slivers ?

 

Slivers :            I would not say many, but every move could have its own surprises. For example, the F-104 flew with JP4 fuel. On the English or French airbases there was only JP1 fuel available. According to the technical manual, the aircraft was allowed just one flight on this fuel. This meant that, once on arrival having departed Belgium on JP4, the aircraft were refuelled with JP1 so that they could only fly one demo. To avoid this I had to recalibrate the engine settings, which took me about half an hour per aircraft, if everything went smooth. In fact most of the problems were fuel related. Another 'trap' was the coversion problem we encountered with foreign bowsers, some counting the U.S. gallons, other Imperial gallons, etc…and our F-104 had capacity gauges in kilograms. So you can imagine the difficulty. Another inconvenient matter with foreign bowsers was the delivery pressure. I recall one show at Ramstein where the American bowser delivered ___ such a pressure that the top-off valves could not close in time and fuel went about everywhere. So, when after start-up Steve ran his pneumatic windscreenwiper test, air was replaced by fuel and the spray ended in the cockpit. We had the choice, or to cancel the show and eliminate the fuel in the cockpit or to press on ? Steve decided to go on, the public was there to see the Slivers and so he flew 'full oxygen' as not to be incommodated by the kerosene fumes.

 

Impressive crossing National colours drag chute for the final of the demonstrtion
   
The Belgian stars of the one-O-four

 

SBAP :             During your shows you did manage to fly your 104 in a 'handkerchief' although the F-104 was not designed for aerobatics. How did you achieve this ?

 

Slivers :            The main principle was to avoid 'dead times' during our demonstrations. Our precursors shutted off the 'shaker-kicker' warning system. This system called the APC (auto pitch control) countered the annoying tendency of the 104 to pitch-up. When we started our demonstrations a directive forbidded to switch-off this system, bearing in mind the accident of 'Susse' Jacobs. So we trained to fly right to the limits of the 'kicker'. We were so fixed on this that after hours of demonstrations we could almost predict to the second when the kicker would go off. It was all this training that enabled us to show what the F-104 was really capable of.

 

SBAP :             Did you have any system to synchronise your crossings ?

 

Slivers :            No, everything was done visually. One of our first shows was at Schaffen. As the runway there was a grassstrip, we had not any mark. During our demo we did find ourselve across each other and as this situation was too dangerous, we called it off and Palmer left the zone. I flew on solo. To avoid such problems in the future, a line made up of white panels was installed on airfields without a concrete runway.

 

SBAP :             What was your crossing speed ?

 

Slivers :            'Normal' crossings were done at 400 knots (740 km/h) each. Crossing turns of 360° at about 320 knots (590 km/h) and crossings with the landing gear down at 300 knots (550 km/h).

 

SBAP :             What was the distance between your aircraft and how did you manage to maintain this distance ?

 

Slivers :            The separation varied from some ten meters to… two meters. At the beginning we took the width of the runway, each flying on one side. Our crossings were too distant so we decided to take each an edge of the runway as axis. Still too distant to our taste so we then decided to take just one runway edge as our display axis, with one flying overhead the runway and the other flying overhead the grass. To confirm our position we radiocalled 'left concrete' or 'left grass'.

 

SBAP :             Did you never frightened yourselve during your crossings ?

 

Slivers :            Certainly yes. It was at Wevelgem. The weather was not too good and the visibility a mere 2 kilometers. During the crossings we really needed to search visual contact and at a given moment we were flying right at each other. To avoid the collision I pushed the stick forward and Palmer pulled hard on his, conforming exactly to what we always briefed. This highlighted that our flying always had to be rigourous and we had to have complete confidence in each other.

 

SBAP :             Did you ever encounter big problems during your demonstrations ?

 

Slivers :            Not during our shows, but once I had one during a training session. As I did the inverted passes, I had taken the habit to try out the airplane. Because some F-104 had the tendency to descent and were difficult to counter to maintain level flight.

In short, after this try out we prepared for our demo when suddenly my oil pressure went down and I had warning systems going off everywhere. Thrust was way down and due to the lack of oil pressure the nozzle vanes opened wide. I immediately decided to return to the airbase. Minutes went by and I was loosing altitude but most of all loosing speed. I tried everything, playing with the throttle, engaging the post-combustion (PC), nothing happened… I was downwind and started my final turn. During this turn the aircraft lost more and more altitude, I was falling like a brick… When my speed reached 200 knots, thrust came back on… Quite a shock… I immedtiately shut down the PC. Everything seemed normal except for my oil pressure, still gauging zero. Once thrust on again, I decided to turn and take the runway the other opposite way. During the turn, same scenario.. Nozzle vanes opened wide, no thrust. So I tried to turn as short as possible to bring back the aircraft. Palmer who stayed with me all the time was calling to eject as he saw me loosing speed again. I already had my hands on the ejection handle when my speed reached 200 knots and like the first time, thrust came on again with PC. Without any hesitation I decided to climb to 10.000 feet to increase my chances to bring the aircraft back. I rejoined Beauvechain airbase with the forced landing procedure.

After analysis, mechanics found the origin of my problem, called the 'pendulum'. This little piece supllies the engine with oil. During my inverted flight, this pendulum turned over and block itself. Returning to normal flight, oil was spoiled everywhere and the engine was left without. This piece followed me on all my duties sitting on my desk.

Besides I still have it at home.

 

Friendness was the most important between the two pilots

 

SBAP :             In 1971 the Thunderbirds were touring Europe, I was told that, seeing your evolutions, they said 'Those guys are crazy…'

 

Slivers :            I do not know if those were their words, but it is true that American pilots generally do fly by the book. The best example of this was Neil Andersson during his presentation of the F-16 prototype at Beauvechain. We asked him if it would be possible to fly in formation with him to get some pictures. He answered that it was impossible to 'brief' such a mission as this was not foreseen in the program. We told him that 'perhaps' we would find ourself somewhere in his flight zone. Finally the Slivers did find themselves 'by chance' next to the F-16 and a Mirage V BR of the 42 Sqn, flown by Major Barthelemy, took pictures.

 

The famous F-16 prototype picture (42 recce squadron)

 

SBAP :             Do you recall some other anecdotes for our readers ?

 

Slivers :            25 to 30 years.. It will have to come back… One that I remember happened in Italy at Pratica di Mare at the meeting celebrating the 25 years of existence of the Aeronautica Militare Italiana. During the rehearsals we did our demo using, as briefed, the main runway as display axis. The other teams did not hesitate to take the parallel runway much more closer to the public… The next morning at the briefing it was a moralizing sermon… The responsable of the flights made it really clear. Axis overhead the main runway in conformity with the security rules, or be grounded or even be dismissed of the show.

In our F-104 parked on the paralell runway, the leader of the Patrouille de France came by. We agreed to wait for the show of the Red Arrows. At one point the solo took the parallel runway as display axis and passed so low he was flying 'beneath' me. The leader of the Patrouille the France and I exchanged sights and in the end every team took the parallel runway as the display axis and nobody was admonished. For me, this meeting was amongst one of the unforgettables as the demonstrations were very low and close to the public, just as the people loved it !

The second tale happened at Toulouse-Blagnac in France during the rehearsals. It was the only time we were parked amidst the public. There was a huge crowd around our airplanes especially during the preparations. While starting up, the compressor meant to start the engine was running good but would not deliver any air pressure. After several vain trials, we had to postpone the rehearsal. I have to say that we were not too proud at all by this. The day of the show, as usual, our genius mechanic had solved the problem in one of his 'système D' manners and thanks to Raymond, we could fly our demonstration as foreseen.

 

Posing for the officials pictures

 

SBAP :             Another little one ?

 

Slivers :            This was during a show at Toulouse-Francazal. We could not land there, so our aircraft were at Toulouse-Blagnac airfield. I have to say that before and during our shows the concentration was at his maximum. After the show we were more relaxed and on the way back to Toulouse-Blagnac approach gave us the authorisation to land. We did our break and I took the lead. The landing was uneventful and at the end of the runway turning onto the taxiway I looked back to see for Palmer… No Palmer ! He did not disappear at all, but he was so relaxed that when the tower told him to look out for some traffic in the zone, he widened his turn a bit too much… and landed, without authorisation on the parallel runway just behind a Cessna… No real consequences in the end, but we had to explain a lot. Finally everything fell into place.

 

SBAP :             How would you summarize the years of the Slivers ?

 

Slivers :            I have to say that to hold out to this for seven years, whether as a pilot or as a mechanic, you had to be addicted. We did not have a laughter every day and the professionalism, earnest and concentration had to outstrip everything else. Once the shows were over, we could think about the good times the aerial shows would reserve us. The Slivers gave us a huge satisfaction, but also the opportunity to meet very interesting people.

 

July 1975 with the "Red Devils" and "dupe" as mirage solo display Posing with the "Red Devils" after the last flight
   
Palmer De Vlieger, Raymond Delestinne (mechanic) and Steve Nuyts The same team 30 years later in february 2000, the day of the interview

 

Some Lockheed F-104G Starfighter used by the Slivers

 

FX25 FX69
   
FX58 FX69
   
FX72 FX74
   
One of the team folder Thank you guy's for the fabulous demo !

 

Thanks to Steve Nuyts & Palmer De Vlieger, the pilots & Raymond Delestinne, the mechanic. Interview realised in February 2000

 

 

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