|Text & Interview: Serge Van Heertum - Pictures : Autor and other as mentionned © sbap 2012|
The airshow season 2012 has come to an end, and I find it important to present the F-16 solo display pilot a little more up close and personal. In June, we have done a first interview of the successor of “Mitch”, and finally, the idea came to me to finish the season with a second interview of “Grat”, to get to know his feelings, and impressions after his first year. This was realized at the open door of the Line & Armament squadron. After a short résumé of “Grat”, we offer you the interview of this kind pilot, that always has a smile on his face, and who is great at public relations. All in all, an excellent ambassador for our Air Force.
"Grat", like many youngsters, was always fascinated by the life as a fighter
pilot, and certain Hollywood productions are a good example of it, such as
Top Gun. His motivation lead him to start off as a glider pilot with the Air
Cadets in 1999, which he’ll do for about 4 years. In the meantime, he became
candidate trainee pilot at promo 2001B. After his training in the royal
academy as petty officer (Saffraanberg) he was sent to Beauvechain to start
his phase of
After 9 months, and succeeding in this phase, he directs himself to the
Advanced Flight Training on Alpha Jet. It’s with rightful pride that “Grat”
receives his wings on the 30th of June 2004. He continues his
training on Alpha Jet, but this time in the brand new Franco-Belgian school
He attains his next certificate at the end of 2005 and heads towards Kleine Brogel to do his conversion towards the F-16 at the OCU (operational conversion unit). After his time at KB, “Grat” receives his assignment to Florennes, to integrate 350 Squadron. It’s in spring 2007 that he receives his « combat ready » qualification, and very soon he participates in his first operational mission at Siauliai, Lithuania during the same year. In 2008 he becomes “Element leader”, and his operations took place at Kandahar in Afghanistan. He became flight leader in 2009, and takes part in operation “Guardian Falcon” for the second time.
In 2010, he heads to Spain for a TLP (tactical leadership program) session at Albacete. The year 2011 will be a busy one for « Grat », with a third operational tour at Kandahar between March and May,
And later on he’ll participate in two operational detachments based in Araxos, in the framework of the Unified Protector operation above Libya. Parallel to the operations, his trainings, missions and exercises continue, which take him to the USA and Canada. In the meantime, “Grat” has become Mission Commander, and instructor on F-16, charged with the standardization and evaluation of all training programs for the pilots of the “Ambiorix” squadron.
With his current rank of captain, “Grat” has 28 years on the counter, and has thus become the youngest F-16 demo pilot in the history of the Air Force.
What does your
« Grat » stand for?
What made you want to
become a demo pilot?
Which selection criteria does one have to meet to become a demo pilot?
For starters, one must have at least 1000 flight hours, must be flight leader, and at least have the rank of captain. Once you meet those criteria, the spot as demo pilot is open to anyone who desires it.
How is the selection for this function, because aside to flying, it’s also a public relation job?
Indeed, the first step after your motivation letter is
an interview with the commanders of the air component, or their
representative, a person from Operations, and a representative of the Public
Relations section. In my case, the interview was with the A3 service (chief
of operations) and Mrs. Sofie Naeyaert, representative of
How is the program worked out? Is it you that decides on the routine, or is there a special dedicated team?
In Belgium, the demo
pilots have the advantage of writing their own program, and then it just has
to pass through a series of teams who study it, and make suggestions for
improvements when necessary. Actually, we cannot “invent” new figures for
the F-16, they’re all classic figures.
Once the program is accepted, how are things unfolding?
First of all I’ve done some tandem flights with « Mitch », to get a feel of things. First in the backseat, and then in front with “Mitch” behind me to give me precious tips to develop my figures. Then I started solo flights on a safety altitude, slowly descending to finally reach the show altitude safely.
I must also add that to develop the display, I was fortunate to have the support and good advice from two devilishly good former pilots: Michaël « Mickey » Artiges and Michaël « Puke » Koos.
Why was it the FA84 that was chosen?
Actually, I haven’t chosen the plane at all! It’s DG/MR (General direction of materials) that listed potential planes within the fleet, and finally chooses a plane that still has time before his next big maintenance, and also avoiding planes that have already been used for demonstrations.
The choice mostly is made towards planes that haven’t taken too much G’s yet. At the moment of choosing there were 3 or 4 planes that fulfilled the criteria and the “84” was chosen.
The goal is that the aircraft can at least finish the season before returning to revision during winter and be ready again in March for the next season, only needing some touch ups on the paint job. You can compare it to a game of “Tetris”, in a way that the whole planning of maintenances fit together seamlessly.
In the F-16 display team you’re the number one. Are all people around you a personal choice, or do they volunteer?
I don’t have anything to do with the choice or composition of the teams. I’ve simply asked to provide me 3 alternating teams to accompany me.
You need to know that in general that the team leaves
ahead of me, and gets back after me, so if I leave 4 days, they are on the
move 5 or 6 days, which is too much for one single team. So there are 3
teams of 4 people with optional back up. The composition of those teams is
not “written in stone”, which means they’re interchangeable, to fit the
needs. The minimum for me is 1 team leader, 2 crew chiefs (airplane
technicians) and 1 weapons specialist.
we add a technical officer that takes the role of exec officer, thus being
responsible of administration, housing, transport, simply all tasks that are
a little ungrateful, but this allows me to focus on the task at hand.
Most airshows take place during weekends. Is this easy to combine it with your family life?
It’s absolutely feasible, until today (28.06.2012) I’ve participated in 5 airshows, and during my displacements, my spouse keeps herself busy, as she has a strenuous job. Another advantage, at the moment I don’t have any kids, so there’s no “absent parent”. On top of that, the airshow season doesn’t last all year, it’s a period of 3 to 4 months, which doesn’t pose any problems either.
I also get a lot of support from my family, which is very important to facilitate things. When I’ve finished an airshow, I take one day off to recover, mostly Tuesday, which allows me to finish some administrative tasks, or helping to keep the household going. Wednesday and Thursday I start training in the morning, and in general, I have a second instruction flight in the afternoon.
So, the function of a demo pilot is on top of operational activities?
Yes, that’s right, and it’s the case for all demo pilots in the Air Force.
You just finished your training flight, what
is the program for the rest of the day?
Within the squadron, every pilot has a specific function. What is yours?
I take care of the standardization and the
evaluation of training programs.
Belgium is presently involved in operations
in Afghanistan, does this pose a possibility that you’re being sent there
for an operational tour, or are you excluded, being a demo pilot?
Impressive ! The enthusiasm of the public for airshows is very impressive. The size of certain events like the Air Tattoo for example. The kindness of all people I’ve met. The great work my team has done. Having won the prize for the best display in Czech Republic. Impressive meetings in the former Eastern countries and the passion for aviation displayed by those people, who haven’t been exposed to the west for a long time yet. Yes this is definitely what I will remember ...... awesome!
Honored after the operation "Unified Protector" (Lybia) & December at
After the season, our demo F-16 pilot will get some well-deserved time off. Upon his return, he’ll have to pack a whole different type of luggage, to execute an operational tour in Afghanistan. But very soon, in the beginning of 2013, after his return, « Grat » will prepare for another season of happiness for the passionate fans.
In a word, we’ll see you very soon, « Grat ». Good flight and always safe landing. Our most sincere thanks for this opportunity go out to Mrs. Sophie Naeyaert, and the whole IPR team for their authorization, as well as Captain Renaud « Grat » Thys for his availability and his enthusiasm.
|Some more pictures and drawing...|
|The FA84 profile by Alexander Vandenbohede|
|Some of the decoration project by Bruno Ghils||Note the Air Force wings not applied on the FA84|
|Belgian Air Force ambassador||The team...key of success|
|Preparing for his training flight||Concentration can be seen...|
|On taxi||"Grat" is clearly a member of the 350th squadron|
|Hight manoeuvers||A jewell in the blue sky|
|Back on the parking...||...and a technical point with the crew chief.|
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