Belgian Air Force Demo Team 2012
   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.

Curriculum Vitae

"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 Basic Flight Training. 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 at Cazeaux.

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.
Interview

What does your nickname « Grat » stand for?
It’s simply an association of words with my last name, THYS (pronounced as tiss ») which combines as gratis (gratis = for free) It’s simply a play on words.

 

What made you want to become a demo pilot?
After quite an active career of qualifications and missions, I wanted a new challenge, something new and interesting. I had already played with the idea of becoming a demo pilot for quite some time, thinking to myself that it would offer me even more possibilities to do something for the Air Force and the Squadron. In a word, something different.

 

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 COMOPSAIR-IPR.
During approximately 1 hour the interviewers asked a lot of questions about my motivation, and tested my communicative capabilities. Then a report is written for each candidate, and the decision is made higher up.

 

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.
Choose
s the sequence of the maneuvers, and from there I’ve sent the report with the sequences, the figures and the flight parameters. It’s the Aviation Service Directory that analyses the project first. According to their opinion, I've made some changes to the program and then the report is sent to the highest echelons of Staff for approval.

 

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. On every deployment, 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.
One person also accompanies us to take care of all public relation aspects. This means that an “Airshow Team” consists of 6 people.

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?
Today, I have a new pilot of the squadron, who has to take his course “Sniper Targeting Pod”, so at 11h, together with the trainee, I will follow the briefing of the ground liaison officer (ground forces), who is also our FAC (Forward Air Controller). Then, we’ll organize the mission that will resemble the practical, Close Air Support mission in Afghanistan, but taking place over the Ardennes. I’ll take the lead, and he’ll be my wingman. The goal is to teach him how to use the systems linked to the Sniper Pod. Most flights I do outside the demo are instruction flights, and conversions for the trainings that take place in the squadron.

 

Within the squadron, every pilot has a specific function. What is yours?

I take care of the standardization and the evaluation of training programs.
I am in charge of standardization and evaluation of training programs. It is I who ensures that
training programs for both young pilots, as well as already qualified pilots, are in accordance with standards and procedures, allowing the pilots to be properly qualified. It’s a supervision job, I’m less involved in the truly operational parts within the squadron. At this time, I also take up the job of Aerial Security Officer, during the absence of my colleague who is in the same bureau as me.

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?
During the airshow season it’s clearly impossible, because an operational tour usually takes 10 to 12 weeks. Outside the season, I’m indeed eligible to be sent on an operation, which is more than normal to ensure that I’ve done my share of the workload,
like everyone in the squadron, as we are not so many in the 350
th
.


Today we’ve arrived at the end of your first season (25th September 2012).
How could you describe it in one word?

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 Kandahar
(Belgian Defence)

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
Take off... Climbing...
Hight manoeuvers A jewell in the blue sky
Back on the parking... ...and a technical point with the crew chief.

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