Belgium’s F-16 solo display axed with immediate effect

Belgium is to withdraw its long-standing and highly popular F-16 solo display, at least one year earlier than planned.

The Belgian Air Force has announced that its has decided to refocus its priorities in 2024, faced by an ageing F-16 fleet with declining aircraft availability and pressing operational matters, including the training of new Ukrainian F-16 pilots while transitioning their own air force away from the F-16 and towards the F-35.

At the time of his appointment, Captain Steven de Vries was announced as being due to fly with the team until the end of 2024. It was later reported by several well-connected sources, such as Aviation PhotoCrew, that he would be the final Belgian F-16 display pilot and the team would disband after the 2024 season.

However, the Belgian Air Force took to Instagram on Friday 16th February to state that the team would instead be axed with immediate effect. Although the original post was quickly deleted, the news was later re-confirmed.

The statement said: “We have actively begun our transition to the F-35, our F-16s are being phased out as they reach the end of their potential, and our recent contribution to the training of Ukrainian pilots is mobilising most of our resources. The priority is to train our fighter pilots, meet our operational commitments and transition to the F‑35A.” They thanked outgoing display pilot Capt. de Vries, saying that he did a “great job over the last two years as an ambassador of the Belgian Air Force.”

The display team later made a statement of their own. It said: “With a heavy heart, we bring you unexpected news: the F-16 Solo Display Team is reluctantly bidding farewell. Regrettably, we must announce the bittersweet conclusion of our incredible two-year journey. It’s important to note that the decision for this farewell is beyond the control of the Dream Viper Team. While the ending may be sudden, the memories and appreciation for your support will endure. We thank you for being a part of our incredible flight, we regret not having the chance to say goodbye to our magnificent audience in person.

“Please stay tuned for more information and details, which will follow in due time.”

Capt. de Vries was Belgium’s 19th F-16 solo display pit and one of the most experienced F-16 pilots in the world. His display, inspired by the shapes and movements of the F-16’s namesake, the Viper, was one of the finest ever seen from the type, featuring novel and demanding negative-G and high alpha manoeuvres. He flew a black and green aircraft affectionately known as the “Dream Viper”, which was intended to be the dedicated solo display jet for the duration of his tenure, through to the end of 2024.

The Belgian F-16 has been a stalwart of the European airshow circuit for 44 years, performing at many of the continent’s biggest and best airshows – often in colourful and distinctive special scheme jets. Its loss will be felt across the continent, where it frequented major events such as RIAT and the Radom Airshow, as well as often fronting smaller shows that may not otherwise get foreign military participation; recent seasons had seen the team give strong support to the French and British airshow circuits in particular, as well as flying in countries such as Spain, Latvia, Poland, Finland, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Czechia, Austria, Lithuania and the Netherlands.

Once one of the biggest contributors of displays to airshows around Europe, the Belgian Air Force will have virtually no airshow assets left beyond 2024. Its A109 display team announced at the end of last year that it would not be flying at any further airshows, and the Red Devils, the country’s national aerobatic team, will disband at the end of the 2024 season. This will only leave the country’s rarely-seen NH90 search and rescue demonstration.

The fate of 31 Squadron’s unofficial display team, the Thunder Tigers, which flies four F-16s at typically just one or two domestic airshows per year, is not known. It is also not known whether there is any future intention to establish an F-35 solo display – although such a performance, if it ever does materialise, is likely many years away.

The Belgian Air Force’s in-house airshow, BAF Days – which is usually held biannually – has been put on hold until at least 2028. This is in part to accomodate the air force’s shift from the F-16 to the F-35.

Belgium operated around 50 F-16AM/BMs (ageing F-16A/Bs upgraded to MLU standard), but began winding down its fleet in 2023 as some airframes reached their alloted flight hour limit. Some of the younger airframes will be handed over to the Ukrainian Air Force, with deliveries starting in 2025 – the same year in which the first of an eventual 34 F-35s should arrive on Belgian soil. The last Belgian F-16s will likely soldier on until around 2027.