Belgian Air Component

The Belgian Air Component (Dutch: Luchtcomponent, French: Composante air) is the air arm of the Belgian Armed Forces,[2][3] and until January 2002 it was officially known as the Belgian Air Force (Dutch: Belgische Luchtmacht; French: Force aérienne belge). The Belgian military aviation was founded in 1909 and is one of the world's oldest air services.

Belgian Air Component
French: Composante air
Dutch: Luchtcomponent
Belgian Air Component wings
Active1909–1915: Company of Aviators
1915–1940: Military Aviation
1946–1949: Military Aviation
1949–2002: Belgian Air Force
2002–present: Air Component
Country Belgium
AllegianceKing of the Belgians
TypeAir force
RoleAerial warfare
Size4,000 (2019)[1]
104 aircraft and UAV's
Part ofBelgian Armed Forces
CommanderMajor General aviator Frederik Vansina
Fin flash

The commander is Major General aviator Frederik Vansina, appointed on 05 November 2014.[4]


Foundation and early years

The Belgian military aviation was founded in 1909 as a branch of the Belgian Army, carrying the name Compagnie des Ouvriers et Aérostiers.[5] King Albert's interest in the military use of aircraft was the main impetus for its formation. Coincidentally, in the civil aviation sector, Baron Pierre de Caters earned the first civil pilot's brevet that same year. Caters would promptly establish an aviation school. At approximately the same time, the War Ministry followed the French military's example and had pilots earn a civil pilot's brevet before their military one.[6]

In 1910, three Belgian lieutenants earned their pilot's brevets at the school, paying their own fees. Two of the artillery lieutenants were Baudouin Montens d'Oosterwyck, who earned Brevet No. 19 on 30 September, and Alfred Sarteel, granted No. 23 on 10 November. The third lieutenant, Georges Nelis, was the new force's first aviation candidate, gaining Brevet No. 28 on 21 December. An aircraft was personally purchased for him.[6]

In spring of 1911, the new air force established its military aviation school with five pilots, two mechanics, and a woodworker. It received its first aircraft via Baron Caters, who gave the aircraft to King Albert, who in turn presented it to the school.[6]

On 12 September 1912, pilot Lieutenant Nelis and observer Sous Lieutenant Stellingwerff were the first Europeans to fire a machine gun from an aircraft; while Nelis brought the aircraft low, Stellingwerff put some bullets through a sheet staked out on the ground. They were disciplined for their efforts. Nelis then accompanied Capitaine Commandant Émile Mathieu to England during November 1913 to demonstrate aerial use of the Lewis machine gun at Hendon and Aldershot; as a result, the British adopted the Lewis, although the Belgians did not. Belgium entered World War I with aircraft tasked solely for reconnaissance missions.[7]

World War I

By the time of Belgium's entry into the First World War on 4 August 1914, the military aviation branch, now called the Aviation Militaire Belge (Belgische militaire luchtvaart), consisted of four squadrons, each consisting of four 80-horsepower Henri Farman aircraft, although Escadrilles III and IV were still forming. A truck was assigned to each squadron, along with a fifth truck serving as a mobile workshop. Each squadron had a commander, five pilots, and six observers, with all officers seconded from parent units. As a result, most of the new aviators were from the Engineers and Artillery components of the Belgian armed forces. As the war began, a fifth squadron was created, staffed with civilian pilots called to the colors and equipped with Bleriots.[8]

Sous Lieutenant Henri Crombez flew one of the first war patrols, in a Deperdussin racer on 4 August 1914 above Liège.[9] Adjutant Behaeghe was the first to engage an enemy, a few days later. On 26 September, the Belgian air crew of Sous Lieutenant de Petrowski and Sergeant Benselin mortally wounded a German pilot with a rifle bullet and forced his Taube to land at Sint-Agatha-Berchem; if they had submitted a claim for this victory, its approval would have marked history's first air-to-air combat victory.[10]

On 3 January 1915, two machine guns supplied by British were fitted to two Belgian aircraft, making a dual effort against the foe possible; these were Belgium's first dedicated fighter planes. In February, thirteen of the Belgian airmen flew 28 offensive patrols; their first dogfight was fought on the 26th, with ten Albatroses against three Belgian Farmans. On 26 March, Sous Lieutenant Boschmans sent a German two-seater into a steep dive when he seemed to hit the pilot; the German was not seen to either crash or land. This was the Belgian aviators' first victory claim.[11]

In April, Lieutenant Fernand Jacquet mounted a machine gun on his pusher aircraft and sought out the enemy. On the 17th, he and his observer (Lieutenant Henri Vindevoghel) scored Belgium's first confirmed aerial victory, sending an Albatros reconnaissance aircraft down in flames over Roeselare. Apparently at about the same time, Adjutant José Orta and Sous Lieutenant Louis de Burlet were the first to attack an enemy observation balloon when they dropped three small bombs on a gasbag over Houthulst. Luckily for them, they missed; success would probably have blown them out of the sky.[11]

On 18 January 1916, the decision was made to form a dedicated fighter squadron. On 22 February 1916, Escadrille I became the 1ère Escadrille de Chasse. It consisted of newly supplied Nieuport 10s and one obsolete Farman two-seater. In August, the new squadron would upgrade to Nieuport 11s, and Escadrille V was turned into the 5ème Escadrille de Chasse. The new unit was the first to mount an offensive formation for the new air force; on 15 February 1917, they flew an offensive patrol of seven. By this time, the AMB had grown to 44 aircraft, including 21 fighters. At this point, individual aircraft bore personal markings affixed by their pilots, but no unit designations.[12]

In the summer of 1917, the AMB was allotted an active role in Allied aviation operations at the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres. In March 1918, the AMB matured into a Groupe de Chasse. At this time, the role of the Escadrilles de Chasse was finally focused on their operation strictly as fighter units. There was a sorting out of pilots into fighter or reconnaissance roles. Not all fighter pilots went into the new fighter units; as of 1 May, 22 remained with reconnaissance units to fly escort missions. The King insisted that Jacquet be given the command of the Group. The newly organized fighter wing contained the two fighter escadrilles; however, 1ère Escadrille de Chasse became 9ème Escadrille de Chasse, and 5ème Escadrille de Chasse became 10ème Escadrille de Chasse. The 11ème Escadrille de Chasse was founded on 28 May to join them. By the start of the Allies final offensive in September 1918, the AMB was incorporated in the Allied aviation effort, and could send 40-plus aircraft into the air at one time. In its short span of service, the Groupe fought over 700 aerial combats and was credited with 71 confirmed and 50 probable victories.[13]

Aircraft procurement difficulties

In June 1916 the nascent air force had received newer aircraft from the French in both single and double-seat versions of the Nieuport 10. The Belgians would continue to upgrade their aircraft throughout the war, though through their dependence on French manufacturers they became the stepchildren of the Allied effort from 1916 onwards.[14] The introduction dates of various types, compared to the date of their acquisition by the Belgians, tells the tale. The Franco-American Lafayette Escadrille had Nieuport 16s as early as May 1916;[15] the Belgians got them at the end of the year. The Nieuport 17 came into service with the French as early as June 1916, but the Belgians received so few that in June 1917 they were still operating all their earlier Nieuports. They then contracted for newer Nieuport 23s, which were basically up-engined Nieuport 17s. Spad VIIs had entered French service on 2 September 1916; the Belgians first received them almost an entire year later, with the first one on board on 22 August 1917. In September 1917, Belgium had the Hanriot HD.1 supplied to it the year after it was introduced. Spad XIIIs also came on line that month, but would not show up in Belgian inventory until the next year. Sopwith Camels first went into service in May 1917 and the AMB received its first one on 29 November 1917.[16]

The AMB did make one attempt to design and build its own aircraft. However the Ponnier M1 was not good enough for production, and the ten or so manufactured ended up with clipped wings as powered "Penguin" rollers for training rookie pilots.[17]

Operational summary

One of its flying ace pilots, Willy Coppens, became the top ranking balloon buster of World War I, as well as one of the war's top aces. Four other pilots from the tiny force also became aces with it: Andre de Meulemeester,[18] Edmond Thieffry,[19] Jan Olieslagers,[20] and Fernand Jacquet.[21] A sixth Belgian, Adolphe DuBois d'Aische, became the war's oldest ace while in French service.[22]

The fledgling air force was entrusted with flying both King Albert and Queen Elizabeth over the battle front at times.[23]

Between the world wars

During the interwar period, the Belgian Air Force flew the Breguet 19. Some efforts were made to acquire aircraft from local production, such as those by Stampe et Vertongen and Renard. They also evaluated native designs like the ACAZ C.2 and LACAB GR.8, none of which entered mass production however.

World War II

At the start of World War II, the Army Air Force had three active Air Force Regiments. Aircraft which were used by those regiments were the Renard R-31 and R-32, the Fiat CR.42, the Hawker Hurricane, the Gloster Gladiator, the Fairey Fox, and the Fairey Battle. These were massacred by the much superior German Luftwaffe in the German invasion of May 1940. Before the outbreak of the war Belgium also sought to equip the Aviation Militaire with foreign designs, ordering production licences in Poland and France and aircraft in the USA. However, the acquired licences could not be used until May 1940 and the aircraft produced in the USA were eventually delivered to France and to the United Kingdom.

After the surrender of Belgium on 28 May 1940, a very small Belgian Air Force in exile was created in Great Britain as the Belgian section of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. This small force was active within the British Royal Air Force, and its squadrons were equipped with the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Typhoon.

The Cold War

On 15 October 1946, the Belgian military aviation was turned into an autonomous force, independent of the Belgian Army. From September 1953 to 1960, the Ecole de Pilotage Avancé ("Advanced Pilots' School") operated Harvards from the Kamina military base in the Belgian Congo.[24] Seemingly about 60 Harvards were at the base.

Post-Cold War reforms – COMOPSAIR (Commandement Opérationnel Air - Operational Command Air)

At the beginning of the 1990s, the end of the Cold War caused the Belgian government to restructure the Belgian Armed Forces in order to cope with the changed threats. The Belgian Air Force was hit hard and saw its strength more than halved with the disbanding of the 3rd Tactical Wing in Bierset (1994); the disbanding of the 1st Fighter Wing in Beauvechain; the 9th Training Wing in Sint-Truiden Air Base; and the Elementary Flying School in Goetsenhoven (1996).

In 2002, the Belgian government decided to emulate Canada and impose a "single structure" on its armed forces in which the independent Belgian Air Force ceased to exist. The Belgian Air Component (COMOPSAIR being the HQ) consists of the 2nd Tactical Wing in Florennes Air Base and the 10th Tactical Wing in Kleine Brogel Air Base, both flying F-16s in four squadrons. Out of the 160 F-16s originally bought by Belgium, only 105 were upgraded; with further reductions to 72 aircraft in 2005; and planned to 60 by 2012. The 1st Wing at Beauvechain Air Base is assigned for the training of pilots, using the piston-powered Aermacchi SF.260 for elementary training, and the Alpha Jet for advanced training. Advanced combat training is done on F-16's at Kleine Brogel.[25] COMOPSAIR still operates the Lockheed C-130 Hercules in the 15th Air Transport Wing based at Melsbroek Air Base, planning to replace them by seven Airbus A400M transport aircraft. VIPs are transported with Embraer 135/145 jets,[26] Dassault 20/900, and the Airbus A321. The Sea King SAR helicopters were phased out in March 2019 after more than 40 years of service and replaced by NH-90s (4 NFH + 4 TTH). The Alouette III helicopters flown for the Belgian Navy in a utility-role and will be phased out in 2021.

In 2004, as part of the unified structure, the Army Aviation units of the Wing Heli were transferred to the COMOPSAIR. These contain the Agusta A109 attack helicopter, and the Alouette II training and recce helicopter. In 2005, the Belgian Alpha Jets moved to Cazaux in France to continue the Initial Operational Training, while the Advanced Jet Training was done on French Alpha Jets at Tours. As from 2013 both Advanced Jet Training as well as Initial Operational Training are completed in Cazaux in France. Within the framework of its commitments within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, Belgium has assigned its 72 F-16s to NATO purposes. Two squadrons with a total of 16 aircraft have been designated for use by the Rapid Reaction Forces. In February 2008, Defense Minister Pieter De Crem announced that due to increasing problems and poor serviceability, the two A310s were to be replaced as soon as possible by two aircraft in the same class. An Airbus A330 was dry-leased to take their place till March 2014 where it was replaced by an Airbus A321. On September 1, 2010, the Wing Heli in Bierset was disbanded and the Agusta A109 helicopters moved to Beauvechain Air Base to become 1st Wing. The SF260 squadrons became part of the Basic Flying Training School. On May 24, 2011, it was reported that the two retired Airbus A310 aircraft have been sold to the Brussels-based company MAD Africa for the amount of 700,000 euros. The company then sold them on to the Dutch Van Vliet transport company, who in their turn will transfer the aircraft to an as yet unspecified Abu Dhabi-based operator.

Retired aircraft

Aircraft Origin Type Variant In service Notes
Combat Aircraft
Fairey Battle United Kingdom bomber 14[27]
Fairey Fox United Kingdom light bomber II/III/VI/VIII 115[27]
Fiat CR.42 Italy fighter 23[27]
Gloster Gladiator United Kingdom fighter 15[27]
Supermarine Spitfire United Kingdom fighter FR Mk XIV 53[28]
Gloster Meteor United Kingdom fighter F.4/NF.11 the NF.11 served as a night fighter[29]
Hawker Hurricane United Kingdom fighter Mk I 11[27] license built by SABCA[29]
Avro CF-100 Canuck Canada interceptor Mk 5 53[30] In service from 1957 to 1964
Republic F-84 United States fighter-bomber F-84E/G[29] In service 1951–1955
Republic F-84F[29] United States fighter-bomber In service 1955–1972
Lockheed F-104 United States Interceptor F-104G 100[31] license built by SABCA, in service 1963–1983
Mirage 5 France bomber BA 63[31] in service 1970–1994
Mirage 5 France reconnaissance BR 27[31]
Renard R.31 Belgium observation 19[27]
Auster AOP.6 United Kingdom observation 22[31] in service from 1947 to 1955
Republic F-84F[29] United States reconnaissance
Dassault Falcon 900 France transport Falcon 900B 1[32] In service 1995 - 2019
Dassault Falcon 20 French transport 2 [33] in service from 1973 to 2016
Douglas C-54[29] United States transport
Fairchild C-119[29] United States transport
Boeing 727 United States VIP 100QC 2 obtained from Sabena, in service 1976–1998
Airbus A310 Multi-national Transport A310-222 2 Ex-Singapore Airlines, in service 1998–2009
Alouette II France Utility 81 In service 1960–2009
Sikorsky S-58 United States SAR 11[31] In service 1961–1986, replaced with the Westland Sea King
Westland Sea King United Kingdom SAR Mk. 48 5[34] replaced with the NH90
Trainer Aircraft
Lockheed T-33 United States primary trainer T-33A 12[31]
Fouga CM.170 France jet trainer 40[31]
Lockheed F-104 United States conversion trainer TF-104G 12[31] license built by SABCA
Mirage 5 France conversion trainer BD 16[31]
SIAI-Marchetti SF.260[31] Italy basic trainer


In January 1991, 18 Mirage 5 aircraft of the 3rd Tactical Wing were deployed to Turkey's Diyarbakır air base. During this operation, Belgian aircraft carried out several flights along the Iraqi border. After this operation the obsolete Mirage 5s were phased out.

On 15 July 1996, a C-130 with serial CH-06 carrying 37 members of the Dutch Army Fanfare Band and four Belgian crew members crashed at Eindhoven after a bird strike while executing a go-around, resulting in the loss of power to two engines. 34 passengers were killed, and only 7 survived. The accident is known in the Netherlands as the Herculesramp.

From October 1996, the Belgian Air Force cooperated with the Dutch Royal Air Force in the "Deployable Air Task Force" in patrolling former Yugoslavian airspace. F-16s of the 2nd and 10th Tactical Wings, operating from the Italian bases of Villafranca and Amendola, were assigned to missions insuring the control of a No-Fly Zone over Yugoslavia, and providing the air support necessary for UN and NATO troops. Between March 24 and June 10, 1999, twelve Belgian F-16s carried out 679 combat sorties – the first time since the second World War that Belgian aircraft took part in active war operations in enemy territory – against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis. The last Belgian F-16 detachment left Italy in August 2001.


On 29 March 2004, four F-16s from Kleine Brogel were transferred under NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission to the Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania for three months, where they were employed in monitoring the Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian skies.

In 2005, the Helicopter Wing (WHeli – HeliW) deployed four A-109 (including one Medevac) in Tuzla, Bosnia. In July, four F-16s deployed to Afghanistan to support the NATO International Security Assistance Force.[35] From June to October 2005, the 80th UAV Squadron deployed its B-Hunter in Tuzla.[36][37]

In 2006, Belgian Hunter unmanned air vehicles deployed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the EU EUFOR peacekeeping mission. At the same time, the Helicopter Wing (WHeli – HeliW) deployed three A-109 (including 1 Medevac) in Mostar, Bosnia, in Operation Blue Bee.[38]

On 1 December 2006 the Belgian Air Component deployed again under Baltic Air Policing mission four F-16 MLU aircraft to Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania, to defend the airspace of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.[39]

From August 2008, four F-16s were deployed to Kandahar in Afghanistan in support of the Dutch land forces.[40]

In March 2011, Belgium deployed six F-16 fighters to Araxos in Greece, in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, to support the NATO operations over Libya.[41] The aircraft were already at the base as part of a joint exercise and were transferred to NATO command. Up to June 2011, the aircraft had flown over 1,000 hours over Libya and attacked various military installations and targets.


On 12 September 2011 a Wikileaks document showed a diplomatic cable from the American ambassador and the Minister of Defence Pieter De Crem that Belgium is interested in buying off-the-shelf Lockheed F-35 Lightnings by 2020.[42][43][44]

In 2013 the Belgian Air Force supported French operations in Mali providing Medevac helicopter support with two A-109 helicopters and two C-130 Hercules in a tactical air transport role.

On 2 September 2013, four F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter-jets of the Royal Belgian Air Force landed at the Šiauliai Air Base to take charge of NATO's Air Policing mission over the Baltic states.[45][46]

Between October 2014 and July 2015 six Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons were deployed under Operation Desert Falcon to Muwaffaq Salti Air Base as part of military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.[47]

On 11 October 2018 a Belgian Air Force F-16 caught fire during maintenance works at Florennes Air Base. The fire, reportedly caused by the accidental firing of a cannon, completely destroyed that aircraft. A second F-16 was also damaged.[48][49]

On 25 October 2018, Belgium officially selected the offer for 34 F-35As to replace the current fleet of around 54 F-16s. In the accompanying news conference, government officials stated that the decision to select the F-35 over the Eurofighter Typhoon came down to the price, and later stated that "The offer from the Americans was the best in all our seven valuation criteria". The total purchasing price for the aircraft and its support until 2030 totaled €4 billion, €600 million cheaper than the initially budgeted €4.6 billion. First deliveries are scheduled to take place in 2023.[50][51]

On 19 September 2019, a Belgian Air Force F-16 crashed in France. [52]

Joint air policing

On 4 March 2015, the Belgian and Dutch ministers of defence, along with the ambassador of Luxembourg to the Netherlands, signed an agreement on joint air policing. Starting mid-2017, the Belgian Air Component and the Royal Netherlands Air Force will take turns keeping two F-16s on quick reaction alert (QRA) defending the airspace of all three Benelux countries. The agreement could allow the Belgian minister of defence to order a Dutch aircraft to use lethal force over Belgian airspace, and vice versa. Luxembourg, while currently covered by Belgian QRA, does not allow the use of lethal force over its territory.[53]

Current structure

Belgian Air Component locations 2018:
F-16AM/BM Falcon SF.260D/M+ Helicopters other flying units
Command and Control centres Marconi S-723 radar site
other sites


Current inventory

Aircraft Origin Type Variant In service Notes
Combat Aircraft
F-35 Lightning II United States multirole F-35A 34 on order[57]
F-16 Fighting Falcon United States multirole F-16A 43[57]
Airbus A321 Germany VIP transport 1[57] Leased from HiFly
Airbus A400M Spain tactical airlift 7 on order[57]
C-130 Hercules United States tactical airlift C-130H 8[58]
Embraer ERJ135 Brazil transport 2[59]
Embraer ERJ145 Brazil transport 1[60]
Alouette III France liaison 3[57] flown for the Belgian Navy
NHIndustries NH90 France / Germany utility / transport NFH/TTH 4/4
AgustaWestland AW109 Italy scout / anti-armor 20[57]
Trainer Aircraft
Alpha Jet France / Germany trainer / light attack 28[57]
F-16 Fighting Falcon United States conversion trainer F-16B 9[57]
SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 Italy trainer 32[57]
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
IAI B-Hunter United States / Israel reconnaissance 13[61]
MQ-9 Sky Guardian United States UCAV 4 on order[62]


In the strategic defence vision report of the Belgian government it was stated that the Belgian air component will invest in 34 new fighter aircraft being introduced into service 2025–2030 and one aerial refuelling aircraft (A330 MRTT) as part of the Multi National Tanker Transport squadron based at Eindhoven Airport, to be able to deploy the new fighter aircraft in a more independent fashion.[63]

The Belgian government is also planning to purchase four large reconnaissance UAVs with the option to buy eight more which will be able to fly at great height. Their primary goal will be reconnaissance assignments but the option also exists to arm them.[64]

Regarding the replacement of the aging F-16s there was some controversy within the Belgian government. The Flemish socialist party claimed that the government has already chosen the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, ignoring the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale, which were both also part of the tender, because it intended to purchase fighters of a "new generation", and the successor of the F-16s also needed the capability of carrying B61 nuclear warheads, which are supposedly stored at Kleine Brogel. Minister of Defence Steven Vandeput contradicted this and stated that no official choice would be made until 2018 and that all options were still on the table.[65]

The Sea King helicopters were retired in March 2019 after 43 years of service. The Alpha Jet will also be retired by December 2019 and future pilot training is to be conducted in the US at the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT) program based at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas.[66]

On 25 October 2018, Belgium officially selected the offer for 34 F-35As to replace the current fleet of around 53 F-16s. In the accompanied news conference, government officials stated that the decision to select the F-35 over the Eurofighter Typhoon came down to the price, and later stated that "The offer from the Americans was the best in all our seven valuation criteria". The total purchasing price for the aircraft and its support until 2030 totaled €4 billion, €600 million cheaper than the initially budgeted €4.6 billion. First deliveries are scheduled to take place in 2023.[50][51]

In 2018 two Hercules aircraft were retired prior to the transition to the Airbus A400M starting in 2020.

Belgium contributes 1 Airbus A330 MRTT tanker aircraft as part of the NATO MRTT Squadron at Eindhoven Air Base, replacing the leased Airbus 321.

In 2018 the Belgian Government approved the negotiations to acquire 2 General Atomics MQ-9B Sky MALE drones.

See also


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