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Bombing at the Cornfield Range; Vliehors Range, May 14, 2009

Practicing with Live Weapons; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

The Vliehors is a vast nature reserve on the Dutch Wadden Island called Vlieland in the northern part of the country. The Vliehors is an enlarged beach of approximately 24 square kilometers and is largely in use as a military training ground at the Royal Netherlands Air Force and is used for bombing exercises with fighters.

The Vliehors Range is a bank which is located on the western half of the island. The operational NATO code name of the Vliehors is the Cornfield Range. The training area is used for aerial target practice with unguided rockets and bombs. The area is both used for training with practice ammunition and live ammunition. The Cornfield Range is the only range in the Netherlands where this is possible. The Cornfield range is now widely used by the F-16s of the Royal Netherlands Air Force which visit the range daily. Shortly before the Second World War the area which was called the ‘Vliehors’ was bought. The site was not in use until the end of the war. On May 2, 1948, the first official exercise was organized on the range. The tower consisted of a simple brick building above the top of an old German bunker. This bunker was a leftover of the defense of the Germans during the Second World War. After the introduction of the fighter jet in the Air Force, the operational range of aircraft was largely improved. Several tanks and armored vehicles were added to the field as targets and a new observation and control tower was built in 1957. This tower is today still in use and can be recognized by its distinctive black and yellow colors. In the 1970s new strafing targets were installed which were equipped with a Saab Hit Recorder. At that time, weapons like the Mk82, MK83 and heavier Mk84 and napalm bombs were used. The use of these weapons is now limited to the Mk82 in order also to protect the environment as well. Live bombings are annually limited to the period between September 15 and February 28.

In addition to the Royal Netherlands Air Force, the Royal Netherlands Army also used the Vliehors Range for a long period for the training of tank crews with live weapons. From 1955 until April 2004, there was also a cavalry shooting range (Cavalerie schietkamp, CSK) located on the Vliehors. This was the only location in the Netherlands where the Leopard tanks from the Dutch Cavalry of the Royal Netherlands

Army were allowed to fire with live ammunition. In the winter of 1993 and 1994 there was a trial to introduce a radio-controlled target. In 1952, there was at least once a test conducted in the open air at the Vliehors on which sarin nerve gas was tested on animals which was manufactured by TNO. Until 1993, the Ministry of Defense used depleted uranium in munitions during exercises on the Vliehors. In 2009, a new environmental permit was issued by the Ministry of Environment, which made it possible to shoot from fighter aircraft and helicopters. Previously only fighters were allowed to use the range. With the advent of the Apache in the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1995, also the need for a shooting range for these attack helicopters became visible. With this new permit also the usage of up to 70 live bombs (500-pounders) became possible. The CSK at the Vliehors was organizationally part of the Cavalry Training Centre (OCC) which was based in the Bernard Barracks in Amersfoort. Since the tanks were withdrawn from service, the CSK does not use the range anymore.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force is nowadays practicing daily at the Vliehors Range with many F-16s and helicopters and regularly also other NATO countries visits the range for their exercises. Even the larger aircraft like the American B-52 and B-1B bombers from the US Air Force are using the site. During a busy day between 40 and 45 aircraft are visiting the range. This is usually during major exercises such as the Frisian Flag exercise which is held annually at Leeuwarden Air Base. At the top of the tower, the fire control leaders have an excellent overview over the wide area of the shooting range. The leaders are therefore able to monitor all movements of the fighters. Every pilot who made a shot or has thrown a bomb will hear directly what the result of the attack was. The controllers also maintain radio contact with the ships at the North Sea near the coast of the island. There is a danger zone of 3.5 miles around the shooting range. This strip of sea is usually accessible to ships. If there is someone in the area like a fishing boat or sailing ships it is possible that they get into the line of fire. They are asked to leave the area in relation to safety. The pilots can practice at the shooting range in virtually all weather conditions. The Dutch Air Force ceases its activities over the Vliehors when wind speeds are above 35 knots. Because of the high waves at sea, it is impossible for the pilots in the sea water to save themselves.

The Vliehors Range has a total of nine designated areas where aircraft can practice with ammunition. These areas are designated by the letters A until I. The first area ‘A’ is an area that can used to practice with LGB weapons with both simulated and real attacks. The strafe panel is located in area ‘B’ and a panel of 21x8 ft. can be used with guns up to 30mm. Only the A-10 cannot use this target, because the aircraft fires too many bullets at once on this target. Area ‘C’ consists of three old tanks where the pilots are authorized to fire with guns up to 30mm. The alternative bomb area is target area ‘D’. This target is also known as the heap of scrap and pilots can throw light bombs on this target. Area ‘E’ is an area that can be attacked with bombs and rocket pods. In the region ‘F’ is the multi-target located with a tank in the middle. This area can only be used with practice bombs without an explosive charge. The most commonly used practice weapon is the familiar blue BDU-50. This weapon is used to simulate an attack with an Mk82 and will release only smoke on impact. Area ‘G’ is an attack target. The area has a diameter of 500ft and there is a tank in the middle. Area ‘H’ is located far away from the tower, because there may be practiced with heavy bombs like the Mk82. Also area ‘I’ is a bombing range like area ‘H’. The area ‘I’ was formerly the area which was used for cluster bomb training. This is nowadays no longer applicable, because cluster munitions are no longer permitted from a humanitarian point. Also this area is located far away from the famous tower.

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