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The Belgian Helicopter Units; Liege-Bierset April 30, 2010

Force Arien de Belgique Part 2; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

As a second visit on April 30, 2010 I was welcome at the Belgian helicopter base Liege-Bierset. The former Mirage base of Bierset is home of the Belgian helicopter fleet with exception of the SAR helicopters. You can find all the Augusta A-109 of the Belgian Armed Forces at this base.

The airport of Bierset was founded in 1914 when the town of Ans used a grass strip which was built for air traffic. The grass fell in German hands during the First World War. They used this airstrip for militairy flights at that time. Bierset was used by the Belgian Army after the war. The Belgian Army left Bierset empty in 1930 and the field was now used by civil traffic. The first regular airline between Brussels, Antwerp and Liege was founded at this airfield. The Germans occupied the airport again during World War Two. After the war the airfield was returned to the Belgian government and they resumed the civil activities including a regular airline between Liege and Paris flown by Sabena. The airport of Bierset became militairy again in 1952 and the ministry of defense had again the control over this airfield in 1953. The Belgian Air Force used this base from 1971 onwards as a fighter base for their brand new Mirage V. A new shelter camp was built for these aircraft at the northern part of the airbase. The Mirages are part of the second tactical wing and consists of no 1 Squadron and no 42 Squadron.

In 1976 the airport of Bierset became a public airport again and started with an airline of Sabena between Liege and London via Charleroi. The airline wasn't a great success. In the eighties the infrastructure was drastically extended with heavier runways and bigger taxi tracks. The Mirages continued flying until they were withdrawn in the late part of 1993. There was no successor for this aircraft type in the Belgian Air Force because of austerity measures in the Belgian defense. The airport is given to the SAB in 1990. Its goal is to make a restart of the airfield as a civil airport in this region. This was quite successful and in 1994 the number of passengers increased. The airport of Bierset changed in the major cargo bay in 1996 and TNT started flying from this airport in 1998 with a strong growth in cargo traffic as a result. In 2005 a new passenger terminal was built and Liege Airport was able to carry over one million

passengers a year. Due to strong growth of Brussels South Charleroi Airport, the Walloon government decided to use Liege Airport mainly for cargo flights. Charleroi Airport had the ability to grow because of this decision.

Between 1992 and 1994, the Belgian Army received forty six A-109BA helicopters. Twenty eight were antitank helicopters and eighteen of them were equipped as reconnaissance helicopters. These were used by the Belgian Army until 2004 when the army department became a part of the Belgian Air Component. The helicopter units were renamed to the Helicopter Wing. This Wing was based at Bierset which became the biggest helicopter base in Belgium. In addition to the A-109, also the Allouette II and BN-2 Islander were based at Bierset. The Allouette II and Islander are withdrawn from the Belgian Air Component and the A-109 fleet has shrunk to twenty helicopters. The helicopters were sold or are still for sale at this moment. There is currently not much left of the Belgian helicopter fleet. In the meanwhile, the Belgian government announced that the military part of Bierset will be closed. They planned to move the twenty Augusta A-109's to Beauvechain in September 2010. Bierset will be a civilian airport in the future because all the militairy activities will stop at this base.

I arrived early afternoon on Bierset after a one hour drive from Beauvechain. It was the last time that I would visit this Belgian airbase, because it was about to close. More people were waiting at the main gate of Bierset and also our guide was waiting for us to start the tour. The first spot where we were positioned was a small hill next to the taxi track. We had to hurry up because there was one A-109 on final approach and it would come in for a full stop. I was just in time to catch the landing helicopter with my camera. The location where we stood was great. The background was all green and we could shoot the helicopters from a short distance. We could have a look inside the hangar were we stood after the landing of the incoming helicopter. There were two A-109s inside this building and we were allowed to take as many photographs of them as we wanted. During our visit to the hangar we saw two pilots walking outside. They walked to the A-109 which was parked at the platform in front of the hangar. I also walked to the platform and I was waiting for the start up of the helicopter.

It didn't took too long before the helicopter started its engines when I came outside the hangar. The rotor blades of the helicopter started to move five minutes after engine start-up. This helicopter was really great when the lights fell perfecty on the machine. The pictures which I took of this machine were very good. Our guide asked the pilot to rotate the helicopter around its vertical ax before leaving. The pilot did this and the helicopter rotated right in front of us, allowing us to photograph it from all angles. There was another A-109 outside on the next platform which we would visit. This helicopter was in an excellent position to shoot photographs of. Now we stood in front of the maintenance hanger of Bierset. There were six helicopters inside this hangar and technicians were working on it. Not all the helicopters were in a great position for images, but that's normal in a maintenance hangar. Our visit at Bierset ended after our tour over the platforms and in the hangars.

We walked to the militairy barracks on the opposite site of the main entrance of Bierset. There were a few gate guards on the grass field at the entrance of this terrain. There was an Allouette II and an Islander over there. I took a few pictures of those preserved aircraft and my visit to Bierset came to an end. I had a lovely day today in Belgium with visits at Beauvechain and Bierset. The visit at Bierset was short, but it was worth to visit this small base. I made a very nice series of pictures of the Belgian A-109's on a base that will disappear at the end of this year.

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