NARRATIVE BY MARC NEWITT & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE and CARL NEWELL
Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands
In the northern region of Friesland in the Netherlands lays the front line Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) base of Leeuwarden. This was home for multiple types of aircraft from other countries for two weeks as they took part in this year’s exercise Frisian Flag. The Pixelsnipers team were there to sample the atmosphere of this annual event and to report on the aircraft and units based at this important North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) airfield.
Base of operations:
Leeuwarden Air Base was originally a glider field and airport. Built in 1938, and used by the Netherlands airline KLM, it saw very little activity, but with the occupation in 1940 of German forces during World War Two, the base was used to the advantage of the Luftwaffe, with it being within striking distance of the United Kingdom. On the 16th and 17th September 1944 the base was heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and as a result of this the Germans decided to abandon the remains.
The airfield was quickly reprised and officially known as Vliegbasis Leeuwarden (Leeuwarden Airbase) in 1949 and became home to the first RNLAF jet fighter squadron. In 1948 the base saw the arrival of the British built Gloster Meteor for 323 Squadron. At that time, three squadrons were assigned to Leeuwarden and in 1950 a fourth squadron was added. The Gloster Meteor was in use here until 1956, when it was replaced by another British fighter, the Hawker Hunter. During the Hawker Hunter era, Leeuwarden became more important in air defence, which caused lots of foreign aircraft to visit the air base. The Hawker Hunter was succeeded by the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter in 1964, which was operated by both 322 and 323 squadron. For 15 years the F-104 served the RNLAF from this base. In 1979 the F-104 was replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-16 on June 6th 1979. The F-16 is currently the only jet fighter in service with the RNLAF.
During the first year of the Second World War Dutch pilots escaped to France and the United Kingdom (UK) as Germany’s ‘Blitzkrieg’ (Lightning War) gathered pace over the Low Countries. Some of them ended up in 167 (Gold Coast) Squadron. When B-flight of the unit almost solely consisted of Dutch pilots, the Flight was re-designated 322 (Dutch) Squadron , Royal Air Force on June 12th 1943, mostly at the initiative of His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard, of the Netherlands Royal family.
At that time, the squadron was stationed at Woodvale near Liverpool, but the squadron operated from several other bases in the UK , these being Hawkinge, Acklington, Hartford Bridge, West Malling, Deanland, Biggin Hill and also at Dutch bases Woensdrecht, Schijndel, Twenthe and German bases Varrelbusch and Wunstorf as the war progressed to an Allied victory.
At all locations the squadron operated the same type of aircraft, this being the famous Supermarine Spitfire. The operational tasks of the squadron included escorting bombers en route to France, intercepting V-1 rockets, supporting operations in France and supporting troops on the ground.
322 Squadron also participated in the Battle of Arnhem and the air fights in the corridor in the province of Brabant, Netherlands. In this period the squadron lost 18 members; their names are still mentioned on the squadron’s list of honour.
On January 3, 1945th 322 Squadron was transferred to the Netherlands for the first time, being based at Woensdrecht, in the already liberated part of the country.
In October 1945 322 Squadron was deactivated , but was reactivated in September 1947 back on the Spitfire, and was sent to the Dutch Indies to bases in Kalidjati and Kalibanteng. In October 1949 the squadron was moved back to the Netherlands and was again deactivated.
In 1951 322 Squadron was reactivated and moved to Twenthe Air Base. Still operating the Spitfire, the squadron was moved to Soesterberg Air Base. The Spitfire was replaced by the Gloster Meteor in July 1952 and the Hawker Hunter in January 1958.
In October 1960 the squadron was moved to the tropics once again, this time to New Guinea for air defence tasks. After its return to the Netherlands in 1962 the squadron was deactivated for the third time. In April 1964 322 Squadron was reactivated yet again and transferred to its current location Leeuwarden Air Base as an air defence squadron, operating the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.
With the decommissioning of the F-104, an era of almost 30 years of pure air defence came to an end. A few years after the last F-104 had left the squadron, on May 1st 1981, 322 Squadron became operational on the General Dynamics F-16 as the first F-16 operating squadron of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The squadron’s task was extended from sole air defence to also include ground attack.
During the conflict in the Balkans, 322 Squadron was part of the first units contributing to the effort to enforce compliance with UN resolution 816 banning all flights in the airspace of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
323 Squadron deactivated in November 2014, but no history of Leeuwarden would be complete without an overview of this famous unit.
On June 27th 1948, with the arrival of the first Gloster Meteor Mk.4 in The Netherlands, the Jachtvliegschool (Fighter Pilot School) was established at Twenthe Air Base. Nr. 1 Jachtvliegsquadron (Fighter Squadron) was established on November 15th 1948. On April 14, 1949 this first Dutch squadron operating jet fighters was re-designated 323 Squadron as a result of Western European Union naming conventions. The squadron was then moved to Leeuwarden Air Base.
No two-seat Meteors were available at this time and training was rather primitive. In order to familiarize student pilots, ammunition boxes behind the cockpit were removed in order to create space for the instructor pilot. On a typical training run, speed was gained until the nose landing gear was lifted after which the student would slow the aircraft down again.
On January 26th 1949, Major Flinterman, 323 Squadron Commander since the unit’s establishment, landed the first Meteor at Leeuwarden Air Base, with runways that were hardly suited for jet aircraft (runways were severely damaged during WWII). Together with 324 Squadron (established at May 1, 1949) the unit formed Fighter Group North (Jachtgroep Noord).
In May 1950, 323 Squadron was responsible for weapons instruction for pilots that were recently qualified at Twenthe Air Base. Because of this, the squadron was moved to Twenthe itself, though most of the training took place above the North Sea and the aircraft often operated from Leeuwarden.
After a short period, the squadron was moved back to Leeuwarden on April 21st 1952. In 1954 the unit owned eight Meteor F.Mk.8’s and four F.Mk.4’s, of which the latter were only used to tow targets. During the 1950’s the unit owned more than 40 Meteors, Mk.4’s, Mk.8’s and T.Mk.7’s. The T.Mk.7’s were not operational and therefore lacked the squadron code Y9.
323 Squadron switched to the Hawker Hunter in 1957 as the final squadron to be equipped with this well loved fighter. On October 18th 1957 the unit’s first Hunter with 323 registration code made its operational flight. In 1960, the squadron’s training task was dropped.
During 1960-1961 the unit was involved in the evaluation of the AIM-9B Sidewinder infrared guided air-to-air missile (in early days also referred to as GAR-8), which later was purchased by the RNLAF.
On March 25, 1963 the Squadron’s operational task was abandoned, though part of the unit was still used for towing targets until September 1, 1963. The abandonment was a result of the transition to the F-104G Starfighter. On March 17, 1964, the unit was reactivated after the arrival of the first six F-104’s at Leeuwarden Air Base. As an aside, 323 Squadron was the first European unit to fire the F-104’s gun.
Once all squadrons were operational on the F-104, the conversion flight at Twenthe Air Base was split up: one part was moved to Volkel Air Base and the other part was moved to Leeuwarden Air Base as Transitie Conversie Afdeling (Transition Conversion Section). TCA was integrated into 323 Squadron. In early 1978 the TCA was deactivated and would remain inactive until the introduction of the F-16.
On September 1st 1981, 323 Squadron was reactivated after it was deactivated for a brief period to allow transition to the F-16 and declared operational on April 2, 1982.
In 1986, 323 Squadron was again integrated with the Transitie Conversie Afdeling (Transition Conversion Section), a unit responsible for the training of recently F-16 licensed pilots.
On July 3rd 1992, 323 Squadron was re-designated 323 TACTESS Squadron. TACTESS stands for Tactische Training Evaluatie en Standardisations Squadron (Tactical Training Evaluation and Standardization Squadron).
The squadron consisted of 4 flights: STAN/EVAL (standardization/evaluation), instruction, tactical training, and a support flight. The squadron offers training for instructors and weapons instructors and also offers ICT (Integrated Combat Training), and sets up exercises like Frisian Flag. The squadron was deactivated at Leeuwarden in November 2014 to set up residence in Tucson, Arizona in the United States of America working up the Lockheed Martin F-35’s recently purchased by the Netherlands.
Exercise Frisian Flag
From 13th to 24th April exercise Frisian Flag, the largest exercise of its kind in Europe, was held at Leeuwarden airbase and was supported by the European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training (EART) exercise held at Eindhoven airbase.
This year’s edition attracted a variety of aircraft from all over the world, most had been seen at previous editions of Frisian Flag but the spotlight was very much on the newcomers from the United States Air Force (USAF) Air National Guard. Designated the 159th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS), the unit is made up of six F-15Cs of the 142nd Fighter Wing (FW), 123rd Fighter Squadron (FS) Red Hawks, Oregon Air National Guard (OR ANG) and six F-15Cs of the 125th Fighter Wing (FW), 159th Fighter Squadron (FS) Jaguars, Florida Air National Guard (ANG). The 159th EFS is a Theatre Security Package deployed as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve and will be in Europe for six months
323 TACTESS was deactivated in 2014 in order to stand up as the first squadron in the Royal Netherlands Air Force) to acquire the F-35A at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California.Tthe exercise this year was organised by 322 TACTESS for the first time. This was made easier with the organisers of Frisian Flag from 323 TACTESS being integrated into 322 TACTESS after its deactivation.
Frisian Flag’s two week long objective was to simulate composite air operations and multi-national mixed fighter operations against both airborne and ground-based threats with aims to help both NATO and non-NATO forces to establish a common operational status. This included large-scale planning meetings, briefings and debriefs.
There were two mission launches a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. These involved flying to a 180nm by 322nm reserved piece of airspace over the North Sea, which extends towards Northern Germany to the east and clipping the Danish border to the north. After launch, flying time to the exercise area from Leeuwarden is just three minutes away.
Operations included defensive missions, such as protection of ground, slow-moving or high-value assets, as well as offensive missions such as pre-planned air-strikes, air superiority and escort, and suppression of enemy air defence systems.
A FULL LISTING OF ALL PARTICIPATING AIRCRAFT IN THE EXERCISE CAN BE DOWNLOADED HERE