One of the most remarkable looking aircrafts in aviation history, has come to an end. The last operational Belgium Fouga Magister has flown for the last time on September 27th, 2007. Over the years has this aircraft become a highlight on every airshow, and could be recognized from thousands by the remarkable V-shaped tail section. We are looking back on this great aircraft via recent photographs, and a dedicated article on the Fouga Magister. Greg had the lifetime opportunity to fly one of the last Fouga's.
The Belgian Air Component (formerly the Belgian Air Force) has announced the 2006 airshow season will be the last time to see a Belgian Fouga CM170 Magister airshow display. After the 20-week season, only BAC staff officers will continue to fly the "Whistling Turtle" until it is officially retired near the end of the year. The official retirement date has yet to be announced.
This final season will mark the 46th year of service by the Fouga Magister with the Belgian Air Force (all historical references are to BAF since the Belgian Air Component was established only 5 years ago), a remarkable feat and testament to the solid design of the aircraft and dedication of the maintenance personnel in the BAF. The CM170 design is actually over 50 years old with the first flight occurring in 1952.
Affectionately known as the "Whistling Turtle" because of the high-pitched whistle emanating from the two Marboré II jet engines, its relatively slow airspeeds, and the turtleback shell design of the cockpit framing, the CM170 has been flown for the last five years by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Rorive, CO of 7 Squadron, BAF and between 10-15 Staff Officers. His jets wear a bright red paint scheme popular from when, during the 1960s-1970s, the BAF had an aerobatic display team known as the Red Devils. The Red Devils flew six Fouga Magisters and toured Europe as Belgian ambassadors while thrilling airshow crowds with displays of expert airmanship. The two Fougas flown by Rorive, the Demo, MT 48, and Demo spare, MT 26, wear the same bright red scheme of the Fougas' heyday to keep the heritage alive. MT 48 was actually flown by the Red Devils during their final season in 1976 and is a favorite of Rorive because of its history and its handling characteristics. In fact, he checked out other aircraft before selecting MT48 to become the primary demo aircraft.
Rorive explained the Belgian CM170s will be retired soon because each has reached, or will soon reach, a pre-determined date. "The date is independent from the flying hours of the airframe and/or the engines; the problem is that the manufacturer doesn't exist anymore and nobody wanted to take the responsibility of changing the dates." Therefore, an extension is theoretically possible, but without advanced engineering studies, someone to take fundamental responsibility for the program, and funding to go with the extension, the possibility has been ruled out. Typically when you see the listing of "Solo Display" on an airshow schedule you can expect to see some type of fighter like the F-16 or F/A-18 being flown to the edge of its envelope and accompanied by fast-paced rock music. The Fouga Magister doesn't exactly fall into the high-performance category and isn't displayed with rock music either. Paul says his display isn't meant to be an equal to other solo display acts, but is meant to show off the graceful handling of the aircraft. He personally chose the classical music that accompanies his 12-minute display to help set him apart from the other solo demonstration acts while accentuating the classic nature of his jet.
Even though the Fouga Magister isn't a high-performance aircraft it is still being flown to the edge of its envelope in Rorives' display. Greg "CACTUS" Davis was given a unique opportunity to view selected maneuvers flown throughout the display during an orientation ride over Central Belgium prior to the airshow season. Most high-performance displays include the full range of engine power settings and dramatic use of afterburner to thrill the crowds. In the Fouga things are different. The display flown by Rorive occurs with both motors set to maximum power--right from the take-off roll, and the throttles are rarely pulled back during the display. According to Rorive, the Fouga has little power reserve and no afterburner to provide the extra kick one might desire during some of the maneuvers. Flying the entire demo at max power allows Rorive to get the very most from the aging aircraft. Another reason he doesn't spool the motors back is because if a situation developed where more power is suddenly needed, the throttles can't be thrown forward without causing a compressor stall. Having a compressor stall would be especially dangerous for Paul since his show routine doesn't take him high into the skies and the Fouga isn't equipped with ejection seats.
Another indicator that Paul flies the Fouga to the edge of the envelope is how, despite the slow response of the aircraft's flight controls, his routine of aileron rolls, loops, Split Ss and barrel rolls appears to be a smooth and easy ride. Flying along with Paul on our orientation flight revealed that he has to work very hard to make it appear so smooth. Riding in the rear cockpit for a few maneuvers pulled from his routine the ride was graceful and pleasant. Watching the control stick as we performed these maneuvers proved that flying them is anything but. Constant and sometimes violent control inputs by Paul in the front seat were needed to perform our selected maneuvers. Often times the controls were fully deflected for extended periods as he coaxed the jet through rolls and turns. This compared to other modern trainers where slight control inputs manifest themselves as massive and immediate changes to the flight path.
One thing that keeps Paul working so hard is the Fouga's tendency to drop its nose when inverted. This drop-off must be countered to maintain inverted level flight and must make for a busy time as he guides the jet through four continuous aileron rolls above the runway during his routine. The story of the BAF Fouga is not the only remarkable story here. How LtC. Rorive became the demonstration pilot is equally interesting. Rorive said that when he was entering flight training he wasn't sure what he wanted to fly, but he was certain he wanted to become part of the Red Devils demo team and to show-off the Fouga. Rorive flew the CM170 in training, but then quickly moved on to conversion training so he could fly the BAF Mirage 5, the then top-of-the-line fighter-bomber in BAF service. Flying the Mirage until its retirement and replacement by the newly introduced F-16, Rorive was deemed too old to attend the F-16 conversion course and soon thereafter became an instructor pilot in the Alpha Jet. He went on to become the Commander of 7th Squadron while flying the Alpha jet before instructing NATO pilots in the T-37 Tweet at Sheppard AFB, TX as part of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Flying Training program from 1996-1999. After returning to Belgium he continued to instruct student pilots, but on the Marchetti SF260 this time.
A case of what some would call divine intervention occurred in March 2001 when, almost having reached the age limit for a Major (as a pilot if you have not progressed past the rank of Major by age 50, you have to retire) Paul was set to retire from the BAF at the same time the BAF was looking for an experienced pilot to become supervisor of Fouga operations. At the end of 2001, he volunteered to continue the tradition of having a Fouga Magister Solo display for "just one more year." At that time, the Fouga's were planned for retirement at the end of 2002. Rorive said,"I saw the opportunity to live my dream." Since he was the last Instructor Pilot for the Fouga and the Fouga's were prolonged year after year, he was given the opportunity to stay in the active reserve and then be brought back to continue as the Demo pilot. Of course, during his extension he's been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
Rorive exudes enthusiasm for the Fouga Magister, but even more so for flying in general. There's no doubt why he was chosen to be the Fouga Magister Solo Display pilot for the Belgium Air Component, nor in the fact that he has developed such a great relationship, often stretching across borders and transcending language barriers with the airshow attending public. Helping his popularity is the fact that he speaks French, Flemish and English equally well. The one-year extension in 2002 has stretched into five years (2006 being the 5th). For each of the past four years, there was serious discussion of retiring the Fouga from service, its saving grace being the popularity of the aircraft with the public and, more importantly, with the high-ranking officers who also share the opportunity to fly the six remaining Fougas' with Rorive. These high-ranking staff officers use the Fouga to maintain flight currency by taking the jet airborne for a few hours periodically. Paul Rorive, the last Fouga IP, instructs all. For the Fouga, it's good to have friends in high places.
Another item that sets the Fouga Magister Solo Display apart from the others is the use of a puppet to thrill the kids and adults alike. Because of the aircrafts "Whistling Turtle" nickname, turtles have been a popular item with the crews. Rorive started taking the stuffed animals along with him during airshows to add a little more flavor to his act. The current puppet used by Rorive is named Franklin and is from a popular TV cartoon. Now Paul has a number of turtle puppets to choose from to take with him during his flights. Usually Franklin appears from nowhere to suddenly bask in the spotlight as the crowds watch Paul taxi the jet to the runway and then as he returns to park again.
This year two things have been added to the jets and their performance to make each airshow a memorable one. Both Fouga Magister display jets have received special markings for their final airshow season. The markings are additions to the Red Devils scheme already applied to the jets and include the emblems of all the operators of the Fouga within Belgium service. Each Training Wing emblem, the Red Devils emblem, and each squadron emblem have been painted beneath the cockpits on both sides of the fuselage. The wingtip tanks have added color as well. The colors of the Belgium flag stream from the silhouette of a Fouga Magister. The tip-tanks are finished off with the Fougas' dates of service to the BAF:1960-2006. The final touch to this commemorative scheme is the placement of 249,000 + hours markings on both sides of the fuselage between the wings and the upturned V-tail. The hours represent the total accumulated flight hours of the Fouga fleet in BAF service. Sadly, the hallmark 250,000-hour mark will not be reached as there are less than 600 total remaining hours available in the entire fleet of 6 flyable aircraft.
Added markings aren't the only thing that will set this year's show apart. There will be a two aircraft fly-by and limited formation maneuvers flown with Rorives' most senior Staff Officer, Lieutenant General "Pedro" Buyse at select air show events . Both of the Fouga aircraft now sport special markings indicating their formation position beneath the left side of each aircrafts front cockpit. This is exactly the way the Red Devils used to have their markings and formation position indicated during their heyday. So, now look for two Fouga Magisters to be airborne at certain airshow events throughout Europe!
Special thanks to LtC Paul Rorive, Col. Pierre "Léo" Leonard (chase pilot), Adjutant Peter Dewael of IPR COMOPS-Media Relations, 1st Sgt. William Peeters, Mr. Gerard Gaudin, and especially the Belgium Defense Minister, Honorable Andre Flahaut.