Belgium grounds F-16 fleet due to engine concerns

Belgium has grounded its entire fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM (MLU) Fighting Falcon multi-role fighters, meaning that the nation’s air defence duties have now been temporarily taken over by the Netherlands.

The Belgian Air Component (BAC) revealed that it had grounded its sole fixed-wing combat aircraft fleet on March 9, citing that the move came after an F-16 “encountered engine problems” on February 11. During take-off, the Florennes-based aircraft (serial FA-118, c/n 6H-118) suffered a ‘nozzle burn through’ – a phenomenon in which pieces of the engine’s exhaust nozzle begin to melt and disintegrate due to high temperatures.

Belgian F-16AM (MLU) [Belgian Air Component via Facebook]
Belgium-operated Lockheed Martin F-16AM (MLU) Fighting Falcon - serial FA-118 (c/n 6H-118) - makes a precautionary landing at Florennes Air Base after encountering engine problems after take-off on February 11, 2021. Note that damage caused by the 'nozzle burn through' problem is visible on the starboard side of the aircraft's exhaust nozzle. Belgian Air Component via Facebook

After immediately landing, the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney F100 afterburning turbofan engine was removed and sent to the Patria Belgium Engine Center (BEC) – which maintains the powerplant – for inspection. The investigation revealed that the problem centred around a hinge pin, with the BAC adding that “an ongoing check of the entire fleet shows that a significant number of engines show similar phenomena.”

As a result, the BAC states that it was advised by Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney and the US Air Force to “take immediate corrective action and ground the remaining aircraft in order to carry out checks as soon as possible.” It added that the air arm values the “importance to the safety of the population and the crew and does not want to take unnecessary risks…

“The repair time is estimated at five working days per engine. However, there is a shortage [in] the market when it comes to spare parts… The Ministry of Defense is taking the necessary actions to provide the F-16s in operation with the necessary replacement engines. It is currently being investigated whether other nations have the same problem,” it said.

Belgian F-16AM (MLU) [USAF/Staff Sgt Greg Biondo]
A Belgian F-16AM (MLU) Fighting Falcon receives fuel from a USAF-operated McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Extender during a sortie over Afghanistan on February 27, 2012. USAF/Staff Sgt Greg Biondo

While Belgium’s fleet remains unavailable, quick reaction alert (QRA) duties for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (BENELUX) will be covered by F-16s operated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) from Volkel Air Base. Since 2017, the two nations have shared QRA duties, protecting the BENELUX airspace on a rotational basis. This is normally covered by two armed aircraft, which are on standby to respond to airspace violations within their area of responsibility (AoR) on a 24/7 basis.

AirForces Intelligence data states that Belgium operates a well-matured fleet of 40 single-seat F-16AM (MLU) Fighting Falcons and nine two-seat examples of the F-16BM (MLU) variant. The fleet entered operational service in the early-1980s, before undergoing a mid-life upgrade (MLU) process in the late-1990s.

The multi-role fighter will be replaced in Belgian service by a 34-strong fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters, with deliveries due to begin in 2023. However, the initial examples will not arrive in Belgium that year and will be operated from Luke Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona for air/ground crew training purposes. Belgium’s first F-35As will be operated under 2 Wing at Florennes Air Base and are scheduled to start arriving in-country from 2025.