Dutch Drakens

Frank Visser and Ludo Mennes detail the first deployment of L-159s to Europe by American company Draken International


Frank Crebas/Bluelife Aviation

This year, Draken International fiew four of its Aero L-159E ALCAs across the Atlantic to take part in the Fighter Weapons Instructor Training (FWIT) course at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands as Red Air in the aggressor role. Dutch company Skyline Aviation played an important part in the exercise.

Skyline Aviation

Skyline Aviation has been towing targets for the Koninklijke Marine (Royal Netherlands Navy) for 25 years. It started business with a rented Aero L-39 based at Den Helder Air Station after it won its first contract. Kim Olde Bijvank, director and co-owner of Skyline Aviation, flies the L-39, as well as the company’s Learjet 36A. He said: “The first year of operation we fiew only 15 hours and the second year this increased to 100 flying hours, which gave me the feeling, as a pioneer in the business, that we were on the right track.” The company has slowly gained a reputation for providing highperformance aircraft support to the military. It has moved from Den Helder to Groningen Eelde Airport and now owns two L-39s and a Learjet 36A and employs its own pilots, engineering and support personnel. The company has greatly increased its areas of expertise and now, besides the original target-towing, offers electronic warfare training, communications jamming, radar calibration, Joint Terminal Attack Controller training and other scenarios requiring flying platforms. The customer base has grown, too, and in addition to the Navy now includes the Dutch Army and Air Force, as well as industry in the Netherlands and customers in Europe.

Cooperation with Draken International

The demand for services like those provided by Skyline Aviation has grown enormously in recent years. One of the attractions for the military is that by using a contractor to provide training, valuable frontline assets can be used for their primary tasks while aircrews still maintain their proficiency levels. Another important benefit is that this training is achieved at a lower cost. For example, the German Bundeswehr uses several contractors, including German company GFD, which uses 14 Learjet 35A and 36As from Hohn Air Base and the Canadian Discovery Air Defence was awarded a contract in early 2014 to fly seven A-4Ns from Wittmund Air Base. In the United States, Draken International, which has its headquarters at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Florida, is the biggest contractor, with more than 70 jets, the world’s largest commercial fieet of ex-military aircraft. Draken focuses mainly on the supply of air-to-air training, carrying out the role of aggressor or Red Air. The company is now a vital part of US military training and is a regular participant in Exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where it shares the Red Air role with the F-16s of the US Air Forces’s 64th Aggressor Squadron. It bases a number of its A-4 Skyhawks and Aero L-159E ALCAs at Nellis. Besides the air-to-air role, Draken International also carries out air-to-ground, fieet missile defence and air-to-air refuelling training. As part of its growth plan, the company sees a role for itself beyond the United States. It first worked with the Koninkijke Luchtmacht (KLU or Royal Netherlands Air Force) in 2015, when A-4Ks trained with KLU F-16s and the Netherland’s first two F-35As at Edwards Air Force Base. That same year, Draken International approached Skyline Aviation to discuss Draken acting as Red Air during the FWIT course run at the KLU’s Leeuwarden Air Base. The FWIT course is based on the US Air Force Weapons Officer training run by the Weapons School at Nellis, and is managed by 322 Tactical Training Evaluation and Standardisation Squadron at Leeuwarden. This year, pilots from the four European Participating Air Forces group of F-16 operators – Belgium, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands – plus Portugal took part.

Ludo Mennes

Kim Olde Bijvank Director explained: “To us it was a dead certainty that we would lead the project for FWIT. Draken International would provide the aircraft and pilots and we would take care of the rest.” Deals were made with Draken International whereby Skyline would accept full responsibility as a contracting party. The aim was to take part in the 2016 FWIT, but as it turned out things couldn’t be arranged until 2017. Because Draken International’s aircraft are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a deployment outside the United States for military purposes required a letter of authorisation from the FAA. Skyline Aviation had to comply with certain Dutch regulations, too, and sought the authority of the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) and the Military Aviation Authority (MAA). Skyline Aviation’s L-39s had previously been registered in Estonia, but the new contract required them to bear American civil registrations; the Learjet was already registered in the United States. One of Skyline’s L-39 pilots fiew to the United States to qualify on the L-159E ALCA; all missions flown by Draken during FWIT had a Skyline Aviation pilot taking part. It took 18 months to set everything up, but eventually the ILT and the MAA issued a temporary release to Skyline Aviation permitting its participation in FWIT. Kim Olde Bijvank: “Since we were the contract partner of the KLU, we undertook to do the tender. After obtaining the assignment we arranged all kinds of matters, such as the fly-over permissions.” During FWIT, Skyline Aviation supplied two ground crew engineers, a pilot and Kim Olde Bijvank as chief of operations. The L-159E cannot be refuelled in the air, so the transit to the Netherlands was planned to comprise seven or eight stages, dependent on the weather conditions. The four jets took off from Nellis Air Force Base on June 20, 2017, planning to fly to the US east coast and then Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the UK. Having landed safely at Leeuwarden on June 22, they fiew daily Red Air missions for the next three weeks, simulating various types of aircraft. Former US Air Force pilot Lt Col Jerry Kerby, Vice President (Operations) of Draken International, told AIR International: “We simulated different types of aircraft like the Fitter and the Flanker and so delivered Red Air training for one fifth of the normal costs.” All four virtually brand-new Aero L-159Es simulate modern air-to-air missiles. These highly capable aircraft constitute an advanced threat, equipped as they are with Leonardo’s GRIFO-L pulse-Doppler radar, Sky Guardian 200 radar warning receivers, and Thales Vicon 78 Series 455 countermeasures dispensing system. The ALCAs left for home using the same route on July 14.

Evaluation and future plans

The KLU as well as Skyline Aviation and Draken International were satisfied with the outcome of the FWIT. Jerry Kerby said: “We are very pleased with the outcome and have provided the Red Air assets FWIT asked for.” Kim Olde Bijvank added: “The participation in FWIT has turned out to be even more positive than we had anticipated. Especially the accuracy in carrying out the Red Air missions and the added value for the 16 pilots taking part in FWIT has been an eyeopener for the KLU. This trial was important for us to find out which future assignments could be interesting and what kind of obstacles there could possibly be.” Although the deployment appears to have been a successful test for the three participants, it is not known if there will be a follow-up in 2019. The supervisor of FWIT will communicate his findings to the KLU command and if they are enthusiastic a new tender may be submitted. Kim Olde Bijvank said: “I am interested in delivering a product, not in flying. If you do not deliver in time there will be no place for you in this business. Together with Draken International we have shown to be the party for such assignments.” Now fielding credible fourth-generation capabilities, Skyline Aviation is convinced it can meet the growing demand for contracted air services. Both parties would like to extend their portfolios in Europe and the opportunities are there with new contracts expected to be on offer in the near future.

Ludo Mennes