Frank Visser and Ludo Mennes visited the Forum Group to find out about the growth and ambitions of an organisation that provides support for both military and civil customers
PARAPUBLIC FORUM GROUP
In 2005, a unique company was established in the south of the Netherlands: unique because it has a direct link with civil aviation as well as the armed forces.
Stef Have, Chief Executive Officer and founder of the Forum Group and Michel Versteeg, Chief Operating Officer, shareholder of Forum Group and director of AEC Air Support, have known each other since they were both AH-64D Apache pilots with 301 Squadron of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (KLu, Royal Netherlands Air Force) based at Gilze-Rijen.
During a barbecue and enjoying a beer, they hit upon the idea of setting up the Forum Group. They developed the idea while focusing on creating a location where various disciplines could come together to reach their business goals. As both had a military background and expertise in aviation, it was obvious that the various disciplines should be in those fields.
At the start, in 2005, the Forum Group’s main priority was the development of real estate. In 2008, they submitted a bid on a tender for the ownership of the Dutch airfield of Seppe, situated to the west of Breda. The Forum Group won the bid and became the new owner of the entire airfield and thus responsible for its exploitation and contracting.
Among the criteria of the tender were the development of innovative real estate concepts, new office buildings, increasing the number of flights and expanding the business market to become profitable – an enormous challenge that was successfully accomplished during the years of the Dutch real estate crisis.
Seppe Airfield underwent a metamorphosis and became Breda International Airport. New development of detached offices and hangars were built on the south side of the airfield, resulting in growth of the commercial market and thus an increase in flight movements. Nowadays, Breda International Airport is one of the few profitable airports in the Netherlands.
In the last few years the Forum Group has expanded. More companies have become part of the group or been created by it, while the group has also obtained the representation for several other companies to market and use their products. Three businesses, all strongly linked with aviation, are AEC Air Support, Skyline Aviation and Southern Cross International.
AEC Air Support
AEC Air Support specialises in supporting private and government institutions. It supplies support for operations such as tactical air transport and airborne sensing and assistance with military training. Expertise, an extensive network and a broad assortment of options, offers the potential to achieve an optimum result in an efficient way.
For tactical air support, AEC Air Support has at its disposal the only Lockheed Martin L382G-30 Hercules registered in Europe.
This aircraft is extremely suitable for carrying out drops of goods and parachutists and transporting freight and people in more demanding operational areas. Airborne sensing missions are carried out with a number of aircraft, which can be equipped with different sensors to provide for military support, surveillance, law enforcement, environmental monitoring, infrastructure inspection, TV broadcasting and aerial photography.
Last, AEC Air Support assists in military training, for instance by supporting UAV operations with a Stemme S15. This manned aircraft is equipped with an L3 Wescam MX-15 sensor module and together with a mobile ground station, which can operate the camera from the ground, the aircraft is able to simulate a UAV.
Training in Europe is costly and complicated due to national legislation and regulations and the limited availability of unmanned systems. By employing this surrogate UAV, very realistic training can be carried out within those national regulations. AEC Air Support has recently sold two Stemme S15s, equipped with L3 Wescam MX-15s and a ground station, to the Polish government to be deployed by the Polish Border Guard for border control.
Michel Versteeg told AIR International: “The market for these platforms is relatively small, but it just shows that we can operate in such a niche market.”
AEC Air Support also supplies aircraft for close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role. Versteeg said: “You have to train as you work. We lend support to our contractor and, when using our services, they should not notice that they are working with a civil company. We have to be a 100% interoperable. We work in the same way and with the same systems as our customer. We deliver turnkey solutions.”
With decades of experience, Skyline Aviation provides high-performance aircraft support to government and corporate clients. The Managing Director of the company is Kim Olde Bijvank, who said: “We offer tailor-made solutions in electronic warfare training, joint terminal attack controller [JTAC] training, target towing, radar calibration and sensor with video downlink services.”
Skyline Aviation also provides aerial assets for in-flight testing of advanced technology for a number of renowned research institutes such as the TNO (the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) and companies, such as Thales. Based at Groningen Airport Eelde in the north of the Netherlands, Skyline Aviation operates a variety of air assets and has conducted operations in Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean for over 25 years.
The company became part of the Forum Group in 2010 and nowadays has its own fleet of two Aero Vodochody L-39ZOs and a Learjet 36A together with pilots, engineering and support personnel. The company’s personnel are highly qualified and many of them have a military background; a number of the pilots are former F-16 pilots from the KLu.
Olde Bijvank said: “This is necessary, because they have the relevant operational experience to conduct the missions for our clients.”
The L-39ZOs are regularly deployed for the training of JTAC personnel. The requirement for quality training has increased and the KLu cannot provide for it, as just 5% of its F-16 operations are committed to supplying close air support. The Skyline Aviation L-39ZOs are deployed to ill the gap. Equipped with the L3 Wescam MX-10 or MX-15 sensors, JTAC personnel can train the procedures in a very realistic way, known today as digital advanced close air support. Skyline Aviation also supplies, via AEC Air Support, lifelike, inflatable, full-size targets such as the T-72 tank and SA- 8, a mobile short-range surface-to-air missile system against low-altitude flying aircraft.
In addition to air-to-ground, they have specialised in the air-to-air role, also known as Red Air. Years of austerity have caused a scarcity of air assets, but the need for air assets for various training goals has increased while the need for well-trained fighter pilots has not decreased. Besides a considerable cost reduction, the advantage of deploying a contractor is that your own assets will not be committed to training, so they can be deployed for other goals.
In 2015, Draken International approached Skyline Aviation with the idea to examine Draken’s participation as Red Air in the Fighter Weapons Instructor Training (FWIT) course at Leeuwarden Air Base. The FWIT course design is based on the US Air Force weapons officer training conducted at the Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and is executed by 322 Tactical Training Evaluation and Standardisation Squadron at Leeuwarden.
Olde Bijvank explained: “To us it was a dead certainty that we would lead the project of FWIT. Draken International would provide the aircraft and pilots and we would take care of the rest.” During FWIT, Skyline Aviation provided support in the form of two ground crew engineers, a pilot and Olde Bijvank as chief of operations, and Draken International supplied four L-159E ALCAs.
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 F-16 pilots of FWIT has been an eye-opener 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. Together with Draken International, we have shown to be the partner for such assignments.”
Skyline’s two L-39ZOs will be upgraded from analogue to digital; one has already been equipped with a glass cockpit and the second will follow soon. Since the aircraft often operate at low altitudes and so are at a higher risk of suffering a bird strike, the aircraft have an armoured canopy. Eventually, the use of night-vision goggles will make the L-39 it for night missions, which can already be flown by the Learjet.
Olde Bijvank said: “We could buy extra aircraft, but only if we achieve 300 flying hours per aircraft per year can a business plan be drawn up. Flying is of minor importance; using a system as effectively as possible is much more important.” Though 2017 was a great year, Olde Bijvank expects there will be even more flying hours this year.
Southern Cross International
In 2016, the Forum Group acquired Southern Cross International and, more recently, the McMinnville, Oregon-based Southern Cross America. Based at Breda International Airport, Southern Cross International provides services such as ferry lights, redelivery acceptance lights as part of lease agreements, airline training, experimental test lights, special mission operations and light operations support.
Its customers are airlines, financial institutions, leasing companies and maintenance organisations that need repositioning of their aircraft or a functional check light after maintenance or as part of a purchase or lease agreement. Southern Cross has the technical expertise and experience to conduct these services. In addition, government agencies, original equipment manufacturers and research establishments make use of tailored services.
One of the main services of the company is carrying out worldwide ferry lights of new and used airliners. A good example was the ferry light of the former Dutch government Fokker 70 PH-KBX (c/n 11547), which had been in service for more than 20 years and was flown to its new owner in Australia in August 2017. It took the Southern Cross crew five days to complete the ferry flight before arriving in Brisbane, the aircraft making fuel stops in the United Arab Emirates, india, Malaysia and indonesia en route. In Australia, the Fokker 70 was handed over to Alliance Airlines, which now operates it as a VIP aircraft with the Australian registration VH-KBX.
Stef Have told AIR International: “For the future, we will have to specialise further in the support of air-to-ground and air-to-air missions. Air-to-ground will remain our base and further growth is viable. As far as air-to-air is concerned we will have to determine if we can do this on our own or by co-operating with partners such as Draken International.”
This will depend on customer demand. The growing demand for Red Air is evident, but the Dutch market is too small, so the Forum Group will have to focus on Europe.
This will be complicated, as each European country still enforces its own laws and regulations to a large extent. Moreover, there will be a greater demand for more modern Red Air aircraft with the F-35 being a fifth-generation aircraft The present L-39s (generation two) do not meet these requirements and so generation three or four aircraft will have to be bought to reach the level of training required for the F-35. One could consider the ‘obsolete’ F-16, which with its speed and radar system can simulate aircraft such as the Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35, for this role.
Michel Versteeg said: “To service the market at its optimum [level], Skyline Aviation will merge with AEC Air Support before the end of this year.”
In addition, the Forum Group will focus on agencies/representations. One of the companies the Forum Group represents as an agent is the aforementioned L3 Wescam, a company that produces a broad range of communication, electronic and sensor systems, such as the MX-10 and MX-15 multisensors used by military, security forces and commercial platforms for airborne surveillance and reconnaissance and SAR missions, and that can be mounted on fixedwing and rotary-wing aircraft and UAVs.
Technological developments happen rapidly and systems quickly become obsolete. A major development is the linking of various networks. Different networks used to work at different frequencies; nowadays the focus is on one frequency that can process a gigantic quantity of data very quickly.
Versteeg said: “We are innovative by connecting new systems to existing systems to assist the client with the development of this concept. We understand the need of the end-user and can show this as well.”
The Forum Group supplies the hardware as well as the software to customers, and before they proceed to purchasing, they can try out the products via the Forum Group. Thus, the Dutch Ministry of Defence has opted for various L3 Wescam systems recently.
The Forum Group certainly does not lack the ambition to grow and according to Versteeg more acquisitions will likely follow.
The Forum Group will remain committed to strengthening its market position further.