RNLAF ceases F-16 operations from Leeuwarden

After 42 years, the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) has ended Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM (MLU) Fighting Falcon multi-role fighter operations from Leeuwarden Air Base in Friesland.

On July 5, without any formal ceremony, the final Fighting Falcons from No 322 Squadron departed Leeuwarden, performing a brief flypast over the installation before heading to their new home. The flight comprised four F-16AMs – serials J-871 (callsign ‘Polly 1’); J-628 (callsign ‘Polly 2’); J-509 (callsign ‘Polly 3’) and J-144 (callsign ‘Polly 4’). Following a flight which included flybys over Woensdrect, Gilze-Rijen and Eindhoven air bases, the four fighters landed at their new home at Volkel.

Final RNLAF F-16 departure from Leeuwarden 05-07-21 [Vliegbasis Leeuwarden]
Royal Netherlands Air Force-operated F-16AM - serial J-871, specially painted to mark the end of 42 years of operations by the type from Leeuwarden - powers off the runway in full afterburner for the final time as it departs for its new home at Volkel on July 5, 2021. Vliegbasis Leeuwarden

One of the four F-16AMs – serial J-871 – had earlier been applied with special markings with ‘Frisian Dragon’ tail colours and appropriate titles to mark the end of F-16 operations at Leeuwarden. This including the lettering ‘1979-2021’ and ‘Last Flight F-16 Leeuwarden’ on the fin, together with the badges of the base’s former resident squadrons on the strakes under the rear fuselage. The ‘Polly’ callsigns are in reference to No 322 Squadron’s mascot, a grey parrot, which is also incorporated in the unit badge.

Initial plans intended for the aircraft to depart Leeuwarden on July 1 with a ceremonial departure, but a ground accident involving a Belgian Air Component-operated F-16AM – serial FA-130 – at the Dutch base led to all flying operations being cancelled. Due to this, the final departure was rescheduled to a later day and was thus much more low-key. While the July 5 departures were officially the final RNLAF F-16 flights from the Friesland base; two other aircraft, comprising F-16AM – serial J-201 – and F-16BM – serial J-066 – currently remain there.

The first F-16 arrived at Leeuwarden on June 7, 1979. On June 22, 2021 – prior to the type’s final departure from the base – three of its resident Fighting Falcons performed a farewell flight to say ‘goodbye’ to Friesland and the Frisian population, with flypasts over 11 cities in the area.

Leeuwarden will now concentrate its focus on building up the RNLAF’s Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter operations, while preparing for its first General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9A Block 5 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

As part of this restructuring, No 322 Squadron will now solely become and F-35A unit – having already taken delivery of ten examples of the new multi-role fighter to date, with the most recent being serial F-018 (c/n AN-18), which was handed over on May 28, 2021. Meanwhile, No 302 Squadron will soon begin to receive the RNLAF’s four MQ-9A Block 5 Reapers, the first of which was rolled out by GA-ASI in the US on July 7, 2021.

The remaining RNLAF F-16s will continue to operate from Volkel until mid-2024. While F-16s will occasionally return to Leeuwarden for exercises, they will no longer be permanently based there – marking the end of an era for the base’s history.