Why the airfield was constructed
By joining the Brussels Treaty Organization, which later became the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Belgium had to invest large amounts of money to get its armed forces back on level, compared to other member states. In 1951, two years after NATO saw the light of day, the Belgian government spent tremendous budgets on its Defence. As a matter of fact, a couple of years later, Belgium would be in possession of over 500 fighter aircraft.
The reason Bertrix was constructed, alongside Weelde, Ursel, Saint-Hubert and Brecht, was twofold: first, all the newly purchased equipment needed somewhere to be stocked and maintained. Second, being in the middle of the Cold War, SACEUR (the Supreme Allied Commander in EURope), General Eisenhower, had developed a plan to maximize the dispersion of military assets. This way, should an attack from the Warsaw pact members (Eastern Bloc) ever take place, NATO would not be crippled after the raids. Although initially Bertrix was not part of his plan, it needed to replace the airfield of Stuttgart (West Germany), which was in fact a civilian airport.
As the SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) resolution was accepted by NATO in 1956, construction works started on various locations. Bertrix, whose construction works only started later, was officially completed on 29th August 1958, by the signing of the Belgo-Canadian agreement for the use of St-Hubert and Bertrix airfields by the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force).
Later, as NATO standardized runway dimensions, Bertrix was adapted to meet these requirements: construction works went on to lengthen the runway to its required 2400m. NATO later demanded that operational airfields be 3300m long. However not applicable to reserve airfields, Bertrix was once again lengthened by 200m on each side, brining its total length to 2800m.
As the main construction works of the airfield were completed, flight operations quickly became possible. Although the POL (Petroleum, Oil, Lubricant) and ammunition facilities were not constructed yet, which prevented Bertrix from being used operationally, the RCAF deployed 422 Sqn, operating the Canadair F-86 Sabre, together with sixteen security detachments.
The airbase was regularly used as DOB (Deployed Operating Base) by the RCAF, even after they had traded in the Sabre for the CF-104 Starfighter in 1963.
Three years later, in 1966, as General Charles de Gaulle ordered foreign troops to leave France, the RCAF was forced to leave Bertrix. They provided a one-year notice to the Belgian government, during which they would cease flying operations and reduce their security forces, but continue maintaining the airfield. After the last Canadian troop left the premises, the airfield was returned to the Belgian armed forces.
The end of the Cold War
Although other long-term deployments of flying units in Bertrix were inexistent, the airbase has continued to be upgraded throughout the years.
In 1991, the US Army constructed an ammunition depot, on the eastern side of the airfield. Consisting of 270 so-called igloos, over an area of 236 hectares. In 1994, the depot was returned to the Belgian armed forces. It is nowadays managed by the 260th ammunitions company (260 Cie Mun), based in an army camp a few hundred meters south of the airfield. They are responsible for the management and maintenance of most of the Belgian and part of the Luxembourgish armed forces' weapons. 40 of these bunkers are dedicated to the storage of the ammunition of the Belgian Air Force.
A military railroad connects the airfield to the national railway network, facilitating the transportation of ammunition to the different army camps and air or naval bases around the country.
Nowadays, the airfield is still an important asset in the Belgian Air Force's inventory. Chiefly used for training today, helicopter units often deploy to Bertrix for NVG (Night-Vision Goggles) training, as it is situated in the Ardennes where cultural lighting is less of a nuisance. Airlift platforms, such as the A400M, occasionally train tactical landings, under the control of tactical ATC, and the special forces group organize all kinds of exercises on site.
Operations by the RBAC
In Bertrix, the Belgian Air Cadets only operate during the summer holidays. Usually, three camps of three weeks each. The aim is to let second year cadets get acquainted with a towed take-off by one of our Piper SuperCubs, instead of a winched launch. Elder cadets are to fine-tune their flying skills, obtain various flying awards, obtain their sailplane pilot license (SPL) and assist the younger cadets in their training.
Bertrix is also an important asset for the Air Cadets, as spreading its activities over multiple bases in Belgium is required for noise abatement considerations. Furthermore, everything is put in place to minimize the noise impact on the local population, for as long as flight safety is guaranteed.
Incidents in the weapon depot
On 1st July 2011, a crate of mortar fuses was dropped in one of the bunkers, resulting in a minor explosion. Two persons were lightly injured and precautionarily transported to the local hospital of Libramont.
On 24th April 2018, a more serious accident occurred in the weapon shop during maintenance works on a LAW (Light Anti-tank Weapon). As the propellant ignited, the rocket was launched. Fortunately, the warhead was deactivated, resulting in the weapon burying itself in the concrete wall of the hangar. One person was severely injured and required surgical intervention, three more were only slightly injured.
Both events did not hamper Air Cadet operations, as the weapon storage and maintenance facilities are situated at a significant distance from the RBAC installations and safely surrounded by revetments.
Aerodrome Reference Point (ARP): N49°53'30" E005°13'26".
Aerodrome elevation: 1,503 ft.
Geoid undulation: 155 ft.
Runway heading (QFU): 06/24 - 060°M/240°M.
Runway dimensions (main runway): 2825x45m.
Sources: L'Avion, CAHS Montréal, 2021; Wikimedia; Sabre picture by Ray Morrison; 422 Sqn website.