Why build an airfield?
As a reaction to the Cold War, in 1949, 12 countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty, resulting in the creation of NATO. To prove their commitment, member states had to bring their armed forces up to level. Huge financial investments were made by the Belgian government in 1951: Defence's budget was 23 billion Belgian francs (BEF); three years later, its air force would operate over 500 fighter aircraft. To quench the logistical requirements for the exponential growth in aircraft numbers, the government also decided to construct seven new airfields: Weelde, Bertrix, Ursel, Saint-Hubert, Brecht, Saint-Vith and Bastogne. The latter two were never constructed. One year later, construction works started in Weelde. Its position was chosen to be near the local railway station (still known to date as 'Weelde Statie'), and with minimal impact on the local population regarding expropriations.
In 1952, SA Garnier, a construction company from Brussels, proved to be the cheapest in the public tender for the construction of Weelde: they foresaw a cost of 63,9 million BEF, and agreed to finishing the works in under 150 days. Eventually, construction works took twice as long. Time stamps, still visible today, on various concrete pads are reminiscent of the construction works: most indicate a date between 1952 and 1954. Later constructed areas, such as the weapon and kerosene storage facilities, go as far as 1957.
First flight operations
On 16th March 1953, J. Van der Biest, pilot in 27 Sqn of Kleine-Brogel, was flying a Thunderjet F-84G for an air-combat training mission. Due to the bad visibility that day, the leader of the flight got lost. Besides, Van der Biest's aircraft had a technical issue leading to being short on fuel. As Van der Biest saw an airstrip below him, and knowing his fuel was nearly exhausted, he elected to take the chance and dove to the airfield to land the plane.
As Van der Biest was approaching the airfield, he observed a concrete mixer halfway through the runway and some vehicles at the beginning. Wheels on the ground, he slammed the brakes and came to a timely complete stop. He had unknowingly landed on the airfield of Weelde, still under construction, and marked the first flight of the airbase.
The brand new airfield was intensively used in the late 50's. As Kleine-Brogel was suffering from major concrete issues, its squadrons numerously deployed to Weelde. Besides, due to NATO's new plans and standards, the airfield required additional construction works: three kerosene pits (one of which was never constructed) with corresponding pumping station, a weapon storage facility, a Wing Operations Centre (WOC), two squadron buildings and two fixed maintenance hangars. On top of that, an approach lighting system and a VDF-station were installed and the runway was extended by 275 meters on each end, bringing its total length to 2990 meters.
As of the early 60's, the airfield assumes more a role of reserve airfield. Numerous exercises and deployments are still organized throughout the years, but the airbase is all but continuously staffed.
Glider flying in Weelde
In 1964, a request is formulated for the Belgian Air Cadets to operate on the airfield of Weelde. As the association already operated on the airbase of Zoersel/Oostmalle (EBZR) since 1961, no objections were formulated.
As from day one, a winch was used in Weelde to launch the gliders in the air. Their first was a single-drum, 110 hp, machine. No lodging was possible until 1966: cadets and staff were brought from Oostmalle to Weelde by military road transport on a daily basis. The Air Cadets' camps in Weelde went international as five Turkish air cadets participated to a 14 day internship, in the context of the International Air Cadet's Exchange in 1986.
In 1972, the Kempische Aeroclub (KAC) was formed and its by-laws published in the National Gazette. The Belgian Air Force agreed the KAC would operate gliders on the airfield and use the barracks that were not in use by the Cadets.
The end of the Cold War
In 1989, the POMCUS-programme (Prepositioning of Overseas Material Configured to Unit Sets) led to the construction of a hangar complex on the northern side of the airfield. These were managed by the United States, and served as strategic storage on various European reserve airfields.
As the Cold War came to an end in 1991 and the focus shifted to the Middle-East (First Gulf War), the contents of the POMCUS storage facilities were moved closer to the conflict theatre and the hangars were taken over by the hosting nation. The facility of Weelde remained the property of Belgian Defence and served as storage for its excessive military equipment: from army tanks to 'cocooned' fighter jets such as the F-16 and the Mirage.
During the early 21st century, many various national and international military and non-military exercises were organized on and around the airfield: from makeshift field hospitals to riot control training centers, from police high-speed driving exercises to international COMAOs (COMbined Air Operations) with Patriot-site GBAD (Ground-Based Air Defense).
Weelde is still being used for many various smaller exercises throughout the year (airlift, paratroopers, special forces, etc.), but lacks the bigger national and international interest. The main activities that are organized on a regular basis are the Belgian Air Cadets' camps and the flying operations of both civil aeroclubs (KAC and VZA) that have obtained a concession from the Belgian Defence to use the airfield.
Operations by the RBAC
Easter flying camp
During the Easter holidays, usually around April, second year flight cadets come to Weelde to refresh their flying skills and be ready for the start of the next flying season. Despite some rustiness at the beginning, flying skills are regained pretty quickly: one could say that flying is like riding a bike.
The aim for the cadets during this camp is to fly solo again and, should the weather allow it, practice thermalling and obtain their "C-badge" (an uninterrupted solo flight of at least one hour).
At the term of the Easter flying camp, five flying weekends are organized in Weelde. They are open for all cadets except first year aspirant cadets. The aim is to maintain some continuity in flying and keep everyone's skills on level. No weekends are scheduled in the month of June, as cadets need to focus on their scholar exams.
In the month of September and October, five more weekends are organized for the same reasons as described above. These weekends are open for all members, including the aspirant cadets that have just performed their first solo flight.
During the month of June, while cadets should be focusing on their exams, a two-week camp is organized in Weelde for staff only. The aim here is to teach experienced glider pilots how to instruct, share experiences and focus on cross-country flying with more seasoned instructor pilots. By the end of the camp, they should have finished their practical training as flight instructors.
During the summer holidays, three camps of three weeks are organized in Weelde. All cadets, except second year flight cadets who will be learning to fly behind a tow plane in Bertrix, are invited. The main objective is to learn the new aspirant cadets how to fly a glider and make them perform their first solo flight. Elder cadets are expected to fine-tune their skills, obtain their sailplane pilot licence (SPL) and assist the youngsters in their training.
During World War II and the construction of the airfield, a couple of archeological finds were made. On the airfield, mainly graves of peoples of the Bronze Age were discovered (1500 BC). In the southern part of the base, some objects were dated back to the Mesolithic (5000 BC). Thousands of artefacts were collected throughout the years.
In 1990, a major outbreak of swine fever occurred in Belgium. Every time an infection was detected, all pigs in a 1km radius around the source needed to be exterminated. The sole firm in the country able to process the cadavers was overwhelmed by the nation-wide demand. As the outbreak tremendously worsened, mayor Jef Segers approved the incineration of local pigs on the airfield as an emergency solution to stop the virus from spreading. A ditch was dug and about 4,000 pigs were cremated in the month of August. The burning happened in close-coordination with meteorological services to limit the impact on the environment. By the end of August, the outbreaks reduced and became manageable for the disposal firm, ending all open-air incinerations in Belgium.
To date, the effects of this event are still visible: the resulting release of phosphorous and calcium in the ground has a virtuous effect on the meager vegetation. Around runway 07 (western side of the airfield), one can observe a greener turf, compared to other parts of the airfield.
Controlled destruction of UXO
On 19 May 2014, a family in Baarle-Hertog found an unexploded ordnance (UXO) from World War II in their garden. The Belgian bomb disposal service brought the device to the airfield of Weelde, dug it in and brought it to a controlled explosion. Although the bomb only contained a warhead of 5kg, the explosion dug a crater of a whopping 2m deep and 5m across.
Aerodrome Reference Point (ARP): N51°23'39" E004°57'33".
Aerodrome elevation: 97 ft.
Geoid undulation: 146 ft.
Runway heading (QFU): 07/25 - 068°M/248°M.
Runway dimensions (main runway): 2980x45m.
Sources: 60 Jaar Vliegen in Weelde, A. Jansens & D. Jansens, 2014; Bom Gevonden in Tommelshof, Het Nieuwsblad, 2014.