The Belgian Air Force celebrates the 80th anniversary of the 349th Squadron
authors: Benoit Denet & Martin Gillet
On November 3rd at Kleine-Brogel (KB, EBBL)AFB the F-16 “FA-116” was unveiled with a stunning decoration to celebrate the 80th anniversary of this famous Belgian squadron.
After a training flight accompanied by 6 other F-16s, the FA-116 came in formation with a Spitfire MkXVI for a few overflights over the squadron area.
The current squadron consists of 19 people supporting the 13 pilots. The squadron shares KB base with 31 Sqn “Tiger” and the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) that trains Belgian pilots on F-16s.
The 349 Sqn was born in November 1942, a year after the 350 Sqn. These two squadrons, consisting mainly of Belgian personnel, were then still under the command of the Royal Air Force.
In December, the 18 Belgian pilots left the European continent with their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks for Africa, more precisely for Ikeja in Nigeria. After the victory in North Africa in May 1943, the squadron was returned to England.
The pilots flew Spitfires MKVb for their war missions over Europe. Later Spitfire MKIX were used to equip the squadron.
In 1944, during D-Day, the 349th Squadron went into combat against Third Reich planes. A total of 94 hours flight time was flown on June 6th.
A few months later, during the Battle of the Bulge and the German offensive, the squadron was again on the front lines in the Malmédy region and was confronted with Me 262 jets.
The squadron will then follow the advance of the Allied troops in Holland, Belgium and finally in Germany until May 1940. Along with its sister squadron, the 350th, all personnel relocated to Fassberg, Germany, as part of the 135th Squadron.
In 1946 the two Belgian squadrons returned home. They were now under Belgian command and stationed at Beauvechain. Pilots have the opportunity to fly on Spitfire MK XVI, and then XIV with a Griffon engine. In 1949, the 349th was the first Belgian squadron to fly a jet: the METEOR T7. From then on, the pilots within the First Fighter Wing devoted themselves to combat missions.
After flying various versions of the METEOR, pilots were given command of the Hawker Hunter 4 in 1957. The all-weather fighter role was assumed in 1958 with the arrival of the imposing two-seat Avro Canuck MK-5.
By June 1964, the 349th was fully operational with the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. The squadron pilots never let go of the controls of this elegant and very fast aircraft until the arrival of the F-16 in 1979. In 1981, the 349e was officially the first squadron to be certified within NATO for the General Dynamics F-16.
After the Cold War, 349e personnel took part in external missions to the former Yugoslavia in 1996 and then over Kosovo in 1998. With the arrival of the “upgraded” F-16 MLU (for Mid-Life Update) the squadron’s role is now multitasking with close air support, bombing raids and of course fighters.
The very long period of operations over Afghanistan begins in 2005 for six months, followed by a long period between 2008 and 2014 from the Kandahar base.
In 2011, six Belgian F-16s operating out of Greece will attack Libya during Operation Unified Protector.
According to the coalition formed by the US in 2014, F-16s are deployed in Jordan to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
These missions, alternating with Dutch F-16s, will end with a final deployment in 2021.
Currently, squadron personnel operate out of Lithuania for Amari air policing missions in Estonia.
As you can see, this Belgian squadron with a rich past meets the current challenges posed by the Russian threat on NATO’s Eastern Front. It is also looking to the future with the departure of personnel in 2023 to convert to the Lockheed Martin F-35A which Belgium will equip starting this year. In 2028, after almost half a century, the last F-16s will bid farewell to the Belgian skies. Long live the 349th and the ‘Chasse’!