CHIÈVRES, Belgium – The whir of a plane circling thousands of feet above accompanied the flutter of fabric as several members of the Belgian Special Forces Group parachuted out of a cloudless sky onto the grassy airfield at Chièvres Air Base March 1.
For the first time, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux and 424th Air Base Squadron – an Air Force element at the garrison – hosted the Belgian Defense Forces’ Paratroopers Training Center as they held training and qualification jumps for their paracommandos.
During most years, the training center personnel and their trainees would visit Arizona in the U.S., the south of France, Portugal or Africa to perform training jumps. COVID-19 prevention measures, however, made international travel more restrictive and required of the trainers and trainees long periods of quarantine both when arriving at their destination and when returning to Belgium.
By staying within Belgium, the group obviates the need to quarantine.
“It was our air force who proposed we come here because they did some training here because of some COVID restrictions,” said Capt. Bran Lambregt, the detachment commander for maneuver at the Paratrooper Training Center.
The training center at Schaffen Air Base in Flemish Brabant has training capabilities too, including cable-bound dirigibles from which trainees perform static-line jumps. To train in other aerial conditions they usually seek training opportunities outside of Belgium because of the country’s cloudier weather and more active airspace.
“Weather is a big limitation in Europe – western Europe,” said Lambregt. “The Belgian airspace or west European air space in general is pretty busy. So that takes a lot of coordination.”
Other considerations included the facilities from which the training would take place. Lambregt said their training group often worked with smaller hangar spaces and runways and landing zones some distance from where their aircraft would take off.
During their March 1 training at Chièvres, the group started by performing light jumps with just their parachute pack. On subsequent trainings, the group performed ops jumps, where they parachuted with 20-kilogram rucksacks attached.
“Parachuting is not fun like they do it,” said Willy Vets, one of the instructors who also jumped with the group he was training. “This is actually a means to an end.”
The Special Forces Group members received their briefing in one of the air base’s hangars, loaded onto their plane just outside and landed at their target a short walk from the hangar where they received their after-action review and repacked their parachutes.
“Here it’s one location,” Lambregt said. “It’s really beneficial for us.”
The training center and the Chièvres Air Base teams planned for three days of parachuting. They accomplished their training objectives, including evening and night jumps, in the one day instead.
Although members of the training team knew the air base existed, it still was a pleasant surprise to them.
“We thought this was an American air base, but actually it’s a Belgian air base run by Americans,” said Vets. “We’re happy to be here. It gives us more opportunities, more means – it is Belgium. You have a big air strip, so it’s possible in the future that there will be bigger birds landing here.”
Capt. Bart De Krock, the director of flight operations for his company, which is contracted by the Belgian military, flew a CASA C-212, a medium cargo turboprop aircraft. He was pleased with how the training was going.
“I had some expectations, and they’re already exceeded,” said De Krock of Chièvres Air Base. “It’s very nicely organized, and the people are super cooperative, always working toward solutions.”
The coordination was a team effort, which included the garrison’s Directorate of Emergency Services, who were on stand-by in case of any fires, and included the Public Affairs Office, who worked with host nation farmers, whose fields comprise a large portion of the airfield.
Furthermore, the Directorate of Public Works plays an active role maintaining the airfield both with day-to-day operational maintenance and life cycle replacement. For normal operational maintenance, DPW personnel sweep the runway to ensure it is clear of any debris, they cut the grass to reduce the number of birds out on the airfield, and when it snows they remove the snow. Larger life cycle repairs include repaving and work on the airfield lighting.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Christian Lora, airfield operations flight commander for the 424th Air Base Squadron, said he and the airfield operations team also coordinated with civil aviation authorities, specifically the Special Activities Coordination Cell of the Brussels Approach to ensure the airspace could be used.
This is not the first parachute training the airfield has hosted. The airfield has three drop zones, the most commonly used of which is the heavy equipment drop zone.
Lora said that the training March 1 was not just an opportunity for the members of the Belgian Special Forces Group to gain their qualification jumps, it was also a chance to see how well the U.S. Air Force and USAG Benelux operated with the Belgian military at the air base.
“This was more of a proof of concept type training,” said Lora. “Just being able to demonstrate that they can work with Chièvres Air Base, specifically Air Force folks, and make this happen.
“It did go well enough to show that it is a beneficial location for them, and they do indeed hope to come to us in the future,” Lora continued.
Lambregt sees possibilities for future collaborations between Chièvres Air Base and his Paratrooper Training Center.
“So I really think it’s a possibility,” he said. “We’ll see what the future brings. But I’m confident that we can arrange something in the future.”