The Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight
Written by Henry Simpson, Young Historians Program founder
Formed in 1969 by a mix of former and active Royal Netherlands Air Force pilots operating Piper J3 Cubs, the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight is now over 50 years old. Sander van der Hall is the head of relations for the Flight and he spoke to me about the Flight and the challenges they are facing in keeping the historic fleet airworthy.
Compared to its humble beginnings the Flight “has developed itself over the past 50 years. We now have 26-27 aircraft, not all are flying but we hope to have half or over half flying soon depending on maintenance.” In addition, he elaborates that “we have 300 volunteers now” showing the size of the organization today.
Those who have seen the Flight perform at air displays will know their most famous aircraft. “The Spitfires and B-25 Mitchell are the crown jewels that we have” Sander remarks.
The first of the Spitfires, D-Day Veteran Mk.IX, MK732, was acquired by the Dutch Spitfire Flight in the early 1980’s and rebuilt to celebrate 322 (Dutch) Squadron RAF. Though they succeeded in returning the aircraft to Flight in 1993, costs eventually led to its incorporation into the Air Force and the Historic Flight in 1998 and the aircraft is still owned by the Royal Netherlands Air Force today, meaning only those who are active or recently retired Air Force pilots can fly it.
Sander highlights that all the aircraft are civilian registered though some of the fleet are owned by the military and operated by the Flight, which is a private organization, unlike their British counterparts, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which is an actual RAF Squadron.
The Flight’s other active Spitfire is Mk.XVI TB885 which was presented to the Flight at Leeuwarden Air Base by its owner who retains ownership of the aircraft whilst the Flight operates it. He currently owns 3 Spitfires. The two others are a two seat T9 and a rare under restoration Mk.1
The B-25, built in 1944 as a J model, saw no combat operations before being converted to an N trainer aircraft for the USAAF. “There were quite a lot of owners after that,” Sander comments but eventually it was purchased and brought to Europe by the Duke of Brabant Air Force organization in 1990. However, the foundation later lost their hangar and eventually came to the Flight to help look after the aircraft. The two organizations began to work together in 2004 with the final merger in 2010. Today the B-25 is one of only 2 flying in Europe.
In terms of maintenance, (for the B-25,) Sander comments that the availability of parts is not an issue. “In the states you can buy everything as far as I know, a spare engine will cost around $100-135,000 but everything is available.” Personnel, not parts are the problem; “We are afraid this may be the last generation that can maintain the aircraft. We hope we can find young people in time for the old ones to transfer their knowledge.” Sander highlights this point as a major area of need in the classic aviation community.
The worst problems for the Flight have come from recent events. In the past few years COVID-19 has had a major impact on the Flight. “One of the difficulties with Covid is our funding has dropped tremendously” he explains. “When you are on an active military base, the first people they shut the door to are the volunteers.” This was a disastrous move for the Flight as it meant that at the start of 2022 effectively 2 years of work on the aircraft had been lost. “We couldn’t even do the maintenance,” he explains, “it was really bad.”
This has impacted the start to the 2022 season with lots of maintenance and return to flight work to be done. The main challenge now is getting a spare Wright R-2600 Cyclone engine for the B-25. It has been decided that the Mitchell should not leave the Netherlands without a spare engine available lest it be grounded and forced to wait months for a replacement to be shipped from the USA. This is greatly affecting the coming season. “It’s a vicious cycle” Sander explains, “I can find enough air shows in the UK and across Europe to send the B-25 to display and get money for the spare engine but without the engine, no shows, no money…”
Sander himself became involved in the Historic Flight at a young age. “I have been a member since I was around 18-19 years old.” The defining moment came when Sander took a back seat flight in a Harvard, “I asked, what do I have to do to get into the front seat?” He began helping the Flight by painting their hangars before he purchased a small trailer which he then renovated thinking it would be good for the promotion team at shows and events.
This preceded him becoming the right hand of the board member who was then head of relations, a post that he now occupies himself. It is his responsibility to arrange events for the Flight and for getting the aircraft to events in the Netherlands and beyond.
May is often a busy time of year for the Flight as May 4th marks their Remembrance Day and “May 5th is our Liberation Day. We perform flypasts at events, so we need to have those aircraft in the air.”
Sander also has several stories from his time with the Flight. “I am much involved with the veterans” he says as he recalls one particular event, “We took the B-25 and Spitfire to Duxford. We were standing outside the pilots’ tent at Duxford, one gentleman was asking “are you the pilot of the B-25…” He revealed to them that he flew the B-25 in WW2. “I asked him, Sir would you like to sit in your seat again? His voice changed instantly, “Oh that would be nice”” So Sander took him aboard the B-25, “finally when he sat in the chair he quipped, can I start her up again?” “A member of his family said, you have no idea what this means to him. As we were walking back the crowd were applauding the veteran. His family told me that his wife recently died, and he did not want to leave his house again, but they had convinced him to come out to Duxford. I was later told by email that after that his spirits were back.”
Another occasion he fondly recalls is when he helped organize a reunion at Dunsfold Airfield in the UK. “I came into contact with the son of a 320 (Netherlands) Squadron RAF pilot” who told him that they still had 4 living members of the squadron from that time. The squadron had flown B-25’s from Dunsfold during D–Day, bombing German positions in France. They organized a marquee at Dunsfold and transport for some from the Netherlands. “For the last surviving members I asked, could it (the B-25) go back into RAF Colours?” The aircraft normally wears the markings of a Dutch squadron based in Australia and operating in the Pacific during the war. Consequently, due to cost considerations, a compromise was reached by putting RAF roundels over the Dutch markings.
“I asked the crew, can we let their families in (the aircraft), so they can see where their fathers sat, and we had ages from 6 to 90 years old come aboard.” For Sander one moment stands out above all; “When the 4 living crew members came to the B-25 I was with one of them under the left wing. He grabbed my arm and with tears in his eyes said, “I’m not here for me, I am here for the comrades we lost.” “I knew then that we did the right thing to bring them over. It was the last time they would see Dunsfold as well.” In total alongside the veterans Sander thinks some 100 family members from the Netherlands and the UK attended over the 2 days they were there.
The Flight also maintains a good relationship with the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight who helped set up a training program for pilots flying the Spitfire. “The cooperation between the two organizations is such that the BBMF now train our Spitfire pilots and the BBMF pilots train on our Harvard. After so many years we have become friends, very good friends indeed.” Sander remarked that after 3 years of lobbying they got a formation flight between the Lancaster and the B-25 but the Lancaster’s engine had issues, so they flew with 2 BBMF Spitfires instead.
Among the other aircraft they operate Sander is a fan of the Beech 18. “The Beech 18 is the limousine of the air. It’s a really easy aircraft to fly.” His most memorable flying experience was in the right seat of this machine at the Market Garden commemorations at Nijmegen alongside the 2 Spitfires. In the right seat “I was in charge of watching the altitude as we were making these fake attacks on the far side of the river. I had never been dive bombing with a Beech 18, not least other aircraft, and I can tell you it was pretty nice!” He recalls that they made their “attack” whilst the US 82nd Airborne Division’s daring river crossing was recreated underneath.
People who wish to help the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight can become “Flying Partners” who Sander explains “are invited 2-3 times a year to our base and where possible can fly in out aircraft as passengers.” I am grateful to Sander for taking the time to talk to me about the Flight and their operations.
Top Image Featuring Veterans from the Dunsfold event mentioned in the article, left to right they are Edward Hoenson, Camille Stritzko, Eduard Jacob, André Hissink, provided by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historical Flight
Bottom Left Image: Harvard, provided by Royal Netherlands Air Force Historical Flight
Center Bottom Image: Beech 18, provided by Royal Netherlands Air Force Historical Flight
Bottom Right Image: B-25 Mitchell in flight by Darren Harbar