Jan Lemmens started his career with the Belgian Air Force as a student-pilot in April '72. He completed the then standard instruction courses on Siai Marchetti SF-260M, Fouga Magister CM-170 and Lockheed T-33 to graduate as pilot, top off his class in July '74. His first assignment took him to LièGE, where he proudly joined Nr. 1 Squadron on Mirage V.
Cmdt. Jan 'D' Lemmens
But the call of the "Starfighter" (Lockheed F-104G) was too strong and in May '76 he saw his dream fulfilled and joined the ranks of the best: Nr. 23 Squadron at Kleine-Brogel. When the "Zipper" retired in '76 and was replaced by the "Viper", he too became an electronic fly-boy. In July '88 he grasped the opportunity to complete a three year exchange tour as an F-16 Instructor pilot with the 63rd TFTS at MacDill AFB in sunny Florida USA. Upon his return it took him more than a year to convey the lessons learned to the young "Viper" drivers and the Airstaff. In September '92, to end his career, he decided to see parts of the world, he hadn't seen before, by joining Nr. 20 Squadron on C-130 "Hercules". Finally, reaching the age limit, he retired from active duty in September '95.
F-16.net: You are now retired. How long did you fly in the Belgian Air Force and how long did you fly the Viper?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: Well guys, first of all let me congratulate you on your excellent web site. It is one of the best maintained and informative aviation sites around. Keep up the good work. To answer your question: For 23.5 years the Belgian Air Force was my life and my hobby. Of course three of those years I was on loan to the USAF. For 10.5 years the "Viper" was my office and all I had to do is hit the JFS (Jet Fuel Starter) to get away from my boring ground duties.
F-16.net: How many flying hours do you have total and in the F-16?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: I racked up a total of 5200 flying hours. 400 of those were spent training, 1800 transporting various goods and 3000 in fighters of which 1500 in the "Viper".
F-16.net: Which squadrons did you fly with in your career?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: Like a lot of young graduates at the time my first squadron was Nr. 1 Sqn on Mirage. Great spirit and camaraderie were typical back then. But it certainly were also worrying times, since a lot of fatal accidents happened during that two year period. The next twelve years, 23 "Devil" Squadron was home. Most happy memories and "war stories" stem from that time. I had the opportunity to participate in major exercises such as "Red Flag" and "Fighter Weapon Instructor Training" (three times) and managed to win the Wing tactical competition "Crossbow" a couple of times. The tactical evolution over that time period was tremendous and meant constant learning and training. This did not keep us from having a good time and organizing some memorable parties that put big dents in the squadron beer fund. Then came what seemed the opportunity of a lifetime to spend three years with my family in sunny Florida. I was hosted by 63rd TFTS (Tactical Fighter Training Squadron). Although being an instructor was not very high on my priority list, I must say that the "Flying Panthers" contributed in making this exchange tour the highlight of my career. They taught me professionalism and I in turn made sure I lived up to the title of "Jan-Jan the party man" that was awarded to me. The final three years of my active career I spent in Nr. 20 Sqn on C-130H. It is not uncommon in the Belgian Air Force to switch to transport or helicopters towards the end of one's career. This was also the end of squadron life, since most of the time was spent on mission. Most of them to central Africa, on humanitarian missions.
F-16.net: What was your best-liked squadron and why?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: Without any doubt 23 Sqn. The finest bunch of pilots with the most competitive spirit. I met, and sometimes sadly lost, some of my best friends here. Because of the many years I was part of this outstanding squadron, I was able to see it's evolution. I must say that I admire the push towards more professionalism, but on the other hand a lot of camaraderie has been lost in the process, and that's a pity.
F-16.net: How do you compare the fighter squadrons, the Fighter Wings, the pilots, the missions of the USAF and Belgian Air Force? What is different, what do they have in common?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: They have a lot in common. Namely to fly jets and to train and fight in a professional way, to defend their country. However the means to achieve that goal are somewhat different. The vast budget of the USAF compared to the BAF allows them to have a more structured approach. Emphasis on academic background and availability of training aids allows the USAF to produce a Viper pilot in under a year's time. Leaving him to mature in the operational squadron under continued supervision. The BAF approach is a lot more "hands on" but consequently takes longer: up to two years. Once assigned to the squadron the graduate is fully operational. The difference in size of Wings and Squadrons is obvious. However big is not always better. It is a lot easier for a BAF pilot to get to know particular tics and habits of fellow pilots, thus making it easier to form coordinated flights. The typical USAF pilot has to rely more on procedures and rules. But in general it takes very little effort or training to overcome said differences, as is proven daily in common deployments. Missions such as "Desert storm", "Deny flight" and others, prove that the goal can be achieved trough the Airforces' proverbial "flexibility". In other words, it doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you get the job done.
F-16.net: Is there any Viper pilot you'd like to greet in special....This is the place to do it!
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: No particular greetings but rather an invitation to drop me a line for all those buddies I lost contact with over the years.
F-16.net: What was your most memorable flight (either in the positive or negative sense) in the Viper?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: Some memorable flights that spring to mind are: the first flight of the last F-16 produced in Belgium and the crossing of the Atlantic. I don't think I've ever been scared flying the Viper, although I've been quite busy on some occasions. And I also remember the night rides to the overwater "Vlieland" range (NL), to be quite unpleasant.
F-16.net: This question will be interesting for our younger Belgian readers who want to become F-16 pilots ... What does it take to make it as an F-16 pilot in Belgium?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: Party, party, party. Oh yes and study. A solid base in mathematics, physics and English is a good start. From there it depends on your final goal. If you would like to become a pilot as well as a general the only way to go is the "Royal Military School". If you merely want to drive Vipers, you can join after high school and start flying immediately.
F-16.net: Did the 23rd squadron have a motto or special squadron songs that you would remember? Even if they might be a little "different" to other people, don't hesitate to tell us about them since we'd be happy to know about them!
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: I would have to get out the old songbook. I do remember that we composed a song once to ridicule the tiger squadron, during their "Tiger meet". At MacDill we even had a small band (couple guitars, keyboard and percussion) and used to sing "Little gray jet" to the tune of "Little deuce coupe". If you want to hear the text, I'll wait till your site is protected by "Cybersitter".
F-16.net: Do you have particular fond memories of a specific deployment or exercise?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: Yes, in fact I do. I loved all the deployments that involved the whole squadron. It were excellent opportunities to bond as a group. The single man cockpit does not really incite a group mentality. The job however requires individuals to work together in close coordination and without hesitation. It is essential to have "blind" faith in your wingman's capabilities and professional execution. I have always found that this mentality was enhanced if people spend two or three weeks together in close proximity and away from their normal surroundings. Whether this happened in-flight or after duty is not essential. The fact is that you get to know one another. The most exciting exercises were the live weapon exercises such as: Red Flag, Sentry Independence and FWIT. They offer the possibility to train in a realistic war environment with the use of all available weapons and systems. Aside from real operations this is about as close to reality as you can get as a fighter pilot. Especially my first and only Red Flag was memorable, because it was also the first for the EPAF (European Participating Air Forces: Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway). It included an Atlantic crossing. As you can see it was the "big first" for a lot off people. Another advantage of these joint exercises was the alignment of operational procedures between NATO allied Air Forces. Lots of fun and a great learning curve. A must for all fighter pilots.
F-16.net: What exaxtly does an FWIT course involve?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: The objective of the FWIT (Fighter Weapon Instructor Training) is to select outstanding squadron pilots and during a three month course, form them into weapon instructors. In turn these weapon instructors are now made responsible for the weapon training of the squadron pilots. It is analog to the USAF's FWIC (Fighter Weapons Instructor Course). Needles to say that the initial selection of candidates needs to be strict and promising. They are then put trough a demanding course, split in two phases. The air-to-ground phase usually precedes the air-to-air phase. Each phase starts with a thorough academic course, enhanced with guest speakers on special subjects. The flight phase is even more demanding and gives the instructors 'to be' the opportunity to use all the weapons in the inventory and to exploit the F-16 to its limits. A big effort is made to provide 'worthy' opponents and sufficient resources. The last missions are a culmination of all aspects and tax the jet and its driver to their limits. This gives, the now graduated, instructor the backbone to stand up in the squadron and be heard by his peers. Needless to say that this demanding course and it's ever present test, written and flying, challenge all the candidates to the limit. Few are chosen and even less succeed. The effort to create this 'crï¿½me de la crï¿½me' is bore by the four EPAF nations jointly. They fund this course on a regular basis, alternating with the Red Flag exercise. The USAF and USAFE are major contributors of support and knowledge. The major difference with their FWIC is that FWIT has no permanent staff nor home base. Due to budgetary constraints and timeframe, the course has to be organized "from the ground up" each time. Previously formed graduates now function as instructors (that's what we trained them for isn't it?) and under the leadership of a new supervisor another FWIT is on it's way. I had the privilege to go trough all three steps (graduate, instructor, supervisor) in just three years time. It was one of the highlights of my career, and I look back at it with pride. From here I would like to encourage the involved airstaff's, instructors and candidates to: "KEEP FWIT GOING".
F-16.net: Which flight profiles or missions did you enjoy most while flying the F-16?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: I really liked the combined missions. For instance: take-off for a low level ingress to the target zone, drop some bombs on tactical targets, high-tail for the tanker to get some gas, then set up a CAP to engage in some air-to-air combat and land minimum gas. Busy and if all worked out well, very rewarding. In the other case you learned a lot. As you see a no-lose situation.
F-16.net: Oddly enough, although you flew three different fighter aircraft, you only saw action in the C-130. Which flight with the Hercules do you remember most vividly?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: You know, flying fighter aircraft is like taking out an insurance policy. You pay constantly, and it's only when you're in trouble that it's going to pay off. In other words you keep training for something, that you hope is not going to happen. So you could say that I (and a lot of others with me) got lucky not to see any action in the F-16. Meaning we paid the price for a deterrent that worked. The mission for the C-130 is a lot broader and includes, amongst others, humanitarian interventions. It was in this cadre that I lived my most exciting mission. The last flight in and out of Kigali, Rwanda during the genocide was very interesting. The mission was to evacuate personnel and civilians from the encircled airport. After an uneventful landing, we were fired upon by mortars. You could say it was friendly fire because it came from the government troops. Although it was kind of hard to decide who was friend or foe in those days. The government troops who were encircled by the rebels on the airport were firing on the aircraft to prevent them from taking off again. Thus hoping to detain their last means of escape, at their disposition. It was a good thing that their aim was expressly aside from the main parking, so as not to damage the aircraft. I remember debarking from my C-130 and feeling a violent blow against the back of my head. Luckily it was just the blast of a mortar grenade some fifty feet behind me. They successfully succeeded in pinning us down for quite some time this way. As the rebels closed in and the situation deteriorated to the point that the airport main building would come under fire, evacuation was ordered. We were now on the run from the rebels attacking and the regulars threatening to confiscate our aircraft. The last bunch saw me running for the safety of a C-130. An activity I reserve strictly for such life threatening situations, like this.
F-16.net: What was the worst practical joke ever played upon you in the squadron bar?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: I usually made sure to be on the other side when it came to pranks. However I'll remember the time I left my camera lying around during a deployment. I had a hard time explaining the pictures of scarcely dressed girls to my wife upon my return. The garlic filled oxygen mask before the two hour ferry flight wasn't bad either.
F-16.net: You have an interesting callsign "D". What story is behind that callsign, anything funny you could share with us?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: I must say that the nickname "D" for "Druppel" was not widely used, but nevertheless here's the story. One evening while sitting around the squadron bar (where else?) some guys started making remarks about my "pot-belly". I must admit that I am gifted with a remarkable specimen of "Horeca gezwel". However, after getting out the tape measure it turns out that my measurements (chest, waist, bottom) are not cylindrical as in most people, but rather conical. The only defense I put up at the time was, that I was shaping my body teardrop ("druppel" in Dutch) style, because this is the most aerodynamical form. Needless to say my unforgiving barmates did not pass up such an opportunity and started calling me "Druppel". I really don't like it, so don't tell anybody OK?
F-16.net: Do you know a Viper joke that you can let us know?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: I guess this could have happened in a Viper. A two-seater on a recce mission, with an IP in the back seat. When the guy in the front points out a juicy target, the IP in the back says: "Well go ahead and mark it, so we can find it tomorrow". Meaning to use the Mark button on the FCNP panel to mark the target in Lat and Long. After landing the IP asks for the position of the target. Pretty proud of himself, the frontseater points to a grease pencil mark on the cockpit glass and says: "That's exactly where it was". The IP gazes in disbelief and replies: "You dummy, what if we have a different jet tomorrow?"
F-16.net: What has been the most important motto for you always when in the cockpit and what would you tell somebody who wanted to fly F-16s?
Cdt. Vl. Lemmens: Kick the tires, light the fires, the first one airborne has the lead and we'll brief on guard. No sorry that was the motto back when I started flying. Today it would have to be: low cost, multi-purpose and smokeless. No kidding, over the last ten, fifteen years the profession of military pilot has become highly competitive, professional and demanding. So be prepared to give the best of yourself, share the knowledge with your buddies and most of all fly safe. Check six and happy landings.
- Cdt. Vl. Lemmens was interviewed online by Martin Agüera and Stefaan Vanhastel -