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“Don’t Touch!”: Spectators Gently “Pet” Italian F-35A Lightning II at Belgian Air Show

Spectators Are Not Allowed to Touch F-35 Jets, But Some in Belgium Got a Lucky Chance.

If you are among the millions of people to see a Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter at an airshow since its first public appearance at Joint Base Andrews in the U.S. in 2011, you know there is always tight security surrounding the airplane. A rope cordon is normally patrolled by armed security guards to keep people at a distance from the exotic fifth-generation fighter.

But spectators at the 2018 Belgian Air Force Days airshow at Kleine-Brogel Air Base in northeastern Belgium got a treat when a new Italian F-35A belonging to the 13th Gruppo (Squadron) of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), MM7359/32-09, was being towed so close to the crowd line that the right wing actually protruded over the orange spectator fencing. This gave some quick-thinking spectators the opportunity to briefly and gently touch the aircraft to see what it felt like and be able to say they were among the first civilians at an airshow to touch the mysterious, stealthy plane.

Aviation photographer Stewart Jack was in the right place at the right time and caught a quick video of spectators reaching up and gently touching the plane. From the behavior of the people seen in Stewart’s video, it seems like they have an understanding of how special the moment was.

“The aircraft was being towed in to the static display for the Airshow on Saturday morning. We were all queuing up to gain access to the Friends of the Air Force section when it got just a bit too close for everyone waiting. The child on his dad’s shoulders was over the moon that he managed to get a glimpse of it so close up, let along touch it,” Stewart Jack told the Aviationist.com in an interview on Facebook about his video.

The Italian F-35 arriving at Kleine Brogel on Sept. 7. It was the first time the Lightning II aircraft visited Belgium. Image credit: Alessandro Fucito.

Each person along the taxiway touches the F-35A gently and only for a moment, as if to just be able to say they did, or feel some connection with the sensational aircraft. For aircraft enthusiasts and plane spotters around the world it is the equivalent of shaking hands with your favorite pop music or movie star along the runway at a big event.

Normal security for the F-35 has included fencing and guards along with covered intakes to prevent photos directly into the intakes. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.)

We’ve asked several military security personnel and public affairs representatives at airshows why security around the F-35 is so tight.

“As part of its new technology the plane has sensors and equipment on the outside that shouldn’t be handled unless you are trained [how to do it] and have a reason,” One F-35A maintenance airman told us at Nellis AFB last year when asked why there is such tight security around the plane.

Moreover, the LO (Low Observability) coating is one of the aircraft’s most delicate components and for this reason any “contact” with the haze paint of the stealth aircraft by unauthorized people should be avoided, in order to prevent scratches and damages.

The Italian Air Force F-35A in static display at Belgian Air Force Days. (Image credit: Alessandro Fucito).

“Please do not shoot photos directly into the intake or under the aircraft,” one armed Air Force Security Policeman told us recently at an F-35A static display at Selfridge ANGB in Michigan.

“We just don’t need people close to the airplane. It’s a security risk and people get better pictures outside the rope anyway,” a media representative for the U.S. Air Force told us recently at the Thunder Over Michigan airshow where two USAF F-35A Lightning IIs were on static display. Even when media is allowed inside the rope cordon for an interview they are briefed to not approach too close to the plane or attempt to touch it as we learned while taping an F-35A pilot interview two weeks ago in Michigan.

Normally the F-35 is moved well away from crowds, especially when taxiing as with this aircraft last year at Nellis AFB. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.)

Security for the newest and most advanced combat aircraft in the world is clearly the primary reason why spectators are not allowed to touch and walk very close to F-35s at airshows. And like anything that is forbidden or somehow rare and exotic, this has only made people more interested in getting close to the jet. But in reality, the barriers around the aircraft and the prohibition on touching it are as much about common sense with an advanced and expensive piece of equipment as it is about security. But for the people Stewart Jack managed to catch on video touching the beautiful aircraft with a sense of awe, it was certainly a unique moment.

Spectators at Kleine-Brogel Air Base get a rare and not entirely authorized chance to see what an F-35A actually feels like. (Photo: Stewart Jack)