Frisian Flag is one of the largest exercises in Europe and takes place over the North Sea, in Dutch, German and Danish airspace. Vliegbasis Leeuwarden is ideally located as it is close to a large training area that covers almost 74,000Km2, whilst also being in a region that is not heavily populated, so has little impact on the surrounding residential areas. Conducting missions from the air is almost impossible without international co-operation, so training in an exercise like Frisian Flag  is the ideal way to prepare aircrew for the real thing.  ‘Flag’ exercises are not uncommon, Canada’s Maple Flag and the United States Red Flag being other well-known examples.

deployed ten Lockheed Martin F-16Cs, together with 24 pilots and 160 airmen. The first five aircraft arriving 29th March, followed by the second wave of five the following day; both supported by USAF KC-10 tanker aircraft during the Atlantic crossing. Linked with Croatia under the U.S. State Partnership Programme (SPP), the unit commander, Lt. Col. Blade Thornton said; "The exercise allows us to train alongside our European allies and fly with several types of fighter aircraft to ensure readiness for a variety of missions. During Frisian Flag, we are able to practice and be exposed to multi-nation air-to-air, surface-to-air threat scenarios as we would in a wartime scenario; vital training that isn’t easily accessible back home. I am incredibly proud to bring the squadron over here, to represent the United States, the Air Force and show that we stand with our NATO partners against any threat to our shared interests around the world".

In real-time operations air space is at a premium and it is necessary to maximise what is available. The tankers fly what is known as a 'Racetrack' pattern - flying an oval pattern that allows them to remain in a specific area which the receiver aircraft can easily locate. An example is given left, illustrating three tanker aircraft separated by one nautical mile and 500ft above or below the lead aircraft.

During this year's Frisian Flag/EART exercises, we had the pleasure to fly with the RAF Voyager KC.2 out of Eindhoven air base on 4th April. Having boarded #ZZ330, call-sign Raven 50, the joint 10 & 101 Squadron crew got us airborne a little after 1300 local time and we headed north towards our air refuelling track over the North Sea. With the weather being far from perfect, we orbited the area looking for a break in the cloud so as to provide the fighter aircraft with better conditions for a visual with the tanker. At approximately 25,000ft our receiver aircraft appeared on the port side of the aircraft - 'Devil' flight - Luftwaffe Eurofighter 2000s from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 (Tactical Air Force Wing 31/TaktLwG 31) from Nörvenich Air Base. Devil 75 is seen alongside the Voyager whilst his wingman refuels.

The last few years of Frisian Flag have seen U.S. Air National Guard units participate with F-15C Eagles; 2019 was however a little different. The 179th Fighter Squadron (FS)/148th Fighter Wing (FW), based in Duluth, Minnesota,

Not surprisingly, F-16s were much in evidence during FF2019

The Polish Air Force deploying eight F-16C/D aircraft from 31 Tactical Air Base at Poznan-Krzesiny

EART is a dedicated AAR focused multinational training for air-tanker and maintenance crews. It provides the nations with a unique opportunity to train their aircrews in planning and executing missions within complex and realistic multinational scenarios they are not exposed to in peacetime AAR operations. Experienced navigators and air refuelling operators act as mentors throughout EART, working with the crews on mission planning, the flight and debrief. The mentors are the focal point to consolidate the training objectives of the participating nations and to make sure these training objectives are well executed. The delicate balance of mentoring is not to create an image of the mentor within the crewmember, but to give the individual the opportunity to create himself, by using the mentor’s experience, knowledge and lessons learned as a solid starting base.

EART & Frisian Flag

Two versions of the Airbus A330-MRTT Voyager are in service with 10 and 101 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) at RAF Brize Norton; the KC.2, which has two under-wing pods to refuel fast-jets; and the KC.3, which has an additional centreline hose for refuelling larger aircraft. The Voyager can carry 111 tonnes of fuel, the highest capacity of any tanker aircraft. With the capacity to offload 50,000kg of fuel to a wide range of receiver aircraft, the A330-MRTT can deploy fighter aircraft over long distances and is capable of supporting the deployment of four fighter aircraft plus 50 personnel and 12 tonnes of freight over 5,200km (e.g. from Europe to Afghanistan).

All of the Minnesota ANG F-16s wore the latest 'Have Glass 5th generation' or 'Have Glass V' paint scheme. It consists of a Radar Absorbent Material (RAM) paint, which uses microscopic metal grains that degrade the radar signature of the aircraft.

This particular F-16 carries the more advanced AIM-9X version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile

F-16C Fighting Falcon from 31 BLT, Polish Air Force, on approach to Leeuwarden

Two waves of aircraft are flown each day, one morning and one afternoon

with the second week constituting the more advanced training element.  Tanker-cell formation training, Ferry Flight Discussion, multi-national tanker training and tanker ops in large scale COMAO (Combined Air Operations) packages, and tanker-to-tanker RV (rendezvous) procedures utilising LINK-16 communications are all practiced. It also sees aircrew and logistics personnel practicing quick turn-around of tanker aircraft, with the crews able to check and prepare a KDC-10 after a mission, including refuelling, in less than one hour!

One of 322 TACTES F-16s blasts out of Leeuwarden's Runway 23 for a morning mission

RNLAF F-16s play a prominent role in Frisian Flag

This 'Bulldogs' F-16C provides a perfect view of the aircraft's weapons fit; AIM-120 AMRAAMs on the outer-wing pylons, AIM-9L/M Sidewinder on the port centre-wing pylon, ACMI pod on the starboard centre-wing pylon, Sniper advanced targeting pod on the starboard intake pylon, AN/ASQ-213 HARM targeting pod on the port intake pylon and an AN/ALQ-184 ECM/EW self-protection pod on the fuselage centre pylon

Issues identified during Operation Unified Protector in 2011 showed that for smooth multi-national coalitions to operate effectively, nations needed to train together in advance and on a regular basis. Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) was recognised as a capability shortfall in 2012 by the European Defence Agency (EDA), becoming one of four 'Priority Programmes' undertaken. However, despite the importance of AAR, Europe is currently still only able to muster seven strategic tanker aircraft and 11 tactical tankers, most of which are coming to the end of their service life, such as the RNLAF KDC-10 (photo, left). When compared with the United States resources of over 500 aircraft, it is a clear indication of the European shortfall in this field.

On board the RAF Voyager operating as 'Raven 50' - the modern flight deck and air-to-air refuelling operations are an example of what the EATC member states have in store for them as the Multi-national MRTT Unit (MMU) starts to form in the next few months

Dutch skies once again echoed to the sound of fast-jets during early April as two annual exercises got underway in The Netherlands once more. Frisian Flag took place at Leeuwarden, with some 50 aircraft from six nations taking up residence for the two week exercise; whilst Eindhoven Air Base once again saw EART (European Air Refuelling Training) play host to five aerial refuelling aircraft - supporting Frisian Flag as part of the exercise.

As with previous EART/Frisian Flag exercises, the NATO Boeing E-3A Sentry fleet provided radar and tactical control, flying from their home base at Geilenkirchen, Germany

The Airbus A330-MRTT will become the air-to-air refuelling aircraft of choice for most EATC member states in the near future. Very similar to the Royal Saudi Air Force example above and unlike the Royal Air Force A330 Voyagers, the MMU aircraft will benefit from a rear boom as well as underwing refuelling pods - enabling the aircraft to refuel aircraft that require either a boom/receptacle or a hose/drogue to take on gas. Eight aircraft are currently on order for the MRTT Multi-National Fleet, with a further three options available.

Part of this year's EART 2019 programme related to tanker-cell formation training. The aerial refuellers form up in flight and fly in a line astern cell formation to the refuelling area to rendezvous with the receiver aircraft.

The Swiss Air Force participated in their first Frisian Flag in 2019 with the McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18C Hornet

This Fleigerstaffel 11 Hornet proudly sports a Tiger tail in recognition of the unit's membership of the renowned NATO Tiger community

Devil 76 plugged into the Voyager's hose and drogue refuelling system high above the North Sea

United States Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers from the 100 Air Refuelling Wing participated for the first time in EART, after an aborted attempt in 2018. Unlike the other tanker aircraft, they flew missions directly from their home base at RAF Mildenhall, U.K.

Captured taking off from Leeuwarden, this Mirage 2000D carries a single Raytheon GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II laser-guided bomb on the centreline pylon

A Swiss F/A-18C Hornet departs Leeuwarden during FF2019

The Royal Air Force participated in EART with a single A330-MRTT Voyager aircraft from RAF Brize Norton

The aircraft is seen on the ramp at Eindhoven, still wearing its 'RAF 100' markings applied in 2018

First held in 1992, and called Frisian Flag since 1999, training during the exercise includes air defence missions, offensive ground operations and Combat Air Patrol (CAP), the fighter aircraft operating independently or in consultation with units of the army or navy using Forward Air Controllers (FAC). Frisian Flag is about leadership and precision. Experienced pilots develop and carry out large, complex missions; each day a different participant plans, leads and reports on a training mission, developing leadership skills that the pilot needs in real missions. Hosted by 322 Tactical Training Evaluation and Standardization (TACTES) Squadron of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF), the home team's F-16 Fighting Falcons are much in evidence during the exercise, and along with 312 and 313 Squadrons at Volkel contribute by far the largest number of aircraft to Frisian Flag.

#T-264 will be the first RNLAF KDC-10 to be withdrawn in late 2019, prior to arrival of the first MMU Airbus A330-MRTT aircraft in May 2020

The Home of Military Aircraft

Modern-day missions are all about precision - air defence, offensive strike, missions to protect other aircraft and missions carried out to eliminate static and moving targets on land or at sea are all undertaken during Frisian Flag. International law dictates that collateral damage is kept to an absolute minimum during wartime operations. Frisian Flag strives to ensure these Rules of Engagement (RoE), which are internationally adopted directives that describe what a military force may or may not do during operations. Although live-fire is not possible during Frisian Flag, practice ammunition is used, with the NATO Cornfield range on the island of Vlieland being utilised for such tasks.

(The infographic left, illustrates the forces involved in Frisian Flag 2019)


Air-to-air refuelling is more than just flying circles, extending a hose or lowering a boom and giving gas.......  The first week of EART focuses on basic training,

Older types such as the French Air Force Boeing C-135 (left) and German Air Force Airbus 310-MRTT (right) will be phased out in the near future as they are both replaced by larger and more modern fleets of Airbus A330-MRTT aircraft

The European Defence Agency (EDA) is working hard in conjunction with member states to address both the lack of interoperability and the numbers of available aircraft. EATC fosters synergies with the multi-national A330-MRTT initiative, which is aimed at acquiring and operating a common European multi-role tanker/transport fleet. Four out of the five nations involved in MRTT, which launched in July 2016 with the first order for two aircraft by the Netherlands and Luxembourg, are currently EATC members. Belgium, Germany and Norway joined the MRTT programme in 2017, the three countries signing a 'Declaration of Intent' on 16th February 2017.

The USAF 100th Air Refueling Wing supported Frisian Flag by refuelling F-16s from the Royal Netherlands Air Force and the Minnesota Air National Guard's 179th Fighter Squadron

During the two-week Frisian Flag exercise, the participating aircraft train jointly and combined with other services of the armed forces of the Netherlands and other coalition partners. Experienced pilots are given the opportunity to plan, develop and carry out the daily missions, pushing their leadership skills to the limit and ensuring that everything possible is gained from the training. Frisian Flag 2019 was held 1-12th April, with permanent and mobile anti-aircraft systems providing simulated air-defence systems against the fighter aircraft, whilst inflatable systems that cannot be distinguished from the real thing, such as tanks, are used as ‘lures’. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) provided targeting information from the ground for the attacking forces.

Air Defence Systems are deployed on the ground to enable realistic scenarios within the missions; located at Leeuwarden Airbase, the Cornfield Range and another undisclosed location in Friesland. The Royal Netherlands Army also deployed one of their Thales Multi Mission Radars (MMR) to Leeuwarden for the duration of the exercise.

Dassault Mirage 2000Ds of the French Air Force have become regular attendees at Frisian Flag

Escadron de Chasse 003 providing some ground attack aircraft for the exercise

EART 2019 was significant in many ways – it was possibly the last time that a French C-135 aircraft would be involved in the exercise, whilst the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Air Force (USAF) participated in the exercise for the first time. The USAF had been scheduled to participate in 2018, however just one day after arriving at Eindhoven, the single Boeing KC-135R returned back to Mildenhall, U.K. due to it being required for operational reasons. With the imminent arrival of the pooled fleet of Airbus A330-MRTTs on the horizon and the French Air Force A330 deliveries already underway, the future of Europe’s aerial refuelling fleet is to see a huge step-change in capability. EATC’s member nations; France, the Netherlands and Germany, as well as non-EATC (European Air Transport Command) members, 

The Multi-national MRTT Unit (MMU) will ‘stand up’ 26th June this year, with the first A330-MRTT scheduled for delivery to Eindhoven 1st May 2020. The second aircraft is also scheduled for delivery to Eindhoven 15th June 2020, with the third aircraft delivered to Köln late 2020 and the fourth in 2021. Plans currently call for five aircraft to be based in Eindhoven and three in Köln. Coinciding with the delivery of the MRTT fleet (MMF), the two Dutch KDC-10s will be sold; the first (T-264) being withdrawn at the end of this year, with the second aircraft soldiering on until 2021. By 2025 it is forecast that EATC will have three times the number of tanker aircraft that it has now, with the fleet formed mainly around the Airbus A330-MRTT and Airbus A400, including some of the 15 French A330s assigned to EATC for the first time.

the United Kingdom and the United States, participated with both tankers and crews. Italy did not provide any aircraft for this year’s EART, but they did provide mentors to advise the crews with their respective expertise. Expanding this year’s EART even further, the Royal Australian Air Force sent observers, with the hope that they will participate with aircraft in 2020.

​​Jetwash Aviation Photos

We would like to thank the following for their help in completing this article

Brig. Gen. Francesco S. Agresti (EATC Commander)
Col. Harold Boekholt (Eindhoven Base Commander)
Col. Andrea Massucci (EART Director)
Maj. F. Frolich (POC Ops EART)

EATC Public Affairs

RNLAF Public Affairs