2012 Articles

JUL 13 2012
Airshows >> EUROPE: La Ferté-Alais 2012 review

On Saturday morning the apartment shutters were raised to reveal a calm river marina, reflecting the vast expanse of pure sapphire sky – a view which we could have quite happily looked upon all day! But, five minutes up the road one of France’s biggest, and best, historic airshows was about to get underway, so after breakfast at the hotel, myself, Thomas Pitts, Elliott Marsh and his brother Greg set off on the short journey up to the airfield. We weren’t sure how much traffic we would encounter, but so were pleasantly surprised to find only a short and moving queue, winding its way up the road towards the airfield.

There were concerns as to whether the Red Mini (Elliott and Greg’s affectionately named Mitsubishi Colt) would make it up the hill, but they assured us she had conquered the famous incline up to Biggin Hill many times and that she would make it up this one too, which, to be fair to the old girl, she did, albeit with 'odour de clutch' filling the air!

Once at the top of the hill, the queue was split into lanes where tickets were either presented or purchased. This process was smooth enough, once we established that Thomas was in fact an adult and not a child! There were even staff going down the lines of cars selling programmes, which was very efficient, but the only cause for delay upon entry was a second ticket check immediately after purchase. This was resolved on the Sunday and the second check wasn’t being carried out, making entry even easier. Within minutes we were parked up at the western end of the airfield and were wandering down the crowd line towards the showground, bound for the static park, perusing the excellent value programmes (just €2!) as we did so.

The public was able to wander among the aircraft in the static park until 1pm, for just €5, a very reasonable fee considering the diverse and unique array of aircraft on show, including Bleriot XI to Sea Fury and everything in-between! Once through the gate we were all immediately drawn to the Flying Bull's P-38 Lightning which was nestled in a recently constructed hangar - the play of light and shadow on the Lightning’s highly polished finish was a joy to photograph, and I spent rather a large amount of time during both show days absolutely captivated by it! Also housed in the hangar was B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Pink Lady’, and the F4U-5NL Corsair that is currently being restored to flight by Les Casques de Cuir, in a few years it will hopefully bring Europe’s airworthy Corsair quota to four!

Wandering up and down the neatly arranged lines of aircraft, the static park began to give a sense of what the show held in store, and the excitement really began to build. The aircraft were very well laid out I thought, being grouped by era, and were close enough that you could inspect them, whilst having just enough space to take decent photographs. We were also able to see some of the aircraft that would not be in the flying display, such as the de Havilland Mosquito ¾ scale replica, Dewoitine D-27, two Morane AIs and the absolutely gorgeous Nieuport N.28. As we were in one of the hangars, fast jet noise erupted over the airfield and, rushing outside, we found a pair of Mirage 2000Ns performing a very welcome, and surprise, beat up of the airfield; something they would do again on the Monday after the show whilst we were relaxing back at the hotel.

With time to kill before flying began, we decided to grab some lunch. Having seen many of the food stalls being set up on the Friday, it struck me just how different the airshow catering was here, compared to what can be found at the majority of British shows – I don’t even recall seeing any burger van style outlets. All of the stalls were selling great quality freshly cooked food at incredibly reasonable prices (although drinks were on the slightly pricey side, €3 for a 330ml can!) – all in all, a world away from the catering we experience at far too many British airshows!

After eating our delicious lunch of Moroccan sausage and French fries we headed down to the western end of the crowd line with the intention of finding a spot from which to view the show. We were consigned to the fact that we wouldn’t be at the front of the crowd, due to not arriving early enough, but in actual fact we were able to get a pretty decent position and we were even closer to the front on Sunday. Unfortunately there were many stepladder-wielding photographers in attendance, as is the way at many European shows. One chap, literally right at the front of the crowd line, used one, which I really cannot see the point of doing, other than for blocking the view of those behind you. All in all though, they weren’t as big a hindrance as I had initially thought they would be and it’s just one of those things you have to accept and work around.

La Ferté is a delightful airfield, set in the rolling French countryside and surrounded by forest, with the hill dropping away into the picturesque Essonne River valley to the east – you would never think you were only 30 miles away from Paris! You can literally feel the history here too, with the show being long established. I could just imagine the plethora of warbirds from La Ferté’s heyday during the 1980s, of which I had seen on countless videos on YouTube – although arguably there are now projects that have recently come to the fore or are due to be completed that mean La Ferté now offers some world beating aircraft.

The show began on a sedate note with a pair of Scheibe motor gliders, followed by the Armeé de L’Air Parachute Display Team (Équipe militaire de parachutisme de l’armée de l’air) dropping from a Junkers Ju-52 – a sight you don’t often get to witness! The show really felt like it had started when the pair of Aéronavale Super Étendards arrived in formation with the Morane-Saulnier MS.760 Paris, the latter breaking off into its tight solo routine of aerobatics - the Paris was the first of many aircraft from the Morane-Saulnier stable that we would have the pleasure of seeing fly at the show. The Super Étendards arrived back in style with the Top Gun theme tune blaring out and continued their interesting pairs routine to a medley of tracks from the infamous film. They initially performed a few formation passes before breaking into an opposition style section, one of the most impressive manoeuvres being a mirror knife edge pass with the jets going topside to topside – amazing stuff!

Next, for a rapid change of pace, was the Morane-Saulnier parasol section, titled rather quirkily ‘Flight of the Storks’! Now, we love our vintage aviation but it would be a lie to profess that we were able to name all of the types in this section – I just love new experiences like that and European airshows offer so many of them. Each type provided a very different display, with the absolutely glorious 1927 MS.138 first up, flying attractive, sedate figures of eight, along with low and close passes, before Edmond Salis came in with a punchy display in the MS.230. Meanwhile, the pair of MS.317s had climbed to height to begin a very tight pairs aerobatic performance including loops, wingovers and turns – their manoeuvrability really did surprise me.

As well as providing a look at some of the French military’s past and present aircraft, this year’s Meeting Aérien allowed a glimpse into the future, with the Airbus A400M carrying out a series of flypasts in various configurations on Saturday, courtesy of EADS - The Armée de l’Air is set to be the launch customer for the ‘Grizzly’ (officially - Atlas) which is due to enter service in early 2013. In stark contrast EADS also displayed the world’s smallest four engine aircraft – the spritely little Cri-Cri quad motor, with four brushless electric motors and contra-rotating propellers. The company are great supporters of the show, being one of the biggest sponsors, and those with an eagle eye will have spotted their logo on some of the vintage aircraft based at La Ferté.

The great air battles of World War One, fought over northern France, were recreated with the AJBS and John Day’s Fokker Dr.1s, AJBS RAF SE5a, Gordon Brander’s Sopwith Triplane and a Stearman masquerading as a German bomber. A two tiered dogfight ensued as the SE5a danced around, attacking the German bomber and one of the Fokker Dr.1’s in quite some fashion, whilst a one-on-one battle unfurled below ,between the other Fokker Dr.1 and Sopwith Triplane, literally tangling amongst the flack as the sequence was accompanied with air-burst pyrotechnics. It was an impressive first set-piece in the show and proved that a lot of thought had gone into organising the flying elements, something we would see more of later. It really did conjure up thoughts of the Great War, a thread which would continue in our trip as we drove through the Somme en route back to Calais, stopping at the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval on the way. By this point in the day, incidentally, the temperature was really climbing and memories of nearly melting at Hahnweide in 2011 were beginning to creep into my mind. Thankfully though the airfield’s hilltop location meant that there was a light breeze occasionally blowing which helped to take the edge off somewhat.

For the first time at La Ferté-Alais a new commentary team was being trialled, with the venerable Bernard Chabbert giving his usual French commentary, along with Melvyn Hiscock providing words in English, showing that there must be an increasing UK attendance at the show. It was nice to hear a familiar voice, and whilst Melvyn couldn’t go into the same detail as you might get at an airshow here at home, he utilised the time he did have to pick out the most important, relevant and interesting titbits of information – I think, on the whole, that it worked out very nicely indeed.

Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the type’s first flight was a formation of no less than six Focke-Wulf Fw-44 Stieglitz – I didn’t think there were even six airworthy in Europe, but La Ferté managed to gather them together from across France, Germany and Sweden! The Stieglitz is a lovely bi-plane that we seldom see in the UK nowadays, so to witness six in the air at once was quite a treat – the pilots did well to stick together considering the, by now, quite blustery conditions, as their large formation made big sweeping turns. As the rest peeled off and landed, a lone machine was left to perform a terrifically tight display of aerobatics overhead, demonstrating why the type was such a successful aerobatic mount in its day. It was in fact a Stieglitz winning the World Aerobatic Championships that accompanied the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the hands of Otto von Hagenburg. A host of trainers from various nations then followed, including a pair of Bücker Bü-133 Jungmeisters, a Bücker Bü-131 Jungmann, De Havilland DH.82a Tiger Moth and Ryan PT-22.

On Sunday the Caudron C.270 Luciole took to the air for its display debut having made its first post-restoration flight earlier in the spring. Produced in France during the 1930s as a sporting, touring and training aircraft, the type was a great success, with over 700 being built before the outbreak of World War Two. One of only a handful of Luciole’s flying today, this particular aircraft enjoyed a previous life in the UK, before moving to France and undergoing restoration. It is also the sole example with a Salsmon 7Ac radial engine installed, thus making it completely unique.

Providing the first real warbird action of the show was the pairing of Swiss based Morane-Saulnier MS.406 and The Fighter Collection’s (TFC) Curtiss Hawk 75A-1, two aircraft which formed the backbone of the Armée de l’Air during the Battle of France in 1940, and indeed TFCs Hawk 75 fought in that battle with 1ére Escadrille, Groupe de Combat 11/5 Lafayette from Reims and Toul. Stephen Grey flew the Hawk in fine fashion on Saturday and was clearly enjoying being in the cockpit of what he calls the ‘sweetest of Curtiss fighters’. This was followed, on Sunday, by an equally lovely display from Patrice Marchasson, set to the ebb and flow of Michael Kamen’s 'Band of Brothers Main Theme' – I do love warbird displays set to classical music. Alas, it was a shame that both TFC's FG-1D Corsair and P-47G Thunderbolt ‘Snafu’ were unable to make it across Channel with the Hawk 75, it would have seen ‘Snafu’ make her début airshow appearance, but that has since happened at Duxford’s Flying Legends airshow.

More Luftwaffe action came in the form of the AJBS Ju-52, a pair of Fieseler Fi-156 Storches and a Morane-Saulnier MS.502 Criquet. As you would expect, the Storches demonstrated their typical low speed flying as did, more surprisingly, the Ju-52, with a very impressive flap down, low-speed pass along the runway. Next up was one of the largest set-pieces at the show, that based upon a Pearl Harbour theme, erring toward the Hollywood and film-making aspect. It began with the gorgeous Naval Aircraft Factory N3N taking a bimble around Hawaii, set to some rather laid back Hula music! However, approaching from behind the crowd was a formation of Harvards acting as the attacking Japanese force, they initiated a very impressive peel off from height to dive in as ‘Pearl Harbour’ erupted in flames below – the N3N escaping at low level, against a billowing wall of black smoke!

The Harvards, tail-chasing as they were through the lingering smoke brought back shades of the Biggin Hill Air Fair 2010; very evocative. As the others tailed off, they left a lone Harvard being chased by the Zero, AJBS’ very convincing Harvard conversion, however, as this was going on above, Curtiss P-40N Little Jeannie was scrambling down the runway to intercept the bandit! After a bounce and a tightly flown dogfight, the P-40 reigned supreme and the Zero went down, metaphorically of course, in smoke.

Once again, whilst the flying was key, it was enhanced by the pyrotechnics and the use of music from the films ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ and ‘Pearl Harbour’ - needless to say this had us quoting the cheesy lines from the 2001 film! It was particularly poignant though on Sunday, as the P-40 performed an extended solo at the end with Tennessee from the movie's soundtrack echoing the sweeping aerobatics.

By now the show really was rocking and rolling, continuing at pace with the Normandie-Niemen section of Russian aircraft, dedicated to the infamous group of French airmen that flew in Russia during World War Two. First the Polikarpov Po-2 radiated its agricultural soundtrack, ahead of the gaggle of five Yaks, all bombing in together and arriving over the ‘field as the pyrotechnics blew up and traditional Russian music kicked in - this marking the start of a rip-roaring sequence in which they proceeded to tear the house down.

Breaking into individual elements, they created a section that would be equally at home in the Flying Legends programme, with two Yak-11s flying big formation aerobatics as a Yak-3U and Yak-3AU tail-chased below, with Marc Mathis nipping into any gaps to provide some roaring solo passes in a Yak-3UTI-PW. As the rest recovered, Stephane Canu’s Yak-3AU continued to delight with some solo aerobatics, including a rather nice on-crowd Derry turn.

It was a shame that none of the participants for the Pacific section of the programme made it to the show - B-25J Mitchell, two Corsairs and PBY Catalina, but it didn’t leave a noticeable dent in the flying as there were a good number of heavy warbirds at the show regardless. Also, having surprised us on Friday evening with his arrival in place of the Corsair and B-25, Raimund Riedmann flew two scintillating solos in the Flying Bull's P-38L Lightning, which more than made up for any absentees.

The progression in Raimund’s displays since he first flew the aircraft and has gained more experience, is clear to see, and, looking back at video footage, his early displays were mainly flat ones. Even at Flying Legends, and the Hahnweide Oldtimer Fleigertreffen 2011, there were only a small number of aerobatic manoeuvres including Derry turns, aileron and four-point hesitation rolls. In the skies over La Ferté though, he took the Lightning through a delightful display, flowing from low and fast passes into graceful vertical aerobatics, with the sun glinting off of the beautifully polished metalwork, as the fork tailed devil danced across her blue canvass, set to the quintessential purr of the supercharged Allison engines. In essence, Raimund’s flying encapsulated for me exactly how a warbird display should be flown, and if this is what he can accomplish with just two years' experience on type, then I sincerely look forward to seeing how his flying in the Lightning progresses in years to come!

Adding another airshow to the lengthy European leg of its world tour was the Sikorsky S-38B ‘Osa’s Ark’, adorned with her jazzy zebra-striped paint scheme, this representing the aircraft filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson who explored Africa during the 1930s. This will be the Arks final year in Europe, before owner and pilot Tom Schrade takes her back to the USA. Meanwhile, in complete contrast, Cne François Rallet flew a fine aerial ballet in the L'équipe de voltige de l’armée de l’air Extra EA330SC – a fantastic aerobatic display on the whole, even if the Brendan O’Brien-esque clueless pilot act, at the beginning, was a little odd!

George Perez took P-51D Mustang ‘Nooky Booky IV’ up to the soundtrack from Empire of the Sun and a French recording of the boy’s famous line "P-51 Mustang - Cadillac of the skies!". His routine consisted of big vertical aerobatic manoeuvres and on the second day of the show he recreated the famous waving pass that was flown in the film by the late Ray Hanna – a really nice touch. The end of his display was rather interesting too as he put the gear down during a barrel roll, something I’ve not seen done before other than in video footage from displays in the USA.

The pace of the show was brought down a notch or two as some of the oldest aeroplanes took their turn to delight the crowds. The AJBS Bleriot XI-2 ‘Pégoud’ and Morane Type H display was a lot more adventurous than I had anticipated, with their figures of eight, formation and even opposition passes, taking us right back to the pre-First World War days of aviation in France. The Bleriot XI-2 ‘Pégoud’ is a twin-seat and slightly larger version of the 1909 machine used to first cross the Channel, while the XI-2 went on to become the first aeroplane used over a battlefield, during Italy’s intervention in Libya in 1911.

We were then shown a gliding masterclass by Christoph Zahn in his very attractive red, white and cream DFS Habicht glider, as he performed a delectable sequence of loops, rolls, spins, stall turns and outside manoeuvres in the late afternoon light. A stunning addition to the show.

Fortunately, the blustery winds abated sufficiently for us to witness the sole remaining original SPAD flying in the world as the Memorial Flight’s SPAD XIII C1 took the stage with Baptiste Salis at the controls. The speed of this French 1917 design surprised me somewhat – I knew they had a reputation for being fast, but not agile, I had just never realised quite how fast until seeing it fly first hand. Baptiste performed a much longer display on Sunday too, which was very impressive. The Fokker D.VII was meant to join it in the air but unfortunately suffered technical difficulties for the entire weekend and stayed on the ground.

Christophe Jacquard’s Supermarine Spitfire PR.XIX and Hawker Sea Fury FB.11 were both in attendance, representing the culmination of British piston engine fighter aircraft. Robert Faix flew the Spitfire whilst Eric Goujon tore the house down with his public debut in the smoke winding ‘Fury, displaying it with power and verve as he transitioned between big vertical aerobatics and stonking low and fast passes, creating intriguing shapes and effects in the sky with the smoke trails as he did so. In the past I’ve seen Eric display the Corsair, Mustang and Spitfire PR.XIX but have longed to see him take the helm of the Sea Fury to see what he can do – and it certainly was an impressive spectacle!

As well as the Patrouille de France there were some other display teams at the show, including the Belgian Air Force Red Devils with its SIAI-Marchetti SF.260s. After seeing them display at the Royal International Air Tattoo last year, for comparison, I definitely think they suit a smaller venue, with their tightly flown display being a lot closer and having much more effect. I do think their routine would benefit from a bit of smoke though.

Upholding a small British contingent in attendance, along with TFC's Hawk 75, John Day’s Fokker Dr.1 and Gordon Brander’s Sopwith Triplane, was the Breitling Wingwalkers team – adding a welcome 1930s barnstorming touch to this vintage show. At the controls were Martyn Carrington and Dave Barrell, with Danielle Hughes and Freya Paterson wingwalking. Freya is the team’s newest recruit, joining in April, and this was her second airshow after her debut at Biscarosse the previous weekend. The team flew two very tight displays, and on the Sunday the girls were nearly able to touch hands during the Mirror Pass as Dave swooped in underneath Martyn’s inverted Stearman, trying to get close enough to allow the wingwalkers to link hands. You could see from the ground just how excited the girls were as they got so close and it’s always nice to see little moments like that in aviation. The team departed for Sweden after displaying on Sunday, bound for the Linköping Airshow, adding yet another European event to their extensive 2012 calendar.

A seldom seen French type that also appeared at the show was the Dassault Flamant – with both a solid nosed MD.312 and glass nosed MD.315 variants flying a nice pairs display. Another lovely pair of twins would display on the Sunday in the form of DC-3 Dakota and Beech 18, the latter flying nestled in the slot position as the pair put in some tight turns.

The final set piece of the show was the Vietnam attack, and who knew that such a brilliant scenario could be built around just three aircraft! To begin, the North American T-28 Fennec displayed, marking the target with red smoke as 'This is the End' by The Doors was played, before the Skyraiders made their attack run with perfectly timed strafing and explosive pyrotechnics, while the music changed to 'Pin Cushion' by ZZ Top, just as the pyros went bang – perfection!

The two Skyraiders, Vega Team’s and Didier Chable’s machines, both with under wing stores, carried out a number of battle damage assessment passes and headed back to base. All in all a very effective scenario - relatively short when you think about it, with just a solo and a few formation passes from a total of three aircraft, but it didn’t need to be any longer or more intricate – I would so genuinely love to see ingenuity like this at more British airshows, it really was exciting!

The Armée de l’Air Rafale C solo demo flown by Cne Michael Brocard was really en pointe and I would go so far as to say that it is the best fast jet solo I’ve ever seen, with the jet staying very close to the airfield during its flowing and dynamic display, which sadly seemed to be cut short slightly by the failure of one of the reheats on both show days.

Providing additional jet action was the Patrouille de France. During their Saturday display, a few manoeuvres seemed to lack overall polish but on Sunday they had it nailed, drawing a heart in the sky before their final big break, which generated much ‘Oohing’ and ‘Ahhing’ from the crowd. It was a joy to see the Patrouille de France on home turf and to witness the reaction of the crowds to their national jet display team.

Although the Patrouille de France had closed the show on Saturday, because the wind had dropped somewhat, we were treated to the Sopwith 1½ Strutter making its first public flight in the capable hands of Baptiste Salis. It was great to see it airborne, even if it did have to return to the ‘field immediately, with the engine being shut down on the landing run. Thankfully the problem didn’t seem too drastic as the engine was restarted on the runway it and was able to taxi back to the static park. One would hope that next year, the SPAD, Strutter and Fokker D.VII will all be able to display – justification to travel to the show in itself!

After we had wandered along the edge of the static park and made the best of the warm evening light for photography, we were able to make the most of some end of the day food bargains from one of the hot dog stalls, grabbing a double hot dog for the price of a single whilst chatting to the team manning the stall – all good fun! We then retired to the apartment for a champagne-fuelled post show debrief in which we all quite literally drank Elliott under the table! (Ed - not for the first time!)

Sunday dawned identically to Saturday and it was not until the afternoon that some cloud rolled in to cool us down, which was quite welcome, especially as some of us were rapidly turning pink! As some thunderclouds built up to the west, they began to provide some different photographic opportunities from the clear blue skies, too. After the flying display proper had ended, there was a lot going on in the air for us to watch, always a bonus!

A Pitts S.2C put in an aerobatic sequence, before a raft of helicopter movements began ferrying VIPs from the showground to Paris Orly airport, including an Armée de l’Air Eurocopter AN555AN Fennec 2. Pleasure flights also continued with the An-2 and Ju-52 making a number of further sorties, along with some departures, allowing us to see the Nieuport N.28 in the air, as well as the P-38 Lightning, Sea Fury, and Didier Chable’s Skyraider, all of which delivered great fly-bys on departure – a fine way to finish off the airshow weekend!

After a day spent unwinding, it was time to hit the road once again and we bid farewell to La Ferté. The road trip had been the most daunting part of the adventure, but in the end, the majority of it was smooth and enjoyable, bar the near death experiences on the Paris ring road, and driving on some questionable ‘roads’ in the Somme! I think, had we done a fly-drive and hired a left-hand drive car, it would have been a lot more stressful, just as we did for Hahnweide in 2011, but the familiarity of having our own car really did make a difference. All it took was some sensible planning.

La Ferté-Alais was a superb experience from start to finish – it lived up to my expectations and so much more! The flying over the weekend really was outstanding, as good as one could ever hope for, encompassing everything from the pioneering days of aviation, with the Bleriot, right through to the modern day frontline fighter, in the shape of Rafale. The show managed to strike a perfect balance, with a predominantly warbird and vintage line-up, but with a handful of top quality modern military participants thrown into the mix; absolutely perfect for my tastes.

From an aviation photography point of view it was fantastic, I felt I came away with one of the best sets of photos from an airshow that I’ve ever taken. The airfield is perfectly situated for an airshow, having a picturesque and uncluttered forest backdrop, and with the sun staying at your back for the majority of the day, while none of the displays seemed too distant either. The static park also allowed a mixture of close up viewing and clear views for photos. During our stay we experienced great French hospitality from everyone, both at the show and elsewhere, with people being quite understanding of our complete lack of the French language and doing their best to help us out!

I really would urge anyone who has even contemplated visiting the show to make the leap of faith and to do so – it really does offer so much. As we have found out, it is not as difficult to do as we first thought and we chose to take the long option, by driving the entire way, although an equally realistic method would be a fly drive, picking up a hire car at a Paris airport. Whilst it’s difficult to pick any highlights or points that stood out from such a brilliant flying display, there are a couple of things that I have managed to whittle it down to from an initial list about as long as my arm! It was a delight to see as many Moranes as we did at the show, with a total of seven different types in the flying display, none of which I had ever seen fly before. The French armed forces really packed a punch over the weekend, with every display being engaging and with the aircraft in front of the crowd as much as possible – the Rafale solo and Super Étendards were particularly awesome.

There is much to be said about for building scenarios and the sympathetic use of music in the set-pieces too, something I really think British airshows could learn a lot from. Each one was well conceived, executed and completely different from the other, but what will really stand long in the memory is the Vietnam attack. The SPAD was wonderful to see, nipping about the sky, and Eric Goujon flew the Sea Fury with great vigour, but if I had to pick out one highlight, as tough as it is to do so, it would have to be Raimund Riedmann’s awesome displays in the Flying Bull's P-38 Lightning – I was left totally in awe by that!

We came to the conclusion that in La-Ferté-Alais, along with Duxford’s Flying Legends and the Hahnweide Oldtimer Fleigertreffen, we have a hit-pack with three of the best vintage and warbird airshows in Europe – each with its own very unique charm, atmosphere and style of flying display. A true gem of the European airshow calendar and pillar of the continent’s vintage aviation movement – La Ferté-Alais is most definitely on the list to try and attend every year from now on!

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