2012 European Airshows

JUN 19 2012
Airshows >> EUROPE: La Ferté-Alais 2012 arrivals day review

The world-renowned ‘Meeting Aerien’ at La Ferté-Alais in France has long been on my ‘must-do’ airshow list. La Ferté-Alais is really one of the ‘big three’ European vintage aircraft airshows, alongside Flying Legends at Duxford, UK, and the Oldtimer Fliegertreffen at Hahnweide, Germany.

Like ‘Legends and Hahnweide, La Ferté possesses its own unique charm and character – not to mention the array of wonderful old aircraft displayed each year! – and having spent many an hour reading up on the event online, watching video footage to whet my appetite or discussing the event with people who have been before (including GAR’s own Karl and Gareth), it was clear that La Ferté was right up my street.

GAR’s “European Vacation: Part Deux” saw Huw Hopkins, Thomas Pitts, my brother and I travelling to France on the Thursday prior to the airshow, staying in a truly lovely hotel just a few minutes from the airfield for six days. This would enable us to spend the Friday on-site watching the arrivals and practices before taking in both airshow days over the weekend.

Our trip started with Huw taking the train to Seven Kings, where he enjoyed a fried breakfast at Casa del Marsh, before we drove to Maidstone to collect Thomas. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that the entire trip was undertaken in my little 1.2 litre Mitsubishi Colt, a vehicle affectionately christened the “Red Mini”. Now, there’s enough space in the Red Mini for four passengers, no problem. Four passengers with six days’ luggage, camera bags and food? That’s another story…

As we loaded the poor girl up at Maidstone, you could almost feel the suspension groaning (indeed, it has developed a less-than-endearing squeak since the trip) but somehow we managed it. As an afterthought, my little runabout car racked up 1,000 miles during the course of the trip. Not bad, all things considered, although I await the day when I turn the key in the ignition and the thing blows up in my face…

We left the UK at midday on Thursday via P&O ferry, leaving a clear, hot and sunny Dover for a mist-shrouded, almost autumnal Calais. The ferry journey itself was as straightforward as could be, barring some head scratching regarding the positioning of the mandatory headlight deflector stickers (our final decision seemed to work and no French drivers were blinded during the making of this article). Getting across the Channel really is a piece of cake these days, I’m really not sure why we haven’t been over to France for an airshow before.

Navigating through the Calais A-road system, which was nowhere near as daunting as driving in Germany for the first time thanks to the comfort and familiarity of being behind the wheel of my own car, we found a nearby supermarket and stocked up on essential supplies – the usual chocolate, snacks and alcohol needed to sustain us for the next six days – before heading south towards Paris in a very straightforward and almost relaxing drive through the picturesque French countryside. All in all then, very uneventful – until we reached Paris!

I’d been warned that driving through Paris could be, shall we say, a bit troublesome, but what we encountered was wall to wall traffic broken only by the occasional insane junction or roundabout, made all the more terrifying by the hundreds (and I mean hundreds!) of scooters and motorbikes weaving between the many lanes of traffic. I suppose “character building” would be the diplomatic way to describe the experience, and we made it through after a good few hours of sweaty-palmed defensive driving! Next time, I’m bringing a Humvee.

Leaving Paris at sunset and making haste for the town of Ballancourt, we arrived at our hotel – a riverside complex with a superb outlook over the water – shortly after 9pm and, after swiftly unpacking our bags, set off in search of food in a trek that took us all over the French countryside before ending up at McDonald’s, which saw us causing utter confusion with our broken, almost unintelligible attempts at engaging our hosts in their mother tongue. They never did quite grasp what I wanted in my “oiseau burger”…

The following morning, we woke to find Christian Amara’s P-40N Kittyhawk flying over our hotel in crystal clear blue skies, proving that we were closer than we had realised to La Ferté-Alais – indeed, the airfield was a mere five minute drive from the hotel.

Could this location be any more perfect?! Spurred on by the nearby sounds of the Kittyhawk’s Allison engine, we piled into the Red Mini and set out for La Ferté, windows down and the sound of Ron Goodwin’s Battle of Britain theme – and then James Horner’s Horsemen theme – filling the warm air.

Pitching up at around 10am, we had some difficulty in accessing the airfield, which we soon discovered was due to a simple language miscommunication – our French hosts were under the impression that we were seeking live-side access, which was a no-no unless you held press accreditation, but once we established the fact that we simply wanted to watch the flying from behind the crowd barriers, we were told to have a good time and enjoy the day!

Enjoy the day we most certainly did! Walking out onto the airfield, we were greeted by a breath-taking vista set against a wooded backdrop. On the ground, everything from the Blériot to the Sikorsky S-38 and all around, a hive of activity as aircraft were prepared for flight.

In the air, two Rafales were in the midst of slicing the sky apart with a life-affirming tail-chase, paying no heed – given that it was arrivals day – to the display - or crowd-lines. No sooner had the Rafales departed, six Focke-Wulf FW-44 Steiglitz were departing to form up into a six-ship formation for several passes over the airfield. What a first impression!

Taking a gentle stroll along the crowd-line, we initially set up camp near the aircraft park but, barring a couple of arrivals (including the Belgian Red Devils in formation with a T-28 Trojan, the latter remaining on static over the weekend), not an awful lot was going on. We hedged our bets and decided to grab some lunch in the restaurant at the rear of the airfield.

Typically, no sooner had we settled down for our steak and chips, the inimitable Eric Goujon arrived in the Hawker Sea Fury FB11, making good use of the aircraft’s raw power to stamp the Fury’s mark on La Ferté with a brief but impactful series of half cubans and fast passes.

Listing each and every arrival and practice display separately is a redundant exercise and hopefully the many images accompanying this article serve to illustrate the action well. The highlights, it is fair to say, came from the Armée de l’Air and Aeronavalé, with the Rafale C solo display and Super Etendard M duo providing positively awesome, sky-tearing exhilaration.

The Rafale in particular is a standout amongst the European fast jet solo demos, full of punchy yet flowing manoeuvres and a number of good photographic opportunities, including one ‘dedication pass’-style topside from crowd right which was terrifically close and fast. I’d put it up there with the very best of the fast jet demos I’ve seen, and that’s no exaggeration.

The venerable Super Etendards, whilst hailing from an older generation than the Rafale, were equally as impressive, with a dynamic and genuinely exciting two-ship routine that combined formation passes, breaks, knife-edge mirror passes and a multitude of solo and opposition passes at different speeds and in various configurations.

Again, all of this was executed close and low, to a degree you simply don’t see in the UK. The fact that this all unfolded with the Top Gun anthem playing over the loudspeakers, before Kenny Loggins’ iconic ‘Danger Zone’ kicked in for the second half of the sequence, made it all the more brilliant!

The Super Etendards made an excellent start with their Friday rehearsal and indeed, their routines were increasingly wild as the weekend progressed. Sterling stuff indeed and they would have been a highlight of the Royal International Air Tattoo in July, although it appears that they will now only grace the static park. A great shame.

Not to be outdone by its fast jet counterpart was the A de l’A Extra 300 solo practice, perhaps the surprise hit of the day. I’ve seen many an aerobatic display from the Extra or its contemporaries, but this was something markedly different with some entirely new and unique manoeuvres – including a tremendous on-crowd rudder and elevator assisted ‘bow’, a la the Harrier displays of old – which drew applause from the assembled crowds.

An altogether different brand of aerobatics was also provided by the grandiose French national display team, La Patrouille de France. Despite ending abruptly without completing their full display, for reasons which were never entirely clear, La Patrouille were very impressive in their “dry run” for the weekend’s displays, coming very close on occasion (which, with eight aircraft in close formation, is damned impressive) and proving again that they are every inch the equal of their fellow European display teams.

At the other end of the scale, we had World War Two action from a quintet of Texans and Zero replicas, together with the really rather lovely Naval Aircraft Factory N3N, practicing the dramatic Pearl Harbour set piece, albeit sans pyrotechnics, P-40 and a couple of additional ‘Zeros’. Even without these elements, the sequence looked terrific – a touch of originality and theatricality that wouldn’t go amiss at some British airshows, it must be said.

Equally impressive was the ‘Yak-attack’ rehearsal, which saw three Yak-11s and a single Yak-3 (Stephane Canu’s gorgeous silver and red machine, a real beauty) flying formation loops, barrel rolls and beat-ups in the evening sun. Their routine on the show days – with Marc Mathis in a second Yak-3 added for good measure – was a show-stealer enhanced by pyrotechnics, music and an even more dynamic free-for-all.

The flying continued pretty much non-stop throughout the afternoon, with many notable arrivals and sorties – including Christophe Jacquard’s Spitfire PRXIX, Didier Chable and Vega Team’s Skyraiders, a pair of T-28 Trojans/Fennecs, The Fighter Collection’s Curtiss Hawk 75 (ferried over by Cliff Spink), a pair of Dassault Flamants, the Sikorsky S-38 flying boat (flying what looked like an air-to-air video sortie with a French media outlet) and the Belgian Red Devils who, I must say, impressed an awful lot more than they did at RIAT, although they would still benefit from a smoke system.

Of particular note was the arrival and subsequent flights of the ¾ scale Mosquito replica, an aircraft I had read much about. There’s an argument that it doesn’t quite look or sound the part (it’s cockpit looks oversized and it sounds a bit like a Tiger Moth on steroids) but putting that aside, it’s a fine replica indeed, and in all honesty, the guys behind the project have achieved more in aviation than I could ever dream to – all the best to them!

The evening was punctuated by the unexpected arrival of Raimund Riedmann in the Flying Bulls’ stunning P-38 Lightning, a replacement for the advertised Corsair and Mitchell which failed to materialise. However, the Lightning more than made up for their absence and its arrival – a fast, low-level banking pass down the runway – set the tone for the superb outings the aircraft would have over the weekend.

For those who have only seen the Lightning flying relatively ‘flat’ displays, rest assured, the 2012 routine is entirely new, with flowing vertical aerobatics for the first time (loops, half cubans, reverse cubans and barrel rolls aplenty) that put the Lightning firmly in the top tier of must-see warbird displays. It is really quite sensational.

With the sun setting and the flying continuing even after we left at gone 9pm (heading once again to McDonald’s; finding any proper restaurants open at that time over the bank holiday weekend was nigh on impossible!), we returned to the hotel with a true sense of excitement for the coming show days.

The quality and quantity of aircraft on display – including a number of debutants – puts La Ferté-Alais firmly in the same court as Flying Legends and Hahnweide and our initial perceptions from the arrivals day alone were that this show is something special.

La Ferté has a wonderful atmosphere, which is closest perhaps to that of Old Warden and Duxford, albeit with a strong Gallic flair. The airshow staff were nothing if not helpful and outgoing and as an all-round experience, there was very little we could find to criticise on Friday.

There was no rush to move people off the airfield even as dusk became night, despite the fact that the showground was still being prepared for the following morning’s airshow – take note, Duxford!

Much like Hahnweide, La Ferté-Alais had the vibe of an airshow run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. We were all there with a common ground that transcended nationality, language or age, and that was our love of aviation – a love so simple, yet so deep.

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