After a frustrating first day at Toulouse-Blagnac, all hopes for the trip were pinned on Day 2, which started with lovely golden light. The plan was to spend the day outside the wire at Base Aerienne 118, Mont-de-Marsan, home of multiple types from the French Air Force inventory.
Truth be told, it was the lure of the Mirage F1 that prompted us to make the journey to begin with. Not really sure what time the Armee de l’Air would start flying, we decided it would be prudent to be in position from 0800, just in case. After checking out of the hotel and locating a nice patisserie to grab some supplies for the day, we headed out for a self-guided tour of the airfield’s perimeter. The airfield is almost completely tree-lined and it’s virtually impossible to see anything from the roads outside the base, but a couple of Mirage F1s could be spied.
Having located the photo spots at either end of the runway, we decided we’d sit at the eastern end and wait. The wind was light and it wasn’t particularly obvious which end would be in use. Of greater concern to us was the vast number of base personnel that were jogging around the track inside the perimeter fence; was this going to be a flying day or a down day? The conversation about how long we give it even cropped up.
But then, around 0930, the first departure of the day took place when a TBM-700 got airborne towards us before banking left and showing us its underside. OK, they were flying, but if that was representative of a typical departure, we were wasting our time where we were, since the gap of visibility between the trees was tiny and undersides most definitely weren’t what we’d come for.
Some 15 minutes later, a Mirage 2000D followed the TBM’s lead, and we knew we had to move to the approach end.
The spot at the western end was located just off a fairly busy roundabout and, while it did offer a slightly more open view of proceedings, it would certainly still have to be described as restricted. From reading around beforehand, we knew we were almost certain to get a visit from the local Gendarmerie for an ID check and that there was a very vague possibility that we might be asked to leave. There was no disguising the fact that we were there, and we seemed to be the point of fascination for almost all of the traffic that used the roundabout. Despite that, over the course of the next six and a half hours, we were passed by countless Gendarmerie vehicles but not one of them saw fit to stop and talk to us.
We’d not been there long when two TBM-700s arrived, each flying fairly tight circuits from the north side of the airfield.
A few times we thought we’d heard aircraft start, but with lorries constantly pulling up to and then driving away from the roundabout, it was pretty hard to be confident either way. It was 1100 before anything else moved, and there was no mistaking that something was happening when the aircraft lined up on the runway and powered away. Aside from being able to tell it was a four-ship, we had no real idea about types until their return. At 1120, a further aircraft departed, again without being sighted as it climbed away.
Around an hour after the four-ship had departed, we had another ‘Doh!’ moment. With all movements up to that point having taken place from Runway 09, our focus was off to the west until out of nowhere a four-ship of Mirage F1s appeared from the east in an extremely low, tight, diamond-four formation in stunning light; there wasn’t any chance of reacting and picking up the camera before they once again disappeared behind the trees…. The air turned blue and immediate thoughts questioned whether they’d changed runways. The wind was very definitely still favouring Runway 09, and once we’d convinced ourselves of this, the realisation that we were about to shoot four Mirage F1 recoveries tempered frustrations considerably. Sure enough, the noise built in the distance as the aircraft turned, and a few seconds later they returned from the west, this time considerably higher and in echelon right formation for a break to land.
According to reports online, only around a dozen examples remain active, so to get a third of the fleet in one go had seemed improbable. The aircraft all fall under the control of ER02.033 “Savoie” which had been based at the now inactive Base Aerienne 112, Reims-Champagne – a place I’d visited along with Gareth back in May 2010 – until July 2011. ER02.033 is split into two ‘escadrilles’, with the seagull motif representing SAL6 “Mouette Rhénane” and the red origami chicken belonging to BR11 “Cocotte de gueules”. 400mm on a 1.6x crop body was just about perfect for the recoveries.
Over the course of the next hour, eight further departures occurred, some where we could identify the type and others that we could not.
The next recovery was a Mirage 2000C carrying the markings of EC02.005 “Ile de France” based at Base Aerienne 115, Orange-Caritat, though the pilot’s tiger-coloured helmet visor cover suggested it was being operated by the resident ECE05.330 “Côte d’Argent”‘s BR127 “Le Tigre” escadrille.
A based Alpha Jet was followed by a pair of similarly local EC02.030 “Normandie Niemen” single-seat Rafale Cs.
Shortly thereafter, another pair of Mirage F1s appeared on the downwind leg of the circuit. Six different F1s was far more than we’d hoped for!
That burst of activity was concluded by a pair of Mirage 2000Ds, one carrying the markings of BR127 “Le Tigre” and the other EC01.003 “Navarre”‘s SPA62 “Coq de Combat”, based at Base Aerienne 133, Nancy-Ochey.
Things again went quiet with just four singleton Rafales and a further pair of Mirage F1s getting airborne over the course of the next two and a half hours.
A pair of Mirage F1s that we’d already shot from the morning wave recovered, as did two single Rafales – a B and a C, both carrying the markings of CEAM, “Centre d’Experiences Aeriennes Militaires”, the French test unit – and another TBM-700.
Check-in opened back at Toulouse at 1945, and with a two and a half hour drive back ahead of us, we called it quits at 1645.
The weather had been amazing all day, we’d had no issues with security and we’d got more Mirage F1 activity than we’d dreamed of. It probably wasn’t as busy with Rafales as we’d expected, but the ongoing operations in Mali might have had something to do with that. All told, a far more satisfying day than the one before it, and we both came away feeling the trip had been well worth it.
That, however, would not quite be the end of the adventure!