The Aéronavale’s 11 Flottille (11F) was recently deployed to the Mediterranean on board aircraft carrier R91, Charles de Gaulle, for a work-up exercise aimed at preparing the squadron for forthcoming deployment. One of the squadron’s Dassault Rafale pilots spoke to Steve Comber during a recent embark of France’s potent aircraft carrier, relating his experiences of flying and training on both the Dassault Super Etendard and the Rafale.
Sunday, 23 November 2014. At short notice I find myself standing on the quayside in Toulon Naval Base, southern France, on a sunny but cold day, waiting for transfer by boat to the flagship of the French Navy, R91 Charles de Gaulle.
This would be my third embark on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in four years. The three day/two night embark offered a rare opportunity to witness a standard work-up exercise, prior to a possible politically-led deployment of the flagship and its protecting fleet at any time should the need arise. One key aspect of this exercise was to test the power projection of the carrier wing with only one aircraft type, the Dassault Rafale, as, following the mid-life overhaul of Charles de Gaulle in 2017, the Super Etendard will be withdrawn from service.
The embarkation in late-November deterred many invitees, not least due to a predicted gloomy weather forecast for this work-up period, resulting in only three other photo journalists on-board. However, the in-depth presentation of R91’s capability and current global role became quickly evident. Only one squadron of Rafales, hailing from 11F, was deployed to the ship together with Dauphin and the 50-year old trustworthy and very capable Alouette III helicopters for rescue and supply support.
Admittedly the weather for aviation photography was, to say the least, varied and changeable; it’s not all sunshine at sea, even in the Mediterranean in late-November – however, that’s really what it’s all about: projecting global power come rain or shine. With several interviews from which to draw insight, I have chosen to feature an 11F squadron pilot’s appraisal of the exercise. The pilot started his presentation by stating his rank and, for security purposes, that was all we were getting…
My entry to the crew room is greeted by an almighty KERBOOM… KERBOOM… as two Rafales fire off the deck directly above our heads, making any conversation momentarily impossible. A quick glance at the black and white television monitors confirms what’s going on up on the flight deck, and with a lull in activity bringing about relative quiet, we settle in to talk ship:
“I’m [the] Lieutenant of [a] 11F squadron Rafale, pilot callsign ‘Wallace’. I started flying the Super Etendard with 11F squadron in 2004, having completed my pilot training in the US with VT-7 at NAS Meridian, Missisippi, where all French pilots have conducted training since the early ‘90s.
“I flew the Super E for about three and a half years in both Afghanistan and Libya – that was quite an experience – followed by a two-year tour as an instructor on the F/A-18 with US Navy VFA-106 at NAS Oceana. I’ve been flying the Rafale for a year and a half and am currently finalising my transition training qualification right now. The Super E is regarded as the ‘Swiss Army knife’ in the French Navy carrier wing. It’s still a very capable delivery platform and very stable at low level in the anti-shipping role with no [modern] flight control systems. As a pilot, you fall in love with your first plane, and the Super E was my first love!
“The F-18 gave me an introduction and greater insight for the air-to-air role which I’ve been conducting more recently with Rafale. The two years spent on the F-18 offered a really good transition from Super E to Rafale; I’m very grateful to have been given this opportunity. We have also recently had an exchange with the Greek Air Force A-7s, and this French exchange programme has proved very successful for more than 30 years. There is always a French pilot flying with the fleet replacement squadron at Oceana and we have an American exchange pilot currently flying the Super E with the French Navy right now. There are very close links with the US Navy and French carrier wing; Operation Bellwood last year proved these close links a valuable asset for inter-operations – it ensures we do business the same way.
“With the Super E on the way out service we are obviously focussing to ensure Rafale can do the job previously carried out by the two types. Rafale can do so much, it’s a massive step forward in terms of capability from the Super E and is equally in front of the F-18 in terms of performance. The new AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar increases the aircraft’s ability four-fold. The amount of tasks the plane can perform at the same time is just amazing. It’s incredibly user friendly, allowing you to quickly crew in, start up, type in the mission profile you are to perform and off you go! You feel limitless with the possibilities available. Situational awareness is sensational; you always know what’s around you, with integration of sensors, radar, countermeasures and communications all working together, or ‘fusionised’ as we say in French!
“Everything comes together in a single screen, and flying the Rafale is simply joyous – it’s very powerful and manoeuvrable; you are invincible! It regains its energy very quickly; the global aerodynamic engine package makes the Rafale so nice to fly, the rate of roll is amazing and it’s very easy to fly at slow speed. I am super happy as a pilot to be flying this versatile airframe. There is always a big smile on my face after every flight!
“All new Rafales will be delivered with AESA radar. The early deliveries are being reworked – we just received the first M10 last month – and all the electronic systems will be upgraded. The Meteor missile is in trial and hopefully will enter service in 2018 subject to test clearance. With the use of Link 16 and Meteor it will give us a significant advantage beyond visual range. It’s quite likely the existing training areas will be too small for Meteor weapons training, and perhaps we will have to adapt our training for this new missile; it’s like switching from a bow and arrow to a big powder gun!
“The Rafale has matured into a capable and proven weapons delivery platform. With all this capability we have to be up to speed on systems, hence our 180-200 hours’ flying per year, per pilot. Simulators help a lot but this will never replace real-time physical flying. Simulators help at an early stage in the process – it’s always better to make mistakes before you jump into the aircraft. The flight hours we receive now are sufficient to allow proficiency in every role. It’s quite challenging because Rafale adds more and more pilot tasking as its capability matures every year. Does this mean we as pilots will max out in our ability to control all the systems? I personally don’t think so. You never get bored, and I’m not sure we will ever be overloaded – humans are very flexible, we adapt.
“With good training we will pave the way for new pilots, as things become more complicated we will adjust to ensure good pilots can cope with these additional capabilities. The French Navy and Air Force have been heavily tasked in past years, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, but that’s our job – we train to be ready. We are always busy; our political leaders have trust in what we are doing. Of course I am not happy there are wars and conflicts in the world but that is our job, and I am confident we are doing the job right and training for the right reasons.
“With NATO assets heavily tasked in the last 20 years it’s necessary for us to be 100% committed. Currently, there are 18 pilots on the squadron all involved in the work-up exercise performing a similar number of hours with ops to ensure they all have the same amount of experience in all aspects of operation, both day, and, once ready, at night! Our pilots all need to be at the same level of experience. When we are called into combat it’s essential you can rely on your wingman – you have to work as an integrated team to be ready.
“Exercises like NATO Tiger Meet and TLP are an important and integral part of our training, and invaluable in keeping up to date with new tactics; there is always something to learn from our NATO allies! Tiger Meet is very big – it’s not all show and fanciness, however. These large exercises should be mandatory for all NATO members to ensure we are at the top level of our game for operational readiness. It is always complicated to mix our schedules with Tiger Meet. We attend as often as we can, [and] we want to be there this year for the invaluable training environment it offers, but it’s not always possible due to our own training programmes. We think we will be deployed [elsewhere] in 2015 when the next one is held in Konya, Turkey, though we are working very hard to participate if possible. As a full member of the NATO Tiger Association we feel obliged to participate, but deployment at sea always comes first.
“Land-based operations are an important part of our training – it’s never easy to land on a boat! But the Rafale makes it easier, this is true – compared to the Super E it’s easy! The Super E is just on the limit when landing – almost at stall speed, invariably behind its power curve and bucking around at 7-8 knots from stall speed, it’s quite difficult without any aids. Having been a Super E pilot myself I feel quite proud to have experienced and achieved this, and I always have admiration for the pilots who continue to do this, especially at night.
“The Rafale flight control system, coupled with the power reserve of the engine, make it a very smooth aircraft to land on a carrier – it instills confidence. The auto follower keeps your angle of attack to a certain limit, and this, combined with actuation of flight control surfaces, ensures aerodynamics are at their optimum just at the right moment. Those 15 seconds as you sink towards the boat are much more stable than the Super E, especially at night. Not only that, you can carry much more weaponry back to the boat – it was designed for this purpose – so yes, it’s easier to land on the boat, although, like I say, it’s never easy!
“Each pilot should receive about ten to 12 hours’ flying time during this training period with a typical mission of one and a half hours – there is a little bit extra for those that fly at night. Today was very interesting [as] we were trying to defend the boat for ten hours straight off, and we have had Mirage 2000s coming from Orange in the east.
“Many other threats have launched against us including helicopters, so it’s very interesting to spend a full day like this proving we are capable of defending ourselves with just one squadron of Rafales and 18 pilots. With two jets flying, if not more, at all times it’s quite an achievement with only half of the air wing here on Charles de Gaulle. On my flight we had multiple threats with two Alpha Jets, Hunters from the Apache company and four Mirage 2000Ns – and all of that in one hour! It was quite an intense period. This level of activity should continue and increase for the rest of the day for sure.
“Our most experienced pilot is currently at Nellis, nicknamed the ‘big grey owl’ (a reference to the fact that night qualified pilots wear an owl patch on their flight suits) [and] he has more than 200 night traps on the Super E. We wait until pilots are combat-ready before training and tasking night landing. In difference, all US Navy pilots land night and day straight after qualification, but with Charles de Gaulle being a smaller boat with narrower margins for error we prefer not to push our assets too hard. Weather limits are critical, and it all depends on sea levels. After 25 traps you are cleared to land on the carrier in all weathers, but there are limits in rough sea states.
“During the training phase we carry out between 25-40 landings using a procedure called “Zip It”. No one talks on the boat, you come in silent on your own in daytime, then you do the same at night; it depends on sea state, weapons configuration and wind etc. and, of course, if we have helicopter cover.
“That’s it gentlemen – my time is up, I have to go back to my duties!”
As a footnote, it’s worth noting that with the recent ISIS attacks in Paris, a swift deployment came much sooner than expected as the carrier was tasked to the Persian Gulf in support of her allies.
‘Je Suis Charles de Gaulle‘
The author would like to thank SIRPA Marine, 11F, the Air Wing Commander and the crew of the CdG – some of whom I have met on earlier embarkations – for their invaluable help and exceptional professionalism and hospitality throughout my visit to R91.
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