La Ferté-Alais. Three words that immediately capture the best in vintage aviation in Europe. The annual Meeting Aérien, now in its 41st year, is one of the finest historic airshows in Europe, alongside the Hahnweide Old Timers’ Meeting and Duxford’s Flying Legends Airshow. Greg Marsh reports for GAR, with images from Huw Hopkins and Elliott Marsh.
The Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis (AJBS) always presents a mouth-watering selection of aircraft, many of which are home based, along with a smattering of visiting European gems and participation from the French Armed Forces.
Unfortunately, the weather did not do the show justice. Whilst 2012’s event had been blessed with perfect conditions, this year saw cloud, and on Saturday, rain play a part, with near constant rainfall starting at 1500 and continuing into the evening. Obviously, this affected the opening day’s line up somewhat, but all credit to the organisers for persisting in presenting the less weather dependent acts.
If you’ve never sampled La Ferté before, it’s really difficult to describe the atmosphere on site. There is a flight line walk open in the morning for a small fee. Whilst there are still barriers in place, you can get much closer to the participants than at, say, Duxford for example. Some of the resident machines not in this year’s programme were on show too, such as the Cauldron Luciole and Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter, both of which flew last year. Catering-wise, La Ferté puts most UK airshows to shame, offering only freshly cooked produce at reasonable prices.
Where to start with the flying programme? La Ferté-Alais presents a flying cavalcade of aviation history, from the Edwardian era to modern times, encompassing everything from gliders to fast jets, often in themed tableaux and special formations. This winning formula, sort of like a cross between Old Warden and Duxford, has attracted many UK visitors since the 1980s, when the event became the place to see some of the leading British warbirds flown in spirited fashion abroad. Regulations may be stricter nowadays, but that still does not prevent some tremendous flying.
The Aéronavale is a regular supporter and fielded an impressive formation of E-2C Hawkeye and pairs of Dassault Super Etendards and Rafales. The lovely and privately-owned Morane-Saulnier 760 Paris joined in before opening the individual displays. The Super Etendards were, perhaps, not quite as exuberant as last year but they are still an incredibly charismatic jet. The Rafales, however, were stunning, with plenty of vapour on show during the fast passes in their all-out, relentless routine.
The French Air Force presented the Patrouille de France, who, once again, impressed with some very nice formation flying. The PdF are always in the upper echelon of the national teams and they are always very well received at La Ferté. Notable too is the inclusion of music throughout their display, with this year’s soundtrack including contributions from M83, The xx and Meatloaf, amongst others – an eclectic mix, but one which works perfectly! Also from the Armee de l’Air was a pair of Extra 330SCs of the Equipe Voltige team. Unfortunately, their duo routine was nowhere near as stunning as the solo performance witnessed last year, although there was a crisp aerobatic display from one of the duo on the Sunday afternoon.
I thought the civilian Pitts Special and CAP 232 duo flew a much more impressive and punchy display with a couple of well-choreographed figures and high-energy solo manoeuvres. On such an action-packed flying programme, one might assume that they would end up being a little lost amongst the heavier metal, but the Pitts and CAP held their own and were memorable in their own right.
Warbirds are always a strong feature of La Ferté-Alais. The Fighter Collection is a regular supporter and, this year, presented the Hawk 75 and P-47G Thunderbolt. It’s fair to say that the “Jug” was the most popular aircraft on the ground with the French enthusiasts. No surprise, considering this is its second season and first foray into Europe. In the air, Pete Kynsey’s routine was typically sublime, with fast topside passes interspersed with aerobatic figures, such as PK’s trademark eight-point hesitation roll. “Oh Pete, you’re too much,” exclaimed commentator Bernard Chabbert! The Thunderbolt also joined up with the Hawk for a first-time pairing of these Curtiss built fighters.
Patrice Marchasson was a lucky man at the show, displaying both the Hawk 75 and Christophe Jacquard’s beautiful Sea Fury FB.11 with smoke winders; his fast-paced display in the latter was far superior to a very subdued outing in the Hawk. Jacquard himself displayed his Spitfire PR.XIX with vigour, flown to the famous tune of Ron Goodwin’s Battle of Britain March.
American pilot George Perez put that classic fighter, the P-51D Mustang, through its paces including his trademark barrel rolls after take-off and whilst lowering the undercarriage! Perez always puts on a good show – whilst he flies aerobatics at higher altitude than most British warbird pilots, this doesn’t detract from what is always a very dynamic and fluid sequence.
For many, the stunning Flying Bulls pairing of P-38L Lightning and F4U-4 Corsair, in the hands of Red Bull’s Chief Pilot Raimund Riedmunn and the incomparable Eric Goujon, provided the warbird highlight. Their routine mixes close formation passes and aerobatics with a spirited tail chase, concluding with short solo routines from each machine. The display is sufficiently different so as not to be identical to the likes of The Horsemen and the Old Flying Machine Company’s Spitfire and Mustang duo. British enthusiasts are bound to be impressed when the pair appear at Flying Legends and RIAT in July.
The other memorable formation routine was a pair of Ju-52s, with Marc Mathis leading in the resident aircraft, in formation with one of the Swiss-based Ju Air aircraft. This really was a remarkable sight – two transport aircraft flown at low level, in close proximity to each other. I’d love to see this repeated again somewhere in the future. They were even able to, just about, formate with the Fiesler Storch that was airborne simultaneously, so photographers could get all three aircraft in the same shot!
A La Ferté-Alais hallmark is the numerous set pieces. One of the most prominent is the recreation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, which really catapulted America into the war. The well-built sequence opened with representative US training aeroplanes of the period – a PT-17 Stearman, PT-22 Recruit and the beautiful Ryan N3N tail-chased around the skies to soothing Hawaiian music played over the loudspeakers.
Soon the peace was shattered with the arrival of eight Harvards, including the resident Zero replica, which launched a series of bombing runs on the airfield, complete with impressive pyrotechnics. In the midst of this, Christian Amara’s P-40N Warhawk scrambled to intercept the intruders. Using a bit of artistic licence, one of the “invaders” transformed into an American fighter, which engaged, unsuccessfully, in mock combat with the Zero replica. In turn, the P-40 returned to save the day. This sort of imagination is what La Ferté thrives on and this short-but-punchy set piece epitomised the originality on display; the organisers certainly know how to use what’s on offer to the best possible effect.
A trio of Yaks – 3, 9 and 11, remembered the Russian front, again accompanied by appropriate explosive effects. Saturday’s poor weather meant that only the -3 and the -9 could fly, taking to the skies individually for contrasting solo displays. Indeed, Stephane Canu’s silver and red Yak-3 was one of the warbird highlights, flying a terrific aerobatic display that showed off the Yak’s capabilities to good effect. The display by the Yak-9, however, was one of the highest and most distant displays I’ve ever seen! Whilst the figures flown were perfectly respectable, the aircraft was well away from the crowd and didn’t drop below an altitude of what must have been several hundred feet…
Representing the Vietnam conflict was an interesting cross-section of types. The French-based Rockwell OV-10 Bronco has been repainted into a striking US desert scheme from Operation Desert Storm. It flew in company with a Beech 18, representing an American liaison machine, before both types flew individually, the Bronco in particular impressing with some aerobatic figures. George Kern’s T-28 Fennec and Vega Team’s “tooled up” Skyraider strafing an imaginary Vietcong position on the airfield rounded off this sequence, making three passes together as ZZ Top’s Pincushion triumphantly beat out over the loudspeaker.
One of the most interesting formations over the weekend was that of DC-3 Dakota and Boeing 737 from Europe Airpost, which made a single pass in formation before flying individually. Airliner displays have long been a tradition at La Ferté and it was good to see it continued this year. As an aside, I recommend viewing the footage on YouTube of an Air France Concorde in formation with the Patrouille de France from the late Eighties. All I will say is that, you’ll be astounded!
Returning this year, were the Dassault Flamants duo which flew an elegant, and extremely tight display, culminating in an impressive on-crowd break. Look out for these guys at Eastbourne later in the season.
The main theme of the show was the 100th anniversary of famous French aviator Roland Garros’ flight across the Mediterranean in one crossing. As such, the lovely Morane H monoplane was an appropriate way to commemorate this. Later types from the Morane-Saulnier family that flew were the 317, which gave a fantastic aerobatic display of energy management in the hands of Baptiste Salis, and the traditional close formation pairs display by the wonderful Parasols.
An emotional tribute was paid to John Day, killed in his Fokker Eindekker replica at Middle Wallop in April. John has often displayed at La Ferté in his Fokker Triplane over the years, so it was only right that his passing should be remembered, along with that of François Guinand who died in an accident involving his Fokker Triplane last July, which was former a resident of La Ferté. A stunning dogfight sequence involved an Se5a replica seeing off a modified Jungman. Both machines cavorted around the skies in lively fashion. This was probably the wildest World War One dogfight recreation that I have seen! Meanwhile, a Balbo of between-the-wars training types, including Tiger Moth, Stampes, Jungman and Jungmeisters, flew overhead. It was difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute.
In truth, mere words cannot possibly do La Ferté Alais justice. One has to experience the atmosphere to fully appreciate why it is such a revered show. I hope this report and accompanying photos will persuade some of you to, perhaps, attend next year’s show (hopefully with better weather!). I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
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