The Patrouille de France has been undertaking a tour of the United States travelling across the country in both directions. The halfway point of the trip took them to California staying in Sacramento for their only west coast display. Rob Edgcumbe joined them for GAR to see how the tour was going and to watch them perform.
Taking a display team on the road is a big undertaking at any time. Taking them across an ocean to travel across country performing at multiple locations is a far larger undertaking. Combine that with a fleet of older airframes and you start to test the logistic support provided. This is the challenge that the Patrouille de France set themselves with their North American tour in 2017. It has proved to be quite a test but this hasn’t stopped them being a hit wherever they have been.
The tour started on the east coast of the United States followed by a stop in Texas before heading to California. Here they were hosted by the team that runs the California Capital Air Show at Mather Field near Sacramento. The show runs in September each year but they arranged to have a special event for the team to allow them to put on a performance. A smaller scale ticket only show was put together along with some engagement activities with the local community.
The team arrived a couple of days ahead of the show. Originally they were due to arrive mid afternoon after a trip including a flight across the Grand Canyon. However, the serviceability issues that had been a regular occurrence throughout the tour hit again and the arrival was delayed. The jets are forty years old and sometimes it shows. Ultimately, the Alpha Jets arrived in smaller groups with a couple making an unplanned stop in Flagstaff Arizona. This upset plans for a flyover of the Golden Gate Bridge. The support Airbus A400M had to head back to Flagstaff to support the process of fixing the two jets to get them to Sacramento which meant arriving too late for the originally scheduled time. Instead, this was postponed until the following day.
The team immediately got engaged with the local community. Despite a late arrival, children from a local French school were ready to welcome them on landing. The local consulate staff was also there. The pilots went straight from shutting down the jets to engaging with the kids. They were soon signing posters for the kids to keep (although the parents did have to remind the kids that the pens were for the pilots to use rather than for them to start drawing on the posters!) The following day the crews went to a local children’s hospital to see the patients.
While a full air show was not planned, the organising team did arrange to have some additional aircraft to support the display. A C-130J Hercules from Pt Mugu came up for static display along with an MC-130 from Moffett Field. A UH-60 Black Hawk was also on the ramp. A pair of Beale AFB T-38 Talons came in and, while they weren’t on the ramp near the visitors, they took off to provide a flyby to open the flying portion of the show. A number of civilian aircraft also showed up to enjoy the show.
The Alpha Jets had some minor modifications to celebrate the tour. The fins had been repainted in a style that combined the colours of the team with a reference to the Stars and Stripes. In addition, they were carrying graphics on the side of the front fuselage with the names and images of French aces from World War I. This was a reference to one of the reasons for the tour – the hundredth anniversary of the entry of the United States into the war.
The ceremonies got underway with a some presentations and the anthems. The Consul Générale spoke about the ties between the two nations that stretch back to the War of Independence. France is perhaps the oldest ally of the United States. He also introduced to the crowd the three young American servicemen that had been on a TGV train when a terrorist attempted to strike. They subdued the individual prior to him being taken in to custody. They each spoke a little about what happened then and what had happened since and they got a very warm reception from the crowd. A number of local dignitaries added their welcome and then the flying started.
As mentioned, the flying was opened with a flyby of two T-38s from Beale AFB. They headed back to base after flying through at the culmination of the national anthem. Then the A400M taxied out to start its display. It took off before carrying out a number of passes including a tight topside turn around the crowd. It then set up for a short landing demonstrating the way in which the A400M holds a flat attitude while descending steeply (unlike the very nose down attitude a C-130 adopts). Some reverse pitch brought it to a stop. While it might not have been a rehearsed display, the crew operated within their limits to show off the plane well.
They then held on the runway as the Alpha Jets taxied out to backtrack for departure. Once they had passed, the A400M crew reversed the plane along the runway and backed into a taxiway before competing the turn and taxiing back to the ramp and close to the spectators to shut down. Meanwhile, the team was lined up ready for departure.
The take off was in two four ships but did not go straight into a display. Because the arrival had been delayed, the team had not had a chance to carry out familiarisation with the area so they spent about 15-20 minutes flying in the area checking out reference points and undertaking checks on the jets. When all was done, they ran in from behind the crowd to start the display. For the next 26 minutes they ran through their full display including some amendments from normal due to the different regulations of US displays.
After landing, the team members were available to discuss the tour and their role in it. Capitaine Damien Bourmaud is Athos 2 (all of the team members taking their name from the musketeer). He has had an extensive career with Armee de l’Air having started out flying recce Mirage F1s before moving on to the Mirage 2000. He then became an instructor on the Alpha Jet before joining the team. He is now in his second year.
The tour is going to last about six weeks end to end including one week transit at each end. While some family members have travelled out to see the team members, most of the 70 people on the visit have been away from their family for the entire time. “It’s quite easy to call my wife and the kids but it is a bit tricky with the lag. It is nine hours difference from France so each morning when I wake up I can call them.”
When asked what the highlights had been, he was effusive. “Everything! This country is so huge, there is everything to see. Everything is wonderful, not only in the sky. We got a warm welcome everywhere. It is perfect.”
The timing of the tour is a little unusual. Previous tours have been in the summer. Consequently, the team membership was frozen over the winter rather than have the normal transition of pilots. This allowed the preparation for this tour to be seamless including making modifications to the display for North America. The rules regarding display flying in Europe and the US differ. Some things are allowed in one place but not the other. This means some parts get cut out while others can be added in.
With the flying complete and the interviews over, the team headed to the crowd line to meet the people that had gathered for autographs. This was not a small group either. A line formed as soon as the team landed and they didn’t mind waiting a short while. The plans of the organisers to get everyone out within a given time to allow the airport to return to normal operations were not going to work out exactly. The popularity of the team was clear to see.
Meanwhile, the crowd had been allowed in to the area where the A400M was now parked. The ramp was lowered and the public streamed in. The crew were on hand to answer questions and show everyone up to the cockpit. Consequently, the hold was filled with people waiting their turn. With time moving on, eventually the crew had no option but to lift the ramp up to stop anyone else getting onboard. Then they could show everyone already onboard through the plane and close it up!
Approximately 7,000 people came to the event. When the organisers were first asked whether they could host the team outside of their main show schedule, they jumped at the chance. They just wanted to get enough visitors to allow them to break even. It appears they achieved that goal. The show seemed to be a great success.
This show may have been triggered by the timing of the USA’s entry into WWI but that also was the reason for the creation of Mather AFB as a training facility. 2018 will be the one hundredth anniversary of the airfield so will be a huge event for the show. This visit will be the start of a process of building up to that celebration. Congratulations to all involved.