Photos by Scott Zeno and Alice Leong, written by Ken Kula.
France’s Armee De L’Air – sometimes known in the United States as the French Air Force – has send some of their most visible ambassadors on a seven week tour across the Atlantic Ocean, to North America. The Patrouille de France, the Air Force’s jet aerobatic team, have embarked with their eight primary Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jets, along with two other spare jets, and an Airbus A-400M Atlas support aircraft. A French Navy (Maritime) Falcon 50 tri-jet (a maritime patrol aircraft) led the procession across the chilly ocean, through some amazingly cold weather. Their tour’s logistics are eye opening and their itinerary full of symbolic gestures and historic events; here’s an overview of the early springtime tour.
ClassicWarbirds representatives were honored to be included in a welcoming group of officials and media at the Stewart International Airport in New York, as the team arrived in the U.S. for the first time in over thirty years. Seven of the Alpha Jets made a series of overhead passes at the airport before landing; the pilots and other crew aboard the twin-seat trainers cleared customs, and then appeared planeside to answer questions. The other three Alpha Jets and the Atlas arrived later that evening.
Why is the team is here in the U.S.? France’s Air Army General, André Lanata, summed up the reasons for this historic visit in his media editorial:
“2017 is a highly symbolic year for the French and American Air Forces alike. It marks the centenary of the United States’ entry in the Great War, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the US Air Force, I00 years since the death of Georges Guynemer and, more generally, it is a year in which the French Air Force will commemorate the World War I flying aces.
All this goes much deeper than outward symbols and commemorations, it underscores not only the history of cooperation between our Air Forces, but also the fact that that cooperation is now more topical than ever. During World War I, the French and American airmen of the “La Fayette Escadrille” fought side-by-side, building the superiority in the air that was to play such a decisive role in changing the course first of the Battle of Verdun, then the Battle of the Somme, and then, irreversibly, all the battles which followed.
Our aviators continue to fight side-by-side in today’s theaters of operations, protecting their fellow citizens. In the Levant, in the same Coalition force deployed to combat Islamic State, they fight the same enemy which has attacked innocent civilians both in France and the US. In the Sahel-Saharan Strip, the US Air Force provides support that enables the French forces to track down jihadist groups in a region the size of Europe and to sustain pressure in areas where they are active, thanks to ongoing air operations. Last, French and American air crew are part of NATO’s collective defense countering any resurgence of power struggles, especially when these are played out in the air.
The Patrouille de France’s US Tour celebrates this exceptional relationship, a relationship of steadfast allies determined to share their excellence in aeronautics to defend our shared values.” “…I would invite you to remember the deeper significance of the French aerobatics team’s extraordinary trip.”
We spoke with the Squadron Leader, Commandant Christophe DuBois, about their trip thus far, and what they will accomplish “over here” (versus “Over There”… the title of a popular 1917 song by American George M. Cohen marking the U.S.’s involvement in the First World War). The team left their home base of Salon-de-Provence in France, and after a stop in Orleans, France, made stops at RAF Lossiemouth Scotland, Keflavik Iceland, Kangerlussuaq Greenland, and Goose Bay, Labrador Canada, before arriving at CFB Bagotville, Quebec Canada almost a week after their initial departure. Seven of the Alpha Jets arrived together at Stewart on the early afternoon of Thursday, March 23rd; Squadron Leader DuBois sad that the cold air temperatures (minus twenty five on the ground in Greenland – whether Centigrade of Fahrenheit, this is COLD) caused some issues with the Alpha Jets, but they all made the crossing successfully.
There was only one day of weather-related delay between Keflavik and Greenland. The pilots flew wearing exposure suits in case of an over-water ejection. And the Alpha Jet has twin engines, so there was a bit of safety back-up, even though it was not needed. Commandant DuBois said that the normal range of the Alpha Jet was two to two and a half hours endurance. However, the jets were fitted with under wing fuel tanks for the crossing, adding extra fuel for a bit more range. Although two and a half hours isn’t an extraordinarily long time to be in a “fast jet”, over freezing water in frigid Arctic air offered a considerable risk. To read a great running commentary of their westbound trip, check out “Athos Leader” on Facebook!
The Patrouille will travel across the U.S. and Canada with their eleven aircraft, seventy-two personnel and some twenty-five tons of freight (spares parts, supplies and other items like brochures). Their first mission was to fly a photo pass over New York City, and grace the statue of Liberty with an aerial salute, streaming their red, white and blue smoke. The day prior to this flight, the Squadron Leader was flown around the downtown area in an Stewart-based Army UH-72A Lakota helicopter, on a reconnaissance mission to see where the flight should be led to. Although weather conditions weren’t perfect, the photo pass attracted loads of media attention, and created quite a stir – in a good sense. Their next leg, from Stewart to Andrews AFB MD, was plagued by even worse weather conditions, which forced a cancellation of another aerial salute over the Nation’s Capital. There will be plenty more photo opportunities along their planed route of flight though. Planned flyovers include the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge, along with a handful of air displays. Their next two display sites in Florida finally presented decent flying weather for the team to perform in.
Some of the highlights of this early 2017 tour include:
Statue of Liberty Flyover New York City NY – March 25
Washington DC Flyover – March 27
Melbourne FL and Sun N Fun FL Airshows – April 1 through 4
World War I Centennial Commemoration Event, Kansas City MO – April 5 and 6
Maxwell AFB air show – April 7 through 9
Grand Canyon Flyover – April 13
Sacramento CA Air Show and Golden Gate Bridge Flyover – April 13 through 16
Air Force Academy Flyover, Colorado Springs CO – April 19
Langley AFB VA VIP Day and Exercise TEI – April 20 and 21
Stewart International Airport NY, closed Air Show – April 22 and 23
Norfolk VA NATO Tattoo Festival – April 28 and 29
Ottawa ON /Gatineau QB Air Show – April 30
Montreal QB Air Show – May 1
There’ll also be days when the Patrouille stop and visit the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels at their home at NAS Pensacola FL and the U. S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds at their home at Nellis AFB NV, as well as a few stopovers for fuel while crisscrossing the U.S..
Special commemorative markings are applied to the visiting aircraft, honoring various French World War I Aces. There’ll be more about these markings in a later article here.
Check in again during the upcoming weeks of the tour for further information about the Patrouille de France team, and more about the First World War’s aviation history. An article about the historic 27th and 94th Aero Squadrons’ hosting the Patrouille de France at Langley AFB this year is already in the works!