French weekend - part one
ALAT Open Day - Dax, 18 May 2002
Andrew Bates reports
Thanks to some inspired planning (or was it just luck?) the French Army airfield at Dax, in south-western France, home of the EA.ALAT (Ecole d'Application de l'ALAT), held an Open Day just prior to the Air Force show at nearby Cazaux. This was just the excuse, if one was ever needed, to enjoy a long weekend in the beautiful Aquitaine region of France. Warm weather, cold beer, fine cuisine, and two airshows thrown in for good measure. What more could you ask for?
If the truth be known, originally your scribe was only really interested in the show at Cazaux (see separate review). No disrespect to all the ALAT personnel out there, but I thought a trip to Dax would be no more than a mildly pleasant interlude prior to Cazaux. It just shows you how wrong you can be! Not only was the Dax show far more enjoyable than I dared imagine, but much to my surprise, there was also a superb and fascinating museum to visit as well. Consequently, my original forecast of perhaps expending half a roll of film was quickly quashed. Fast dwindling stocks of film are always a good sign!
The flying display was fairly low key in comparison to other shows, with the emphasis primarily focused on various chopper demos, interspersed with a few 'prop jobs'. However, there was a rich variety of 'goodies' to found in the static park, enough to ensure that the trip was worthwhile for the average enthusiast.
Perhaps the greatest interest was generated by the Moroccan Gendarmerie SA330L Puma. It stood out for two reasons; one its obvious rarity value, and two, the interior trim. The rear cabin was open for inspection, which revealed some very fetching, furry, two-tone blue seat covers! This proved to be a real magnet for many of the younger visitors, making photography a near impossibility! After finally taking a shot, a quick inspection of the cockpit was conducted, but I can report that there was no sign of any furry dice hanging in the front window!
Naturally, the static contained an expected proliferation of French helicopters, representing almost every branch of their armed forces. From the Army, the resident EA.ALAT provided an SA341F Gazelle and AS355UN Fennec, whilst visiting from 5e RHC at Pau were an SA342M Gazelle and SA330B Puma. There were two Navy machines in attendance; a Lynx HAS4 from 34F and an AS565MA Panther from 36F. A Securité Civile presence was provided by two disparate types. Representing the familiar image of the service was the ubiquitous Alouette III, whilst an altogether more sleek and racy image was to be found in the Eurocopter EC-145. This latter machine looked factory fresh, and when the wind was in the right direction, I could swear I could still smell the paint! Completing the round up of French armed services were two examples of the AS350B Ecureuil, one a Gendarmerie machine, the other from the Douannes Francaises.
Surprisingly, for such a small show, there was excellent international participation. There was a German Army quartet from the HFWS (Heeresflieger Waffenschule) at Bückeburg, comprising a UH-1D, CH-53G and a pair of Bo105s. The Dutch also fielded a Bo105, along with a 302 Squadron AH-64D Apache. It was nice to see the Americans also contributing an Apache, an AH-64A from 1-1st Avn, which was parked alongside a UH-60L Blackhawk from C/158th Avn.
There were further examples of foreign hardware on display from Belgium, Switzerland and the UK. The British contribution proved to be the largest international contingent of the show. The Royal Navy was represented by a Lynx HAS3S from 815 Squadron and a Merlin HM1 from 824 Squadron, whilst the RAF had elected to send a Puma HC1 from 33 Squadron and a Chinook HC2 from 7 Squadron. Also, providing a complete change of scene from all the choppers in attendance, were a pair of 1(F) Squadron Harrier GR7s and a pair of JEFTS T-67M Fireflies, one of the latter performing during the flying display. With all the home based Gazelles dotted around the field, fixed wing aircraft were certainly in the minority, the only other noteworthy example being an ALAT PC-6B from the Etablissement de Reservé Generale du Materiel (ERGM) at Montauban.
Overall, this small show had much to offer the average enthusiast, both serial number 'crunchers' and photographers alike. However, if that wasn't enough, there were further treats in store. Situated on the north-eastern perimeter of the airfield is the Musée de l'Aviation Lègére de l'Armée de Terre. Open to the public every afternoon, except during Sundays and bank holidays, the contents of the museum are a joy to behold. All the airframes and associated artefacts are under one roof, the vast majority of which help to illustrate the history and purpose of the air element of the French Army. The standard of restoration within the museum is impeccable, every airframe on show is in immaculate condition and superbly presented. The light levels are also quite good as well, so keen photographers are well catered for. There are familiar aircraft on show, such as L-18C Cub, O-1E Bird Dog, Stampe SV-4C and Broussard. Equally familiar are helicopters such as the Alouette II, Alouette III, H-19D and HSS-1.
However, I'm not ashamed to say that there are also a number of weird and wonderful shapes within the museum, of which I simply did not have a clue as to their identification. Fortunately, all the airframes are clearly labelled, so the visit proved to be quite educational! With all the aircraft being so well presented, previously alien types, such as the NC856 Norvige and N3400, were captured on film as eagerly as ever.
After taking in the show at Dax, the visit to the museum rounded off a most enjoyable afternoon's activities. Even better, during the trip round the museum, all the spotters out there will be impressed to hear that I've made my last ALAT SA361! (Yes I know they've only ever had the one, but it sounds impressive!).