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So long associated with the Patrouille, the diminutive MagisterAir Salon

Salon-de-Provence - 18 May 2003

Chris Muir reports on the Patrouille de France's birthday party

Imagine the scene, you're preparing to go on holiday to the south of France. You're looking forward to good weather, fine food and wine - and then you discover that there is going to be an airshow less than fifteen miles from where you are staying! This was the situation I found myself in earlier this year, when I learnt of the open day being held at the Salon-de-Provence air base just to the north of Marseilles. Discovering further details involved a long search of the French department of defence website, but I managed to convince my wife that a day out watching aircraft would be good for the soul!!

First impressions were good. We parked 10 km away in one of the two park and ride car parks, and jumped straight onto a bus for the ride to the entrance. A quick queue to pay the 5 Euro ticket price and then we were in - very efficient and a pleasant change after the nightmare I endured at Fairford last year.

Frecce TricoloriSalon-de-Provence is the French Air Force's equivalent of Cranwell, with a resident fleet of Tucanos which were sadly tucked away for the day, as well as being the home of the Patrouille de France with their ten Alpha Jets. The airshow was being held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Patrouille de France, and a number of other national display teams had accepted invitations to attend.

Patrouille past...
MD-450 Ouragon
Mystere IVA
...and present
Alpha Jet
Teams on show
Marche Verte
Patrulla Aguila
Frecce Tricolori
Team Iskra
Red Arrows

A small static park had been arranged comprising examples of modern French hardware as well as a line up of aircraft from the history of the Patrouille de France. For the modern enthusiast, a based Tucano was arranged for cockpit viewings, so sadly not suitable for the photographers, in addition to an Alpha Jet, two Mirage F1s, four Mirage 2000s of differing variants, a Jaguar A, a Xingu and an Epsilon. To celebrate the history of the Patrouille de France, several museums had contributed aircraft which were painted in the markings they wore whilst operating for the team. The Patrouille de France was the nickname first applied to French Air Force squadron display teams in the 1950s flying the F-84G, an arrangement similar to the situation that existed in the RAF when squadrons had their own display teams. The unofficial nickname stuck through the different squadrons flying the displays and the change from the F-84G to the Dassault MD-450 Ouragan, then on to the Dassault Mystere IVA and finally the Fouga Magister. In the mid 1960s the team was made official and the Patrouille de France as we know it today was born. The team continued flying the Magister until 1981 when they were replaced by the Dassault Alpha Jet, which it still flies today.

The 'home' teamThe flying display consisted of routines from the various national teams present, interspersed with solo aerobatic displays from airshow performers flying Sukhois and CAP aircraft in ways that defy gravity. The Spanish 'Team Aguila' flying seven CASA C.101 Aviojets kicked things off with a tidy routine, concluded with their trade mark formation landing. They were followed by a fast and loud display from Patrouille Suisse flying six F-5E Tiger IIs - watch out this season for their bomb burst finale whilst releasing flares. The Polish AF 'Team Iskry', flying nine TS-11 Iskras, were noticeably more sedate than the Swiss, but their formation keeping was precise. The Moroccan contingent, 'Marche Verte' (the Green March) flying CAP231s were a contrast to all the jet teams, making use of the manoeuvrability of their aircraft to stay mostly within the confines of the airfield - and most of their display is flown with the aircraft tied together!! Next up were the Red Arrows with their nine BAe Hawk T1As, and it made a refreshing change watching them as am normally making an exit to beat the traffic whenever I have seen them in the UK - sorry guys! I may be biased, but the 'show' that the Red Arrows put on was superior to the mere displays from all the other teams, with choreographed formation changes and smoke colours. At all times there was something happening at show centre - unlike other teams who changed formation whilst out of view of the crowd.

Another Patrouille, this one SwissThe final three teams were the Frecce Tricolori, flying ten Aermacchi MB339s, who gave a typically polished performance with a bit of Italian flair from the solo pilot. The French contingent were last, starting with a three ship Epsilon team from the Armee de l'Aire (Cartouche Dore) and concluding with the hosts of the open day, the Patrouille de France, flying eight Dassault Alpha Jets. The team showed why they are one of the world's best aerial display teams, almost the equal of the Red Arrows to my mind - sadly we had to leave during their show to catch the bus back to the car park (again, Fairford take note - 85,000 people and I didn't have to queue for more than five minutes!!).

All in all, a great day out. If you ever have the opportunity to go to a French AF open day, I would highly recommend it. There might not be quite as many aircraft as many UK shows, but it was a day to remember.


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