Bon Anniversaire RAF
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular delve into the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. The Airshow season just passed will certainly be remembered as a significant one by British enthusiasts, with the centenary commemorations of the Royal Air Force bringing the subject of aviation to the attention of many more people than would usually be interested in aeroplanes and as a consequence, saw event attendance figures receiving a healthy and extremely welcome boost. This was certainly illustrated by several of the country’s premier events selling their ticket allocations much earlier than usual, especially some of the more enthusiast based offerings at events such as RIAT, Yeovilton and the three IWM Duxford Airshows during the summer months. With the British public clearly wishing to be part of this significant anniversary for the RAF, it is to be hoped that the excellent organisation behind these events and the glorious summer which acted as their backdrop, will leave a legacy of increased visitor numbers and a renewed public connection with the current Royal Air Force and its history, in the years to come. Importantly, it will hopefully also see an end to the alarming reduction in Airshow events over recent years, as spiralling cost and ever increasing regulations have resulted in several of the best-loved traditional Airshow events falling off the calendar, many sadly never to return.
In this latest edition of Aerodrome, we are attempting to stave off the inexorable onset of winter, by looking back at one of the most significant events of this RAF centenary year and the aviation contribution made by one of our near neighbours to these commemorations. In search of a little Gallic flair to brighten our weekend, we pay our second blog visit to this year’s Royal International Air Tattoo to focus on a trio of memorable displays performed by French aircraft, which not only provided a welcome splash of colour to the proceedings, but also gave many in the crowd an enjoyable trip back down memory lane, to when Airshows were as dynamic as the aircraft taking part in them. We wish the RAF Bon Anniversaire from our friends across the Channel, as this latest edition of Aerodrome goes just a little bit French.
100 years of flying excellence
For the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the RAF presented their display Typhoon in this stunning camouflage scheme, which many were hoping to see again during their RAF 100 commemorations
With a full year of events planned to mark the momentous centenary commemorations of the establishment of the Royal Air Force, the honour of fulfilling the main international flying element of these celebrations was bestowed upon the Royal International Air Tattoo, Britain’s enormous annual aviation spectacular and the largest event of its kind to be held anywhere in the world. As air forces from all over the globe announced their intention to be part of this aviation extravaganza, enthusiasts were forced to make their attendance plans for the 2018 show well in advance and much earlier than they would usually have to, certain in the knowledge that many more people than usual would be intending to take their place at this once in a lifetime event. The vast majority would also be hoping to see many of the RAF’s current aircraft inventory presented in special RAF 100 commemorative schemes, as this was going to be such a significant occasion and the eyes of the aviation world would be on them. Just three years ago, they set such a distinctive precedent when they presented their display Typhoon in a beautiful scheme resembling that of a 1940s Hawker Hurricane for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, an aircraft which is still held in extremely high regard to this day. We now know that this would unfortunately not be repeated for the RAF centenary and if any aircraft were specially prepared for the occasion, it was with the relatively simple application of some graphics on the tail, which appeared to most people to be rather corporate and something of a missed opportunity. Thankfully, some overseas contributors to RIAT 2018 proved to be a little less conservative in their aircraft presentation and brought a very welcome splash of colour to the event, ensuring that these machines were amongst the most popular and heavily photographed at this year’s show. Of particular note were a trio of displays featuring modern French air power, which provided the aviation enthusiast with everything they hold dear – speed, power and lots of noise.
A difference in interpretation. The French Air Force Solo Rafale prepares to begin its display, with the widely used RAF 100 logo as its backdrop
Over recent years, French aviation has been making a welcome return to Airshow events in the UK, immediately establishing their displays as firm favourites with British spectators and allowing some of their current front line aircraft to become a little more familiar to enthusiasts on this side of the Channel. With Airshow events at Yeovilton and more recently Duxford able to boast regular French participation, these displays not only showcase the capabilities of French aviation, but have also introduced some real display imagination into their performances and as a consequence, raised the stakes in a friendly rivalry for Airshow bragging rights between the French Armée de l’Air, Aéronavale and our own Royal Air Force. Traditionally, this has been restricted to the battle of the aerobatic display teams, with the Red Arrows taking on the Patrouille de France, however, in recent years, this competition has widened to include the latest fighter and strike aircraft available to both countries, allowing for both a direct comparison of each nation’s aircraft as well as their Airshow demonstration style. National pride aside, the French pilots certainly appear to have the edge when it comes to display flamboyance, exciting routines and attractively presented aircraft, all of which were in clear evidence at this year’s Royal International Air Tattoo. With three high octane display performances to thrill the crowds on each day of this impressive event, let’s take a closer look at the French contribution to this memorable celebration of the RAF’s flying centenary.
‘Couteau Delta’ – The French Air Force ‘Delta Knife Patrol’ demonstration
The two Mirage 2000D strike fighters of Couteau Delta climb into the air at Fairford, to begin their thrilling pairs display
First unleased on UK Airshow audiences during the 2017 Airshow season, Couteau Delta replaced the hugely popular French Air Force Ramex Delta display team in demonstrating the capabilities of the famous Dassault Mirage 2000 strike fighter. Since the 2011 season, Ramex Delta had earned an enviable reputation for their pairs display of close formation flying and simulated tactical weapons delivery, using the nuclear capable version of the Mirage 2000 and representing the famous ‘Escadrille Lafayette’, a Great War squadron which was made up of American volunteer pilots flying French aircraft under French control. The impending retirement of the nuclear strike capable Mirage 2000N saw the team disbanded following the end of the 2016 season and enthusiasts feared that this dynamic and much loved Airshow act and indeed the mighty Mirage 2000 may be lost to the display circuit for good, especially as no replacement display was initially announced. These fears were thankfully allayed just a few months later, as it was revealed that a new team, Couteau Delta, would demonstrate the conventionally armed Mirage 2000D in a similar two ship demonstration to the one made famous by their recent predecessors – enthusiasts breathed a huge sigh of relief and looked forward to experiencing this new display.
The distinctive delta shape of the Dassault Mirage 2000 first took to the air in 1978 and entered French Air Force service in the early 1980s as a lightweight and highly capable fourth generation jet fighter, possessing great speed and impressive manoeuvrability. The aircraft proved to be extremely versatile and developed into a true multi-role platform, with units serving as fighters, fighter-bombers, trainers and in a dedicated strike role, including the ability to carry and deliver nuclear weapons. Also managing to secure several export sales for the type, the Mirage 2000 has been an incredibly successful aircraft for the French aviation industry and despite the introduction of the exciting new Rafale fighter-bomber into French Air Force service, the Mirage 2000 remains the most numerous front line strike aircraft available to the Armée de l’Air.
The Delta Knife Patrol of the Armée de l’Air are famed for their tight formation flying and dynamic simulation of a tactical conventional air to ground attack
A high speed run by the most flamboyantly presented of the two Mirage 2000D jets
Couteau break – One aircraft breaks hard to port, whilst the other climbs towards the heavens, in a thrilling display of French aerial prowess
Demonstrating the still potent capabilities of the Mirage 2000 in a conventional strike/attack role, the Couteau Delta team consists of fully operational pilots and supporting ground crew and whilst they undoubtedly highlight the effectiveness of these now ageing aircraft in a high profile manner, they could quite conceivably be called away on operational duty at a moment’s notice, carrying out these manoeuvres in a ‘live’ combat situation. This is perhaps why these displays have become so popular, as they allow spectators the opportunity to experience how these aircraft would operate in perfect unison to ensure that their weapons are delivered on target, whilst providing mutual protection for each during the attack. With the intention of neutralising any ground threat as quickly as possible, using two aircraft in tandem allows one to always be ‘on target’, whilst the other is preparing to launch its next attack and it is really impressive to see how the crews manage to achieve this, albeit in a what is essentially a simulated tactical environment.
This magnificently presented Mirage 2000D wears a 75th anniversary scheme of French Air Force Fighter Squadron (Escadron de Chasse) 1/3 ‘Navarre’
After the completion of their display, we were allowed a closer look at the special scheme applied to one of the Couteau Delta jets
Everything about a Couteau Delta display panders to the specific fascination of the aviation enthusiast, with dynamic manoeuvres in the relatively confined space of a display airfield, combined with an intoxicating mixture of speed, noise and fiery afterburners – just what the Airshow doctor ordered. Indeed, their display rekindles fond memories of Airshows past for many, when the emphasis seemed to be on entertainment and showcasing the effective use of tax-payer monies, which consequently resulted in huge crowd numbers attending British Airshows and these events being considered the most popular outdoor pursuits in the country. These thrilling role and tactical demonstrations were much more common back then, however, it appears the current French Air Force seem determined to act as aviation trailblazers in helping to re-establish this type of display to mainstream Airshow events and are gaining plenty of admirers in the process. As one of the most exhilarating displays on the European Airshow circuit, Couteau Delta are now a firm RIAT favourite, with their latest appearance only serving to enhance their growing reputation. The two Mirage 2000D aircraft performing at this year’s show came from Escadrons de Chase 2/3 ‘Champagne’ and 3/3 ‘Ardennes’, both of which are based at Nancy-Ochey airfield, which is home to three strike fighter squadrons of Mirage 2000Ds and around 68 aircraft. This represents almost half of the remaining strength of these strike fighters still in service with the Armée de l’Air.
In some rather distressing news which was only published as we were working on this latest edition of Aerodrome, it appears that a strategic review of Mirage 2000D operations has resulted in the suspension of Couteau Delta as an Airshow display team and it is therefore unlikely that we will be able to enjoy their dynamic displays in the immediate future, which will be a huge loss for the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo in particular. For those of us who were lucky enough to see what may turn out to be their final RIAT appearance this summer, the pictures we managed to take will now be amongst the most significant in our RAF centenary portfolios.
Dassault Rafale C solo display
The spectacular scheme applied to the Solo Rafale display aircraft set the tone for what was one of the most flamboyant flying displays of the RIAT weekend
Representing the latest multi role aircraft to enter French service and one of the most capable strike-fighters in the world, the Dassault Rafale is the product of a French Air Force and Navy desire to upgrade and consolidate their previous aircraft fleets with a cutting-edge, latest generation air superiority and strike design. Initially keen to avoid the huge cost associated with developing a new combat aircraft, the French were a partner in a European consortium who were jointly developing a future agile multi-purpose fighter, however, production wrangling and disagreements on capability requirements saw them pull out of the programme to develop their own design independently. The aircraft eventually produced by the consortium of European nations was the Eurofighter Typhoon, with the French electing to develop the Rafale at the same time - looking at the profiles of the two aircraft, it is apparent that their respective design philosophies were actually not that far apart, at least from an external appearance perspective. Now classed as the direct French equivalent to Typhoon, the Rafale has been produced in three distinct variants – for the French Air Force, the single seat Rafale C and the twin seat Rafale B are currently in service, whilst the navalised single seat Rafale M is the most potent aircraft available to the Aéronavale.
With its display beginning immediately after take-off, the Solo Rafale performed the most enthusiastic runway departures of RIAT 2018
Vive la France. Pilot Captain Sébastien Nativel drapes the Tricolore from the cockpit following the completion of his display, reminding everyone whose display they would have beat – quite spectacular!
Over the past two seasons, the Armée de l’Air have grabbed the air display bull firmly by its horns and presented their Dassault Rafale solo demonstration team in an extremely high profile manner, not only to showcase the capabilities of their latest fighter, but to allow enthusiasts the opportunity to become much closer to the men and machines behind the display. With a dedicated website and strong social media presence, the display aircraft themselves have benefited from striking liveries to go along with the dynamic nature of this display and at a time when everyone should have been talking about RAF aircraft in their centenary year, the French rather effectively managed to secure a significant portion of their aviation limelight. Although clearly not the role for which this aircraft was developed, the Rafale is a consummate Airshow performer and real crowd pleaser, fast and agile, with power in abundance – there is always something going on during a Rafale display. Indeed, the Solo Rafale has not only proved to be a popular performer at UK Airshows over the past couple of years, their displays have also scooped a number of awards, highlighting the fact that they have not only made an impression on the Airshow-going public, but also fellow display pilots and flight control committees of the shows they have performed at.
That take-off again. This image shows off the underside of this fantastic scheme and confirms that the Armée de l’Air were determined to let you know who was entertaining you, whichever flying attitude the aircraft was in
The Rafale does resemble the Eurofighter Typhoon from some angles, although you have to say that the French have the edge when it comes to presenting their display jets
For the 2018 display season, the Solo Rafale was presented in a striking black and red livery, proudly displaying the words Armée de l’Air in a prominent position on the upper and lower surfaces of the aircraft, just to confirm who you were being entertained by, if there could be any doubt – I suppose this would also help the organisers when it came to voting for the best display act of the show as well … how very thoughtful of the French. This year’s display pilot was Capitaine Sébastien Nativel from Rafale training squadron ETR 03/004 ‘Aquitaine’, based at Saint-Dizier/Robinson air base in north eastern France, the base which welcomed the Dassault Rafale into French Air Force service in 2006. He seemed determined to commemorate this centenary year of the Royal Air Force by showing the RIAT crowds exactly what the French Air Force’s premier air superiority fighter can do, which he managed with some style. Considering the Rafale and Typhoon are so similar in both profile and performance, it is a real shame that the RAF Typhoon pilot was not given the opportunity to perform his display in a similarly specially presented aircraft, as many in the crowd must have felt that he was left a little disadvantaged in this respect. With regard to this friendly cross channel display rivalry, I think we are all quite comfortable in admitting that it is advantage to the Armée de l’Air.
Aéronavale Rafales at the double
One of the highlights of the RIAT 2018 show, the Aéronavale made a welcome return to the flying display, following a gap of some 15 years
Entering service significantly earlier than the Rafales of the Armée de l’Air, the naval version of the aircraft carries the denotation ‘M’ and has proved a significant upgrade in the capabilities of the air component of the Marine Nationale. Sharing approximately 95% commonality with the Air Force variants of the Rafale, these aircraft destined for a life at sea benefit from much upgraded undercarriage units, necessary in allowing them to better cope with the punishing effects of repeated deck landings, whilst also featuring an arrester hook and nose wheel ‘jump struts’ used when short or catapult assisted launches are required. These aircraft also have the addition of a built in crew access ladder, although strangely for a naval aircraft, they do not possess the ability to fold their wings for ease of stowage on an aircraft carrier. All these naval additions were rather impressively achieved by only increasing the aircraft’s weight over their land based counterparts by 1,100lb. Interestingly, the Rafale ‘M’s of the Aéronavale are the only non US aircraft cleared for operation on board US Navy carriers, which is a real coup for the French and of huge benefit in potential future collaborative naval operations between the two nations. The aircraft either operate from naval land bases, or aboard the impressive nuclear powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which has just undergone an extensive mid-life refit.
The French Navy’s Rafale M pairs tactical demonstration is a rare sight at UK Airshows and whilst it has proved to be a popular display attraction during the annual Fleet Air Arm show at their Yeovilton home station in recent years, its inclusion in this years RIAT display programme was a real coup for the organisers. The last time the Marine Nationale sent any aircraft to RIAT was in 2012, when a helicopter and a liaison jet were sent for static display, but it has been 15 years since French Navy aircraft have taken part in the flying display itself. As a consequence and as far as I am aware (I stand to be corrected by one of our knowledgeable Aerodrome readers), this was the first time that the Rafale M pairs demonstration had been seen by a RIAT crowd. The honour of fulfilling this display commitment would fall to Flottille 12F, the first French Navy squadron to be equipped with the Rafale M back in 2001. Based at Landivisiau naval air station, or deployed aboard the carrier Charles de Gaulle, the squadron were preparing to mark their own 70th anniversary this year and of the three aircraft sent to RIAT, one had benefited from the addition special tail markings in commemoration of the occasion. This featured the squadron’s emblem (a naval uniform wearing duck, carrying what appears to be a blunderbuss), along with profiles of the five aircraft the unit has operated during its 70 year history, the Grumman Hellcat, Vought F4U Corsair, Supermarine Seafire, F8 Crusader and Rafale M. In fact, if you look closely at the duck designs themselves, they are slightly different on either side of the anniversary tail, representing both the original and revised incarnations of this distinctive design. Over the course of the Airshow weekend, all three aircraft were to take their turn flying in the demonstration, which was a real bonus for the massed ranks of enthusiasts, with the anniversary jet obviously proving to be a particular favourite.
The Dassault Mirage M is the naval variant of this mighty French multi-role aircraft and was the first to enter service back in 2001
Proof that the specially presented 70th anniversary of Flottille 12F jet also took part in the French Navy Rafale demonstration
A closer look at the anniversary jet, which featured different representations of the units duck emblem on each side of the aircraft’s tail
In contrast to the display by the Solo Rafale of the French Air Force, the Navy pairs demonstration is performed by regular squadron pilots, as opposed to display pilots who have the opportunity to plan and perfect their routine, as well as having plenty of time to practice and evaluate. The Rafale M pair demonstration is more an extension of their daily operational manoeuvres, showing how the aircraft is used in a tactical role, as well as highlighting the differences in this naval variant of the latest and most capable French aircraft. Significantly, the aircraft are displayed with weapons fixed to their hardpoints, just as they would during either intensive training or whilst deployed on board their home carrier, ensuring their popularity with enthusiasts and making for some rather unique pictures. From the slow, gear down carrier approach attitude, to the full burner, high velocity climb out, the display certainly demonstrates the capabilities of this awesome aircraft, albeit in a very different way to the high octane manoeuvres of the solo Rafale. The excellent role demonstration by the Aéronavale certainly brings something different to any Airshow lucky enough to have them on the display programme and will surely attract greater numbers of enthusiasts, who know how rarely they visit these shores.
It was definitely amongst the RIAT 2018 show highlights to have examples of French Naval air power in attendance for this celebration of the first 100 years of the Royal Air Force and it is to be hoped that more UK Airshow events will be able to count on French participation in the years to come. Demonstrating both their exciting aircraft and undoubted airmanship, this trio of display acts from across the Channel proved to be a real hit with the Fairford crowds and added some real style and excitement to the proceedings. With an entertaining mix of display flying and tactical strike simulation, their performances certainly engage with the audience and give them what they have all turned up to see – aerial entertainment. Both the Armée de l’Air and the Aéronavale should be congratulated for the variety of their displays and the pride they have in representing their nation and individual air arms. Their aircrews are doing a fantastic job in presenting the skill and professionalism of the modern French military and they should be rightly proud of their performance and the regard in which they are held by British audiences. One thing which most UK based aviation enthusiasts will undoubtedly agree on, the French are welcome over here any time.
As this Rafale M taxied back along the length of the runway at Fairford, it was possible to get a clear view of the more robust undercarriage of this naval variant of the French multi role aircraft
Everything hanging down. The anniversary Rafale performs a slow approach pass for the gathered masses at Fairford
A final look at this attractive French naval strike fighter, which proved to be one of the highlights of this RAF centenary celebration Airshow
I am afraid that’s another edition of Aerodrome done and dusted, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related features for your enjoyment. If you have any ideas for a future edition of our blog, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at email@example.com, where we will be only too pleased to hear from you.
Hopefully, this second blog visit to this year’s Royal International Air tattoo will inspire readers to consider sending in their own RAF 100 pictures, in anticipation of our RAF 100 tribute edition, in which we intend to feature as many of your pictures and stories as possible. We are interested to hear how these significant commemorations impacted on you – was it a particular event you attended which proved to be memorable, or a photograph you took during the summer which you think best represents the RAF in their centenary year? Whatever it may be, please share it with us, as this is every reader’s opportunity to take over our Aerodrome blog for one very special edition and prevent me from hijacking proceedings with my own photographic offerings. It will be really interesting to see from where in the world our most exotic reader supplied RAF 100 submission comes from – Australia, or even the Falkland Islands. Please do get involved, as this could turn out to be a really special edition of Aerodrome.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 14th December, where we look forward to bringing you more interesting aviation related features then.
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