France's Airshow Gospel
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La Ferté-Alais: France’s airshow gospel

La Ferté-Alais: France’s airshow gospel

La Ferté-Alais is one of the classic European airshow venues, the hilltop Cerny airfield situated above the town having played host to scores of fantastic air displays for more than 40 years. Today the Fête Aérienne le Temps des Hélices (Time of the Propellers) offers one of the most robust and rounded airshows in Europe, broadly telling the story of the development of aviation and the joy of flight within its six-hour programme.

The airfield is home to the revered Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis collection and museum alongside smaller organisations such as Association des Casques de Cuir, Aero Vintage Academy and the Memorial Flight. Once a year on the Pentecost weekend the airshow sees a large proportion of these based aeroplanes take to the air, whilst the Salis family’s long-term relationships with operators all over Europe bolster the programme with interesting and unique visiting aircraft. The vast array of aircraft lined up in each morning’s flight line walk present an evocative sight, encompassing everything from Blériots through interwar classics and warbirds to modern day aerobatic types.  Few events can boast such a breadth and depth of participants.

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The show includes several traditional themed set-pieces each year, however the participants included within these and the structure of the sequences can differ. La Ferté always feels comfortingly familiar, but never samey. In the main the regular segments and set-pieces are run fairly chronologically, illustrating the rapid advancement of aviation technology from the pioneers of the early 1900s to the present day.  Interspersed are vintage and modern gliders, civilian and military aerobatic acts and display teams.

Hours can be spent perusing the aircraft ‘park’ at close quarters, but there is much more to enjoy besides the aircraft.  No visit is complete without dedicating a chunk of the morning to browsing the expansive Edition Paquet stand.  Having been lured in by the unmistakable pin-up Roxanne Fumero lounging in the sun on the bonnet of a Second World War jeep, the marquee is absolutely full of the unmistakable artworks and comics produced by French artist Romain Hugault, many of which are far too risqué to be sold in the UK.  Walking away without having splashed some cash is quite the challenge.

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Emerging from the tent, now weighed down considerably by myriad purchases, the distant sound of up-tempo off the wall jazz emanated from a quite brilliant trio who roamed the site with their pedal aeroplane. They gathered people and smiles wherever they stopped to perform their next foot-tapping rendition – their whole act oozed Gallic charm and European quirkiness. For something with a little more class, the Satin Dolls could be found serenading a large crowd in the hangar with B-17 Pink Lady as their backdrop.

The vast majority of trade stands in the showground were aviation themed, with refreshingly little airshow ‘tat’ on sale, and time could be spent browsing these prior to the flying display. The food vendors are very appealing too, with many cooking over charcoal offering up good quality saucisse and merguez.

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Music and audio play a large part in forming the unique La Ferté atmosphere, with that carefree creative quirk bleeding into the commentary which is headed by Bernard Chabbert. Bernard and his team utilise audio to great effect throughout the event, which really helps to emote and enhance the character of the corresponding display or set-piece. A lone submarine alarm plays at regular intervals in the hour preceding the flying to denote the nearing of the start of the show, building the anticipation, and the first display acts get airborne to the instantly identifiable Dolby surround sound ‘theme’ – it’s that almost decadent, theatrical edge that sets La Ferté apart from its counterparts.

The show always begins with simple yet effective illustration of the poetry and romance of flight, set to John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme. This year saw a mixed bag of Bebe Jodel, Druine Turbulent (with a teddy bear flying as co-pilot), a Stearman towing a 200 metre ribbon and a Bede BD5 mini-jet; this amuse-bouche of contrasting types played on the simplicity and beauty of flight, putting the crowd in the right mood for the afternoon ahead.  I can’t hear that Williams piece now without recalling the deep joy felt at the beginning of the shows at La Ferté.

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Once spectators had been reminded of the beauty and purity of flight, the programme shifted to allow visitors to experience the early days of powered flight with the Blériot XI-2, Morane H and a very convincing Deperdussin Type T replica getting airborne for formation passes and a form of tail-chasing. Meanwhile, vintage bikes rode up and down the crowd line flying large French flags; it’s all rather lovely, and exactly the right kind of quaint. The 2018 edition of the show placed more of an emphasis on commemorating the centenary of the end of the Great War, the progression of which was beautifully illustrated in aerial tableau.

Having demonstrated the early days of powered flight with Blériot and Morane, the former was joined aloft by a Leopoldoff L-55 Colibri in German markings playing the role of an early war observer. The Blériot pilot encountered the German reconnaissance aircraft and attempted to chase the enemy off, drawing his revolver, demonstrating the crude origins of air combat – the first time I can recall seen a rotary wing-warping aeroplane involved in a mock dogfight!

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The set-piece developed further to incorporate the immaculate matte black Bristol F.2b on a bombing mission escorted by a pair of SE5as (converted Stampes). These were gradually joined aloft by more of the home based aircraft and those of the Great War Display Team (GWDT) until there was a large wheeling melee, which really seemed to captivate the crowd. The highlight of this was seeing a trio of Fokker DR.1s together, with the based example (which recently returned to flight following overhaul) being joined by two of the GWDT machines.  The lovely Caudron G.III replica also flew a solo routine, this aircraft being one of those really synonymous with La Ferté.

Rounding off the journey through the aerial history of the Great War was a rare chance to witness the Memorial Flight’s genuine SPAD XIII in flight. Baptiste Salis demonstrated just how potent a fighter the SPAD was when it entered service, carrying out some fast passes along the crowd and steep climbing re-positioning turns at either end of the airfield. The Memorial Flight quite rightly impose stringent limitations on the conditions required for the SPAD to fly and we were lucky to see it airborne on both show days despite a formidable breeze. Sadly the Memorial Flight’s Fokker D.VII and Sopwith Strutter were unable to take to the air during this segment, or for their programme-closing slot, on both days due to the wind, however their newly arrived B.E.2 night fighter was on static display (it has not yet flown). The level of detail involved in this recreation is absolutely stunning.

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This type of rich aerial tapestry typifies La Ferté’s programme. There aren’t many locations around the world that could host such a storyboard of Great War aviation, and La Ferté will be remembered for staging one of the few large scale aerial tributes to mark the centenary of the end of that conflict.

The SPAD was then joined in the air by the Armée de l’Air Rafale solo display machine for a single pass. With the Rafale seemingly hanging in the air in high alpha configuration as they converged over the airfield the jet peeled away with burners on, leaving the SPAD to land, before launching into its blistering routine.

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100 years of French aviation captured in one spectacular, emotional flypast; something never before attempted, and all credit to the associated parties for having the willpower to make it happen – the airshow organisers, the Memorial Flight, Baptiste Salis, the Armée de l’Air and Capitaine Sébastien Nativel. The flying display featured several ‘heritage flight’ type formations – meetings of old and new illustrating so effectively the development of aviation.

France’s burgeoning classic aviation scene was highlighted by a gaggle of types from the ‘golden era’ of flight. The based Stinson Gullwing was joined by another equally exquisite visiting example, the boxy Bellanca Cruisemaster and a Spartan 7W Executive. The quartet flew a lengthy streamed racetrack pattern with topsides, fast and dirty passes to demonstrate the aircraft in different configurations. The beautiful Spartan has recently been imported from the USA by Sebastien Mazzuchetti and La Ferté marked its debut air display in France.

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A trip to La Ferté is never complete without seeing some of the classic Morane parasols fly, and there are several variants based at the airfield. The based MS.317 pair made a welcome return after several years’ hiatus, joined in the air by a third visiting example. The ’30s parasols performed, rather surprisingly, some formation aerobatics at the start of their routine. Another display with a nod to the golden age of aviation was 46 Aviation’s wing-walking team of husband and wife Emiliano and Danielle Del Buono (née Hughes). Their act demonstrates more true wing-walking than I have ever seen at a European airshow, with Danielle not only positioning herself on the upper wing cradle of the Being Stearman, but dismounting and climbing down in between the wings, even sitting on the leading edge for a pass. The Stearman recently received a new and very attractive modern paint scheme featuring patchwork bright pink fading into white from nose to tail. It’s really very refreshing and certainly makes the act standout on the European circuit.

A regular performer at the show, and a very welcome one at that, is commentator Bernard Chabbert’s Lockheed Electra. The Electra performed its usual spirited display, whilst several other twins and transports appearing at the show formed into one large formation, something not often seen with heavier vintage types. The result was a most impressive ‘aluminium overcast’ of DC-3 leading a pair of Dassault Flamants followed by a box four of the Swiss Classic Formation’s DC-3 and Beech-18s.

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The Classic Flight appeared for the first time at La Ferté as a quartet and were even more impressive for the addition of another Beech-18. The new machine (this one with yellow trim, joining the red and blue) was utilised to fill the gaps whilst the DC-3 and other pair of -18s moved through their standard formation and opposition routine, adding a more dynamic element to their show. Hugo Mathys’ vision is played out in wonderful flashes of chromed silver and the guttural churn of radial engines, and is one of the most enjoyable displays on the European circuit.

On the Friday prior to the event France’s Flying Warbirds’ DC-3 and an Armée de l’Air Transall C-160 practiced a loose tail chase in yet another meeting of old and new. Sadly, for unknown reasons, this did not take place on the show days. This was more than made up for by the fact that the Transall carried out a rare role demo with some superb low and fast passes before performing a short field landing and take-off demonstration, followed by a missed approach.  The rare flying appearance of a French Light Army Aviation Gazelle was another fine addition to an already stacked flying programme; La Ferté’s ability to draw in unusual military demos is a true mark of the event’s standing.

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A firm favourite with the crowds at La Ferté is the Hawk 75 and indeed The Fighter Collection’s (TFC) example has been a regular visitor, flown in recent years and with much verve by Frenchman Patrice Marchasson. Entrusted with the H75 this year and making his first airshow appearance with TFC was Andy Durston (of Fireflies fame), and what a way to debut, flying the Hawk over France in the company of contemporary Allied and Axis fighters. He did so very well indeed and was joined in a segment by two other British-based warbirds – Anglia Aircraft Restorations’ Spitfire Mk.XIV MV293 and Air Leasing’s two-seat HA-1114-M4L Buchón. Flown by Richard Grace and Steve Jones respectively with individual routines followed by a mock-dogfight, the pair then joined Andy in the Hawk 75 for a series of formation passes. This marked the first visit by aircraft operated by Anglia Aircraft Restorations and Air Leasing – hopefully relationships which continue to pay dividends at future La Ferté airshows.

The sight of the three warbirds making a few passes across the field was just excellent. British warbirds are tremendously well-received by French enthusiasts, and it was nice to see the home crowd appreciating this trio much in the same way that we would enjoy seeing French warbirds appear at the likes of Flying Legends. A change in perspective can be a wonderful thing.

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Also present from TFC was Sea Fury T.20 WG655, making its first public display in seven years. The Fury had suffered troubles with its Bristol Centaurus power plant and after many years sat forlorn in the corner of Hangar 2 at Duxford it was decided to re-engine it with a Pratt & Whiney R-2800 Double Wasp, after which it took to the air again at the beginning of 2018. Nick Grey displayed the Fury with his typical verve, with large swooping aerobatic figures descending into blisteringly fast passes along the crowd line. Christophe Jacquard’s Fury joined the fray, flown at La Ferté by Bruno Ducreux on a secondary axis with the impressive wingtip smoke winders creating a superb backdrop for Nick’s ‘hooning’ passes.

The Sea Fury wasn’t the only warbird returning to displays after time spent on the ground, as the show marked a momentous occasion for Les Casques de Cuir with the post-restoration debut of their Chance Vought F4U-5NL Corsair. For years the machine has looked tantalisingly close to flying again as it reached the end of its lengthy restoration, and the first flight finally came just ten days prior to the event. A plea for donations to help fund the insurance for the fighter gave rise to some doubt as to whether it would make the show, but thankfully all was well and Baptiste Salis was able to put the ‘bent winged bird’ through a wonderful aerobatic routine, which was one of the highlights of the weekend.

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For the second time in the show Baptiste led another coming together of generations, as the Corsair was joined by some of its modern day counterparts to form a superb edition of the annual Marine Nationale formation. Whilst they formed up a Breguet Atlantique performed a short display, something of a rarity for the ageing type that we visiting Brits were very grateful to see.

The Corsair reappeared over the shoulder crowd left flanked by four Rafale Ms, with a Falcon 10 and MS.760 Paris in slot. As the formation passed over the airfield a pair of Alcyons flew underneath them in opposition with smoke trailing – quite a spectacle! It really does feel so right to see one of the Salis brothers performing an exquisite solo routine before leading such an historical formation. The Rafale quartet then proceeded to positively tear the place apart with some of the most exciting fast-jet flying you’ll find anywhere.

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Another warbird and fast-jet combination presented to the crowd had a Swiss theme with Daniel Koblet’s Morane MS406, resplendent in its Swiss Air Force markings, being joined on the wing by the Swiss F/A-18 demo jet. The Hornet also performed its show-stopping routine; a massive coup for the show to snare a foreign fast-jet demo. I would love to know how they do it.

Of course the La Ferté staple set-pieces of Tora! Tora! Tora! and Good Morning, Vietnam! were enacted with their typical mix of period music, sound effects and pyrotechnics. An impressive 12 Harvards carried out multiple diving attacks on the airfield during Tora! Tora! Tora! with a lone P-40 scrambling to join the melee as huge amounts of pyrotechnics detonated on the far side of the airfield.  It’s a fantastic spectacle, one of the very best you’ll see anywhere in the world. The Vietnam scenario utilised a pair of Skyraiders, a visiting T-28 (recently returned to the air by FAST Aero in Belgium), Cessna Skymaster and Bronco, demonstrating each aircraft’s role in the conflict. This in particular had liberal use of pyrotechnics on the Sunday of the show, as well as an added Skyraider solo display.  These benchmark sequences are a great way to demonstrate multiple aircraft in choreographed, theatrical set-pieces rather than a succession of solo displays.

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Each day of the show featured a different display team, with the Breitling Jet Team on Saturday and the Patrouille de France on Sunday. The Patrouille appeared twice on the Sunday, opening the show with a flypast led by Sea Fury, Mustang and P-40. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason for the formation, other than to celebrate that infectious love of aviation that cuts across generations and borders.

It is refreshing that a show of La Ferté-Alais’ size and standing has not been consumed by the corporate sideshows and pavilions that dominate so many similar events, despite the presence of its sponsors and affiliates.  It has retained its grass roots feel, even after more than 40 years of airshows. Each year artist Romain Hugault produces a beautiful poster for the event; there’s value and respect there for the beauty in crafting something bespoke and unique, much the same way as the organisers approach the flying display.

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La Ferté’s crowning glory is the desire year-on-year to provide visitors with a familiar programme studded with a changeable feast of visiting participants. The set-pieces that have been crafted into the very essence of theatre of the air are reason enough to attend again and again, and the inclusion of visiting acts, amongst them some of Europe’s most revered vintage aircraft and a smattering of hidden gems, makes for a heady mix. The cross-section on display spans from the dawn of powered flight right through to cutting edge fighter jets, civilian and military aircraft, gliders and helicopters – the diversity is staggering and, I think, unique worldwide, certainly to the extent that La Ferté delivers.  Where else is it possible for the lingering scent of Castor oil from a Blériot and Morane to mix with the pungent odour of Jet A1 from a turning and burning Rafale?

2018’s show will be remembered for the formations of old and new; SPAD and Rafale, MS.406 and F-18, Corsair and Aéronavale jets and the trio of warbirds leading the Patrouille de France – all of those fast-jet displays were high points too, and equally as much a part of the show as the historic aeroplanes. The Great War sequence marking the centenary will live long in the memory, and will likely not be topped in style or quantity at any other show in the near future. It was a good year for warbirds with the long-anticipated debut of the based Corsair as well as high-profile visits from Buchón ‘Red 11’ (its second show since return to flight) and TFC’s Sea Fury T.20.

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With such quality presented at the delightful large grass airfield, La Ferté is not only one of Europe’s finest airshows, but a firm contender for one of the very best airshows in the world.  Yet, despite the grandeur of its flying display and the huge crowds in attracts, there is something of an undiscovered charm about the place which is so endearing. It’s an airshow so clearly run by those who are passionate about aviation. Occasionally enthusiasts can lose sight of that simple love of flight in all of its forms. A visit to La Ferté refocuses and reaffirms that deep passion for aviation that runs in all of us who take an interest. Take a visit to to La Ferté and fall in love with aviation all over again.

Take a visit to La Ferte.

Fall in love with aviation all over again.
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