The familiar melody of the Jurassic park theme tune blasts out over the loudspeakers as a motorglider slowly swoops around the airfield. A diminutive Jodel D9 climbs for height before dropping down into a series of rolls and loops….hang on?!
That is both the most bizarre and perfect opening to an airshow I think I have ever seen. After at least 10 years of hoping and saying i’ll do it I finally made it over to La Ferté-Alais in France for their annual airshow. This show has always had something of a mythical quality about it up there with Flying Legends as one of the Holy Grail airshows of the world.
Where the order of the day for Legends is warbird heavy metal (there as plenty of that at La Ferté too) this show is very much about variety and above all, being a show in the very real sense of the word. From start to finish there was fantastic use of music to actually set the scene rather than simply drown at the aircraft and the displays were choreographed perfectly to really deliver the themes being covered.
Following the surreal opening act to a familiar John Williams score it was time for a tribute to one of La Ferté’s great characters; Marc “Leon” Matthais. Matters was famous for his displays in his Zlin so it was fitting that the memorial pass was carried out by five Zlins in formation. As they passed over the airfield a single shot was fired from the pyrotechnics side of the airfield. One aircraft pulled away in a missing man tribute before the aircraft landed back on and lined up in front of the commentary tower for a minute’s silence. While my French is nowhere near good enough to understand what was being said I have no doubt that it was a fitting tribute to a man who’s flying has brought plenty of joy both at Duxford and many european shows over the years.
Breaking the silence was the thundering arrival of the French Army Rafale. This display was a masterclass in fast jet display flying. Plenty of fast passes and rolling manoeuvers were combined with high alpha passes and thundering climbs. there was one particular top side pass at high-speed that is up there as one of my all time favourite fast jet moments. the damp air meant there was plenty of vapour forming on top of the wing as well.
Following the high-octane performance from the latest fighter it was time for a big leap back in time. With the Bleriot, Caudron G3 and First World War originals unable to fly it was left to more modern replicas and biplanes to tell the story of the first air war. A large number of Stampes and Bucker Jungmans took to the sky and formed up in large wheeling formations high above the airfield. This gave a great impression of how patrolling aircraft would have looked as viewed from the trenches. Below these graceful aircraft were the La Ferté based pair of SE5a Replicas.
These aircraft were at one stage Stampe SV4’s but underwent significant modification in 1983 for a film project. This included the fitting of a 180hp Lycoming. The only hint of their heritage is the swept wing profile. The two biplanes are without doubt one of the most memorable acts from the show as they both performed incredible low altitude and low-speed aerobatics, seemingly hanging on the propeller at the top of half-cubans and chasing each other around in flowing rolling passes. The lack of other WWI aircraft appeared to give these two more space to enjoy themselves and they certainly did!
After the SE5’s had finished entertaining the crowds a Lycoming powered Jungman put on an aerobatic routine as the other biplanes recovered. Patrouille Reva, a formation team of Vari-eze aircraft, familiar to any attendee to a UK seaside shows for the past few years, followed the WW1 set piece. Their display combined flowing formation aerobatics and impressive synchronised loops and rolls in their futuristic looking machines.
The first of the UK-based acts of the day took to the skies next. Guy Westgate and his Fox glider were lifted aloft by a Stearman. This years Glider FX routine features the added twist of a skydiver jumping out of the back of the glider as Guy descends during his aerobatic routine. Once the skydiver was out with chute open Guy circled him until touchdown before performing a low-level barrels roll and wingover to land. Certainly not something you see every day!
The glider tug Stearman set the tone for the next sequence, which featured three 30s american biplanes. Leading the formation was the AJBS Curtiss Travelair which had already been a highlight of the morning as it carried out passenger flights. The Curtiss was joined by a WACO and, another of the shows stars, the Laird racing bi-plane. This black and gold machine was a treat to see in the air. It was a shame however, that it wasn’t given at least a couple of passes on its own. I felt it certainly had more speed to show than was possible tucked on the wing of the Travelair. A stunning machine nevertheless.
A de Havilland interlude followed, with a trio of DH84 Dragon, Tiger Moth and Chipmunk performing gracefully together in front of the crowds.
Beneath the de Havilland formation the show was really starting to pick up the pace. Sitting at the holding point for the runway were a pair of Junkers JU52s, a Storch, Bucker Bestmann alongside Nick Grey and George Perez in the Spitfire V and Mustang respectively.
It was the turn of the Luftwaffe first, this routine was set to feature a Daimler-Benz powered BF109G, sadly radiator problems put an end to any hopes of a French outing for this rare machine. The display which was put on by the German aircraft was truly first class without the 109 however.
Set to the familiar opening notes of the Battle Of Britain film the pair of Junkers’ performed lazy figures of eights on the back display line while the Storch performed a low, tight turning display in front. The Bestmann joined the JU52s for a series of passes before all three aircraft performed a memorable on crowd break. Watching a pair of JU52s fly is a treat in itself but watching them operate out of a hilltop grass strip was something else.
The warbird highlight of the afternoon followed, with Nick Grey’s arrival in Spitfire V EP120. Nick Grey’s displays away from Flying Legends are a rare treat and this one was no exception. Right from the start the Spitfire was flown through a graceful series of low, sweeping loops. I was so fixated on the Spitfire that the Mustang’s first pass took me completely by surprise. The Spitfire continued its looping display on the rear display line while the Mustang performed half-cubans and rolling manoeuvres along the main runway. This was a warbird masterclass that evoked memories of the legendary Grey/Akary Sea Fury pair at Legends a few years ago.
The next set piece came in the form of Tora! Tora! Tora!, which saw us taken back to Hawaii in late 1941 with a little help from some suitable music. The classic pairing of Ryan PT22 and N3N helped set the tone of early war America. While this pair had been entertaining the crowds six Harvards had taken to the skies, soon to return under the guise of the Japanese dive bombers. The bombing run is something that has to be seen to be believed. Positioning crowd right the T6s peel off into a steep diving approach before pulling out over the field as pyrotechnics are set off across the far side of the airfield. This provided some great background shots for the light aircraft returning and the P-40N scrambling.
After another impressive bombing run most of the Harvards broke downwind to land and the heavily modified “Zero” example carried out a tight turning dogfight with an american marked example. In a surprising twist it was the American aircraft which was shot down on this occasion. The Zero’s victory wasn’t to last long however as the P-40 soon came in and saw it off, followed by a series of passes to celebrate.
A welcome appearance by a Catalina was up next. I’ve gotten accustomed to Plane Sailing’s Miss Pick Up over the years so it was a welcome change to see a different example displaying. This French based example perfumed the majority of the display with its floats down, which made for a different profile to the usual routines.
Following a display by a wonderfully polished Beech 18 (joined by an Electra on the Sunday), it was time for a demonstration of another icon of commercial air travel. Courtesy of Corsair there was a short display from a 747.Expecting a simple flypast I was surprised to witness a full display with a number of passes down the display line including a 360 degree turn and a gear down missed approach.
With the 747 now clearing the airspace it was time to get back to the warbirds. Patrice Marchasson got airborne in the Fighter Collection’s Hawk 75. This aircraft is one of the reasons I travelled all the way to La Ferté. Counterintuitive you might think, given that the aircraft is only based at Duxford and performs quite regularly there. While this is true the Hawk is often paired with other aircraft or pushed back onto the more distant display line. It has long been a favourite of mine so I welcomed the chance to watch and extended solo display up close. What a display it was as well, flowing aerobatics and low-level passes kept me captivated throughout. Something about watching this aircraft in France flown by a Frenchman was just incredible.
Following the Hawk’s display was a frankly crazy routine from three members of the Yakovlev company. Following an opening fighter sweep and bomb burst break there were stunning solo routines from a Yak 11, Yak 3 and Yak 9. One of which performed a slow barrel roll during which it dropped the gear and promptly turn finals to land, incredible stuff!
Then came a very impressive outing from Patrouille de France. Their display of formation aerobatics was very impressive, but it was the second half of the display that really grabbed my attention. Right from the first break, which saw a number of the jets going down into the valley below the airfield it was exhilarating flying, an amazing display.
A wonderful synchro pair of vintage glider aerobatics followed, both aircraft gracefully descended having been towed up together by the Boeing Stearman. The display ended with a very impressive opposition landing.
Then came another La Ferté set piece. This time commemorating the Vietnam war. Sadly the inclusion of Skyraiders was not possible this year thanks to the week of heavy rain the airfield had seen. It was left to the T28 and Bronco to represent the conflict. Music was used expertly again in this routine as well as extensive pyrotechnics. The Bronco stole this portion of the show without a doubt with a wonderfully high energy display. The low-level rolls and tight turns will long live in my memory.
The last hour was dominated by modern military aircraft, starting with the Securitie Civille fire-bombing demonstration. I’ve never seen a water-bomber in the air, let alone doing what these two did. The Grumman Firecat/Tracker performed a couple of passes over the crowd before finally positioning for a water bombing run over the airfield. This was followed by the CL415 performing exactly the same sequence before the pair came through in close formation to close their routine. This was a remarkable routine and an undoubted highlight of the day, so far removed from the displays we are used to in the UK.
Then came a real La Ferté trademark sequence. The Marine National (French Navy) always support the show with an impressive range of types. This year was no different with a Breuget Atlantic, Alize, Paris, Fouga Zephyr and three Rafales. Following an impressive pass in formation the Alize and Fougas flew a gentle tailchase around the airfield before departing. This left the airspace clear for a short demonstration from the Atlantic. This twin machine is certainly ungainly but put on a graceful display. It was then time for plenty of noise as the three Rafales returned. Two of the aircraft carried out practice, hook down approaches while the third performed a series of high-speed passes in behind. A truly incredible sequence the likes of which is rarely seen in UK skies.
Further French military participation came in the form of the C160 Transall which flew a tactical role demo. This routine consisted of a number of missed approaches and a few low passes, all very close and impressive for a type rarely seen at airshows these days.
The display was brought to a close by a role demonstration from the Belgian Air Force Seaking. Seaking’s are always a great sight and the Belgian Air Force examples have a great paint scheme. The routine showed off the helicopter’s capabilities well.
One final surprise on Saturday, after the show had ended came in the form of Christophe Jaquard’s Hawker Sea Fury. It hadn’t been able to get in during the morning and arrived in some style with smoke winders switched on towering up into a graceful roll as 633 squadron blared through the speakers, a fitting end to a wonderful day.
As you can see this show has something for everyone. From WWI fighters through to state of the art jets I don’t think I’ve attended a show with such great variety. All of this on a grass strip on top of a hill in a French village, incredible. My only regret is only being able to take in one day of the show. One things for sure is that it will be a full weekend next year. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to see this show. If you only attend one show out of the UK, make it this one. It has to be experienced to truly be appreciated.