Not for the faint of heart, but the experience of being present when eight fighter jets flying overhead is definitely an exhilarating one. The French equivalent of the Canadian Snowbirds, the Patrouille de France is a part of the French Air Force and few who have witnessed them in full flight are likely to forget the experience any time soon.
France’s l’Armée de l’Air originated in 1909, and is one of the largest air forces in the NATO alliance. The air force has two demonstration teams, World Aerobatic Champions Equipe de Voltige and the Patrouille de France, both of which are based in the Salon de Provence where the pilots training college is also located.
To perform at the level of world aerobatic champions, pilots need to put on a planned and carefully choreographed performance, within a confined area of the sky. It is one thing to prepare for such activity on the ground, quite another to put the performance into action at the tremendous speeds required.
Beginning with a series of compulsory activities, the pilot is then given the task of creating his or her own freestyle maneuvers, in a similar vein to the judging given to champion gymnasts. Of course, the added elements of danger and even potentially life threatening situations add to the excitement and challenge for the pilots in which they seem to thrive.
Pilots must be able to perform these feats at a consistent level for nearly half an hour before they can hope to be adjudged as world class pilots. The reason for the constant practice and competitions is to hone a pilot’s abilities and prepare them for the time when they may need to use those skills in a real life situation.
The Patrouille started in the early 1950s with just four F-84 jets, before progressing to have nine aircraft, including the V-shaped Magister. The team now uses the Dassault -Dornier Alpha Jet, a dual seat twin engine jet ideal for training and performing aerobatic shows and is used extensively by many air forces around the world.