Our ever more intrepid reporter returns to France in his self-built Titan T-51 Mustang for a further dose of formation flying at the Cervolix Air Show
Hands up who remembers Asterix the Gaul? For those that don’t, he was a cartoon character in a series of books by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, featuring the diminutive, moustachioed character and his obese mate Obelix. The books were set in a time when the Gauls were briefly kicking Roman ‘butt’. Over in a flash, but a matter of lasting Gallic pride, this supposed drubbing took place on Le Plateau de Gergovie, in the French Massif Central, circa 52 BC. Tribal Chieftain Vercingetorix, managed to hold off Julius Ceasar’s forces just long enough for it to be seen as a great victory. He was executed for his trouble some six years later. Shades of Dunkirk, perhaps, but from such small things great nations ? and, it seems, cartoon characters ? are born.
Before you flick through this article in the mistaken assumption that it’s a history lesson; it’s not! This is background ? a historical juxtaposition to the present, when I now find myself diving at Le Plateau in my T-51 Mustang fighter replica, at ‘full military power’. Instead of a surly, garlic-breathing force of Gauls, the plateau is now lined with air show spectators, for this is the Cervolix Air Show 2013. The crowd line is backed by a forest of balloons and kites, colourful and varied; an easy visual marker for a nervous first timer. A Fouga Magister display has briefly left a plume of smoke like an exclamation mark over the approach line. The crowd aren’t looking at me, still some 2,000 metres out. They’re following the Fouga’s famously ear-shredding, fingernails on blackboard screech, as it disappears back to Clermont airport.
The sky is now miraculously blue, but my rev counter has failed due to the aircraft having been left out in the rain all night. Concerned that I can’t hit the 4,200rpm sweet spot, I haven’t seen my two colleagues zip past, one trying to retrieve the other. Chaos uncoils like a cobra as our formation stretches out.
“Where are you?” Alain asks over the radio.
“In the agreed place,” is my reply. Then I see them orbiting short of the display area, some 1,500m ahead.
“We will join you, Ben.”
Now, after the order of “Go, go, go!” I am alone, homing in on the plateau, hoping they have picked me up. Then, thankfully, I see the Spitfire and the FW 190 curving in behind me, not a moment too soon.
At 145mph (set at the pace of Wim’s WAR Fw 190), with a following wind of 25mph, we are carrying considerable speed into the plateau and the tight display bowl. Our approach point is a centre line set at head height to the spectators. Beneath it, the ground slopes down towards us, to the valley floor and the village of Gergovie. White balloons marked the axis and its limits. The village beneath us represents a self-imposed no-fly zone.
I throw in a fairly brisk 360, trying hard to keep the turn tight enough to return to the centre line, then a right-hand turn to the east. A series of figure-of-eights and turns, some climbing, some diving, ensues. The ‘English Pass’ necessitates turning beyond the axis and presenting the upper part of the aircraft in a graceful arc past the crowd.
The Plateau and spectators flash past. My concentration is on completing the display as planned ? no time to admire the view of a hundred dancing kites, now flashing past in blurred Technicolor. No time to think about the ‘what ifs’ that come with the territory. Alain had instructed that we fly level with the plateau at 1,350ft, but I now can see that we needed closer to 1,550 feet to offer the best view for the crowd. Too late to worry now. But I am actually doing it ? bloody hell! Focus! This is no time to be sending out the party invitations.
I have little choice now but to trust that both Alain and Wim are spaced correctly: we don’t want to meet on my descent from a climbing turn. At the start of a left-hand chandelle, followed by a wingover, Alain appears on my wingtip, grinning, before slipping under me to follow me up and over. Brief, fleeting impressions, no more.
I must be pulling a bit of G in the turns because I’m feeling nauseous and sweaty by the end. Now we’re flying back to Clermont with the congratulations of the ground radio ringing in our headsets. Wim reports ‘in’ behind me, “D-Day two in position,” then Alain, “D-Day three in position”. I breathe out at last.
“D-Day three, take the lead,” I reply, and Alain slips into pole position to lead us home.
First reaction is to say “Non”
Whenever Alain disturbs me from my normal duties in England with his ‘come hither’ suggestions, my first reaction is often a “non”. The retired Mirage (III and IV) pilot is perfectly placed to display his aircraft in a country that really appreciates it. I am a long way from the action. It can be a logistical nightmare.
These warbird replicas seem to find a delirious audience in France. Is it the recession talking? Have the big boys got too expensive? Perhaps. But we have probably just found a niche, where the smaller air shows and events want us instead. There is no question that we look real enough when airborne and sound authentic to most ears, especially when in a group.
In the UK, it seems, we are the only nation that requires a Display Authority. I can only assume that we Brits must know best! My T-51 is not legally aerobatic here and I have no urge to test it. With Alain being more than happy to show his Spitfire off ‘from all angles,’ Wim and I can tear around making a fearsome racket and the illusion is complete. It’s not ‘Shock and Awe’ exactly but it’s several hundred notches up from ‘Schlock and Bore’. The punters seem to love it. I think our strength is in our threesome: much as Alain could amuse himself with his solo aerobatics, the folk on the ground want noise as well. For this event, Cervolix, I had travelled down from Hereford, via Le Touquet to stay the night with Alain at Les Mureaux, to the west of Paris. Conditions had been ‘catchy’, requiring pauses and sudden scrambles to make use of the weather windows. Who would stage an airshow in October? The question kept coming up, especially as Les Mureaux was unexpectedly clagged in.
When it’s the last three miles of a 400 mile trip, this can test all those Human Performance judgements that you make while sipping a preflight coffee. As I learned on that day, it is better to be at four o’clock abeam of the accompanying aircraft than following behind ? they can all too easily vanish in the gloom. Military pilots such as Alain have learned most of their self-restraint (in flying terms) after they retired from military flying. In the military, particularly in a nuclear strike force, there is no such thing as bad weather. You don’t walk into the squadron hut and announce you have a cold and it might be nicer for your crew if you don’t fly today. Nevertheless there are occasionally times when that ability to cope with difficult conditions that we are normally discouraged to experience, comes in handy.
Les Mureaux is said to be Europe’s longest grass runway. It is surrounded by an industrial landscape, bordered by the Seine to the north. There is almost nowhere to go in the event of an engine failure. In addition, the route south, limited to 1,500ft by the Paris TMA, takes you over forest for up to twenty minutes. I would take an engine failure over sea before one over forest, any day. In such a situation it doesn’t help to worry, does it? Are we really going to forego the greater benefits of such experiences on the statistically tiny chance of things going wrong at that moment? (I wonder if those who answer ‘yes’ might like to reconsider whether they ought to be flying at all.)
On the important day, the visibility remained stubbornly poor. VMC it might have been by the book, but I was not normally in the habit of making long transits at low level, whether technically legal or not. Wind turbines were in profusion along the route and often seemed to be doing nothing more than stirring the black cloud base. At every village or hamlet, I doglegged around the houses, wondering when Alain would loose patience. Convoluted or not, he seemed to accept my route choice. As wingman, he handled the radio, occasionally coming back to frequency to point out something, often virtually invisible on the low horizon. France is big; we all know that. This part was flat and the massive autumnal arable fields were mostly uncluttered by crop or impediment. Occasional pylon lines bisected our course, but elsewhere a potential emergency landing seemed far less threatening than at home.
To the left, a rainbow, at the base of which is a chateau surrounded by water.We are flying over the place where I had an early… er… formative experience. To mark this somewhat dubious historical act, we perform an immaculate fly-past over the river, close to the Chateau of Sully sur Loire to the memory of a (then) young and sumptuously gifted lady.
The probability of her still being in Sully is probably too small to compute. I spot one stout rear upended in a vegetable garden straighten itself; its owner waves energetically and I think No, dear God, no! before pulling up gracefully to stay clear of the Chateau itself. These ‘we are Sky gods’ moments must be spontaneous, yet tightly controlled. Whilst it’s a clear and obvious delusion that afflicts us both very occasionally, it can be legal and fun nevertheless. These are warbirds…
We were heading towards a nuclear power station to the east. To the west there’s Avord, a tactical nuclear strike base. At moments like this, you are glad that your wingman (just behind and to the left in a rain shower) is radioing ahead. I wasn’t on frequency at the time, but you might have heard him informing them that we were flying a Spitfire and a Mustang (shameless exaggeration I know) towards them and, as he used to be based there, would they kindly let us through? The characteristically efficient response was: “Non Monsieur, tournez 45 degrees a droite!” So we did.
Clermont Ferrand hadn’t come a moment too soon, since I like to limit flight time to two hours; a matter of fuel and other obvious matters. Alain maintained a steel bladder at all times ? a useful skill for any pilot, but a mystery nonetheless. With Wim’s arrival from Geneva, Team Réduc Warbirds was now complete.
The clouds had begun to part, leaving the odd damp mantle around the nearby peaks. The long faces of the organisers were less optimistic; Meteo was forecasting a horrible Saturday for the airshow. Around us, a gaggle of diverse aircraft was coming in from all points. A US Marines OV-10 Bronco was running down on the apron next to the ponderous Nord Noratlas transport. Two T-6s came in, one dressed convincingly as a Japanese Zero, while an assortment of military helicopters gathered a few hundred yards away. A shiny Fouga Magister was spooling down as a small crowd gathered to congratulate a queasy looking first-time passenger.
The organisation had kindly provided a Fiat hire car. Our hotel was only a few minutes away. Its one-star award sign was lying ominously in the rubbish tip behind the building. Hauling my stuff up two flights of stairs to the overwhelming stench of cabbage, I was then confronted with the most distressed room since my days in darkest, war-torn Africa. The other guests took the accommodation in good humour, partly because in France there is a traditional priority of food over bedroom quality. Whilst French food may now be generally on the decline, the quality of the bedrooms doesn’t seem to have improved. At least nobody had to pay for it. The Noratlas crew put it quite simply: “It’s either this, or we sleep on the aircraft”. What rankled was that we had been destined for better things, but the Patrouille de France (their Red Arrows) team had beaten us to the Best Western. I laid one of the threadbare towels across the worst of the horror stains on the carpet and conked out like a corpse.
Top Gun types
The full scale of our airshow commitment dawned on me at the briefing, where Top Gun types, in immaculately cut flight suits, took the majority of seats. The Patrouille pilots were present, as were a host of others, some foreign. One helicopter pilot pointed out, looking at me, that his Sea King helicopter needed a little more scheduled time to start up because it suffered from ‘bougies [spark plugs] Anglais’ ? so the entente cordiale was already teetering. As the veteran professional, Alain made a lot of those cheeks-puffed-out ‘poff’ noises, aimed at the organisers, whom he thought were not up to speed. Most of it went over my head. After the brief, he approached the PAF and mischievously asked their leader what sort of aircraft they flew. An Alpha jet was the non-plussed reply.
“Incroyable,” he exclaimed in mock awe, then adding, “c’est un bon avion, l’Alpha Jet?”
We then, for reasons unclear, had to drive up to the fog-bound and rain lashed plateau to collect our Michelin star-grade packed lunches (what did I say about priorities?), which we ate amid the air of frustrated testosterone at the pilot-packed Aero Club de Clermont Ferrand.
Not one single flight went out towards Cervolix that day. There wasn’t any point; no one was up there to see it. Even the Gendarmes on the gate had left the site, leaving the frog burger stalls battened down and a massive dog shaped kite-come-balloon tugging dumbly on its tethered leash.
The pilots had anyway started on the hard stuff. Later the airshow wake gradually stumbled off towards a gymnasium at Gergovie where 250 places were set for an Asterix-style feast. Two vast pans were set in the middle of the floor, in which potatoes and cheese were slowly cooking. Display teams, still looking chisel jawed if a little downbeat, sat in their national groups. A large Obelix-like character, with a shock of grey brush hair, manoeuvred himself to the side of one of the pans, feigning interest in the conversation of the cooks. Surreptitiously he helped himself to handfuls of potatoes, in between knowing nods and the odd wipe from the back of his hand. Soon he was eyeing up the duck, cooked to perfection and looking far less capable of escape than during its short life on the Foie Gras farm.
Then came speeches before the meal, and lots of those. Presents were given to the Patrouille de France and, later, by them. The Obelix character was still dipping into the spuds, whilst Unhygenix the cook looked on apparently unconcerned. Jaws jutted, cameras clicked; the especially deep-voiced solo leader of the PAF gave a speech, and all was well at the feast. Briefly, I suspect, we had forgotten our purpose of being there, even if the organisers had not. The first day’s show had been scrubbed, so empty-handed in that sense, they were still making a great show of celebrating their guests.
And through the alcoholic mist of dawn ? for some perhaps ? there came another day: it’s just that it came a little clearer to me, as I had largely abstained and then spent the night performing the show routine, horizontally.
Shortly after the briefing, Sunday manifested itself into an absolute corker. The fog had lifted from Clermont Ferrand airport, there was a dusting of new snow on Le Puy de Dome. Cumulus clouds drifted about, a few tentative showers lost heart and evaporated. We were left with a twenty-knot southerly wind but otherwise perfect show conditions. The kite flyers were ecstatic on the Plateau. The huge orange ‘dirigible’ dog-come-puppy bucked and dived in joy, surrounded by a manta ray, dragon and a host of fluttering, sputtering pennants.
Whilst the morning air show began, Alain, Wim and myself busied ourselves in practice. This involved holding onto one another’s shirt tails and making a series of manoeuvres around the deserted airport foyer, looked upon quizzically by an underworked car hire lady. I was leader simply because I had the least experience in close formation, so it was vital that I knew the routine inside out. Technically, all the others had to do was follow, but that sounds disingenuous. It was imperative that we all knew the routine, at the very least because one of us might drop out. We then sat down and tried to cover all the ‘what ifs’.
Outside at 1445, Pierre Fages’ Fouga Magister was spooling up, causing people to wince and jam their fingers in their ears. No jet, before or since, ever made a painful screech like it. How could such a dissent of whirring compressor blades possibly not explode imminently? It was our cue to get saddled up.
Alain gave the signal. Team Réduc Warbirds fired up and trundled off. Weaving down the runway in line astern, each of us quietly hoping that nobody would mess up. Not here ? not today. That was when my rev counter needle toppled like a shot soldier, and jerked against its stop in its last throes of death. Briefly the heat rose up in my collar. Should I tell the others? No; I could manage. Fly through the cheeks of your arse: this was what it was all about ? and so we did.
Storms dodged, GAR lost
Well, as you have already read, the display went well. There just remained a feverish rush to get fuel and head off to the north, leaving Wim and his tiny Fw 190 replica to cross the Jura Mountains to Geneva.
Having made it to Paris, I still had another day of storm dodging to get home. The Border Agency misplaced my GAR form, so my arrival back in the UK was met with a measure of consternation, quickly defused.
Alain was soon back at his computer, plotting the next escapade.
Near Geneva, Wim ended up stranded at the airport with only a bicycle between himself and home, ten miles away. Quietly, but with a measure of acceptance, this demi-god of aviation wobbled off into the gathering gloom still trying to recall whether you were supposed to steer the handlebars in the intended direction of turn, or not.
If there’s one memory I will take back, it will be the radio call made by the unfortunate Cessna 172 that we overtook near Orleans: “You won’t believe this ? I have just been passed by a Spitfire and a Mustang.”
How very sad am I?