This year, the Patrouille de France celebrates its 70th birthday. A veritable institution in French aviation since 1953, the PAF amazes aviation enthusiasts at summer airshows and other official events. Nicknamed “La Grande Dame”, the tricolored escadrille has become a French symbol around the world, just like the Eiffel Tower, and has stood the test of time by inspiring future air force pilots. Let’s take a look at the history of the PAF and the institution overseen by these elite pilots in their sky-blue overalls.
The history of the Patrouille de France
The first French aerial patrol demonstration dates back to 1931, at the 251 base at Etampes-Mondésir. This first meeting is organized by instructors from the flight training school, aboard three Maurane-Saulnier MS230 aircraft. Between 1932 and 1939, the Étampes patrol was chosen to represent France at international meetings. In 1937, it joined Salon-de-Provence air base 701, under the name “la patrouille de l’école de l’air”. Airshows were discontinued during the Second World War, and it wasn’t until 1947 that the Ministry of the Air deigned to set up a new air force display squadron, the EPAA. Initially based in Tours, it soon returned to its original base in Étampes. With the spectacular air shows attracting more and more people, various training courses were offered within the air force to recruit future pilots and mechanics. The Patrouille de France officially owes its name to Jacques Noetinger, a journalist and commentator who, at an airshow in 1953, christened it the “Patrouille de France”, a name ratified a few months later by French air force officials.
Developments since 1953
Between 1953 and 1963, the Patrouille de France changed base several times. In 1954, it moved from base 112 in Reims to base 102 in Dijon. The following year, she moved to Cambrai, on the 103 air base. 1956 saw the first foreign performances of the meetings. As a result, the Patrouille de France is divided into two squadrons: one made up of Mystère IVs for overseas missions, the other made up of MD 450 Ouragans and based in Bremgarten, Germany, for meetings on French soil. Finally, between 1957 and 1961, the aircraft were stationed in Dijon and Nancy. In 1959, the Patrouille de France accompanied General de Gaulle on his tour of the former French West Africa. In January 1964, for budgetary reasons, the squadron was disbanded. But anxious to see the name “Patrouille de France” disappear, the French Ministry of the Army decided to keep the name “Patrouille de l’école de l’air de Salon-de-Provence”. The latter, which has been part of the Air Force Academy since 1937, alongside the Patrouille de France, ensures its continued existence. Pierre Mesmer, then Minister for the Armed Forces, made the event official in February 1964. The 6 Fouga Majisters based at Salon-de-Provence became the French army’s aerobatics flagship for 16 years.
Pilots and their placement
The Patrouille de France is made up of 9 elite pilots (8+1 replacements), and every year 3 new pilots join the prestigious squad. They are all fighter pilots from the French Air Force, with a minimum of 1,500 flying hours on jet aircraft (Rafale, Mirage 2000, Alpha Jet, etc.), as well as “patrol leader” qualifications. Profiles from the air force school can present themselves as “scavengers”: they will be placed behind the formation leader. Aircrew cadets (EOPN) can apply to join the legendary squadron as crew members. Note that the 3 new recruits each year are selected by the existing drivers.
- The leader: named Athos 1, he remains in his position for one year. A true conductor of the formation, he and his team define the aerial figures and formations that the patrol will perform during the season. To celebrate the Patrouille de France’s 70th anniversary, Rafale pilot Captain Aurélien Declercq is officiating as leader.
- Interiors: Athos 2 and Athos 3 form the interior of the squadron, and operate as close as possible to the leader.
- The scavenger: Athos 4 is positioned behind the leader and swallows all his smoke! A worthy successor to the leader the following year.
- Solos: composed of Athos 5, solo leader, and Athos 6, second solo. Their mission is to perform crossings and percussion, during synchronization.
- Outsiders: made up of Athos 7 and Athos 8, these are the team-mates furthest away from the leader, and their position demands the utmost concentration. They also need to be proactive in maintaining training courses.
- The replacement: Athos 9 is the most senior pilot in the Patrouille de France, capable of replacing any team member except the leader. The replacement also held the positions of interior, second solo and solo leader within the squadron.
A plane, a pilot, a mechanic
The Patrouille de France has a team of some thirty mechanics supervised by the Technical Director. All volunteers, they often work late into the night to ensure the next day’s performances and meetings. They are divided into two teams:
- Troubleshooting team: in addition to routine maintenance, the troubleshooting team is responsible for all operations requiring the aircraft to be grounded. His role is also to prepare the Alpha Jets for the season’s meetings. It is based in Salon-de-Provence.
- The runway team: the runway mechanic chooses his pilot, as is tradition, and accompanies him during the summer season on all air events. Its mission is to ensure that the Alpha Jet is ready for every flight departure and return. Nicknamed “pistard”, he usually spends one or two seasons before joining the breakdown team based in Salon-de-Provence. During the delivery phase before each meeting, the ramp mechanic flies with his pilot, in the rear seat of the aircraft. Like the pilot, his name is also inscribed on the aircraft.
Aircraft used by the Patrouille de France
Since its creation, 5 aircraft models have been used for official representations and airshows, contributing to the worldwide reputation of the French air force.
- The Republic F-84 G Thunderjet (1953-1954): this American jet fighter-bomber dates from the late 1940s. Supplied to France in 1943, it flew briefly between 1953 and 1954 for the Patrouille de France.
- The Dassault Ouragan (1954-1957): built by Dassault, this “Made in France” aircraft was the first mass-produced French jet. It was used between 1954 and 1957 by the Patrouille de France, before being replaced by its successor, the Mystère IV.
- The Dassault Mystère IV (1957-1964): this fighter was delivered to the twelfth squadron at Cambrai in 1955. On this basis, the first acrobatic patrol was created, equipped with the new aircraft. In 1955, twelve Mystère IVs took to the skies of Paris for the traditional July 14th parade. It became the official aircraft of the Patrouille de France between 1957 and 1964.
- The Fouga Magister (1964-1980): This French aircraft is a subsonic two-seater initially designed for pilot training. It can be recognized by its V-shaped tail. Adopted as an aerobatic aircraft by several aerobatic patrols, its last performance took place in September 1980 at Salon-de-Provence.
- The Alpha Jet (since 1981): the Patrouille de France has been using this model for over 40 years. It is a Franco-German ground attack and training aircraft. Easily identifiable with its blue-white-red livery, this high-performance two-seater can take off in 700 meters, has a headlight integrated into its nose and a smoke container mounted under its belly.
The various acrobatic figures
The Patrouille de France performs aerobatics and renews its program every year. Training takes place in winter, and meetings and performances between April and October. Each program, called a “series”, is determined by the leader in consultation with his team. This year’s series is divided into two parts:
- The ribbon: in this figure, the 8 aircraft fly in a tight formation and make changes.
- Synchro: the patrol divides into 2 formations, alternately performing acrobatic maneuvers with 2, 4 or 6 aircraft.
The emblematic figure of the Patrouille de France remains “the heart cut by an arrow”, created by the two soloists. The “diamond” formation is the basic one, but many others can be used for the series, including :
- Alpha: the 8 aircraft form the letter Alpha in the sky.
- Arrow: the planes form a pyramid.
- Concorde: the squadron forms the mythical Concorde aircraft.
- Diamond: the devices come together to form a diamond shape.
Alpha Jets travel at speeds of between 300 and 800 km per hour, spaced just 2 to 3 metres apart.
Considered one of the best patrols in the world, the PAF represents France abroad, where it regularly performs aerial acrobatics on official occasions. Each of his demonstrations is an aerial sweep, displaying a remarkable mastery of space.
If you would like to see the Patrouille de France fly, the calendar of meetings is available on the Ministry of the Armed Forces website.