La Ferté-Alais

Saturday 3rd June - Sunday 4th June 2017

La Ferté-Alais is hallowed ground in the vintage aviation world - very much the French counterpart to Duxford and Chino - and their annual Pentecost show is rightly considered a pilgrimage to be made for any historic aviation fan. With one of the greatest collections of historic aircraft in the world and many exotic and rare visitors from France and abroad, the "Temps de Hélices" airshow hosted by the Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis never fails to impress.

Sam Wise donned his beret for UK Airshow Review to report on the 2017 La Ferté-Alais Show. Photography by author.

For the British visitor, the natural comparison for both the show and venue is with Old Warden and Duxford, in many ways La Ferté sits somewhere between these two. The show is definitely on a slightly bigger scale than Old Wardens usual offerings, whilst providing a lineup that focuses on the vintage but also catering for modern and civilian acts in a similar way that a Duxford event does. However, the site isn’t anything like as developed as IWM Duxford; only a few smaller buildings and tents mark the showground, and the relatively short crowdline extends backwards as well, with plenty of picnic blankets and garden chairs dotting the grass. Indeed, the feel of the crowd - intimate, reverential - immediately evokes the home of the Shuttleworth Collection upon arrival. For that matter, the atmosphere is as comfortable as any to be found at home, with a genuine love of the show and aviation permeating the ground and the buildings. There are the customary militaria stands, though a few branches of French military aviation are also on hand to advertise and recruit. Similarly, like the two venues this side of the Channel, a flight-line (well, more of a flight paddock) walk is available for those that enjoy a closer inspection of the aircraft. The only pain about the place is the row of speakers set up about 8 metres or so in front of the crowd, on 3 metre high poles; great for ensuring everyone hears the commentary, but not so great for photography.

For the British visitor, the journey to La Ferté-Alais offers a superb opportunity to see a vast collection of French (and continental) aircraft that one would otherwise never see, from warbirds and military types to civilian, but still exotic, machines. Certainly the types that won’t travel are the majority of pre-war aircraft, Edwardians and true vintage aeroplanes that simply cannot be flown far, but gather at this hallowed ground for the annual show. French classics such as a pair of MS 733s, a part-original SPAD XIII and a host of replica First World War aircraft that are simply never seen in the UK are worth making the trip to see - the MS 733s took part in a naval themed section which also saw a CAP 10 and Fouga Zephyr in the flying programme (due to be joined by some other types which, sadly, didn’t show).

Without a doubt the "Frenchest" section was a mass collection of CAP machines. The renowned "Constructions Aéronautiques Parisiennes" family of aerobatic aeroplanes was honoured with a formation of no less than thirteen of the various different marks and models to have been created over the years, made all the more incredible by taking place in some truly horrendous weather. France has made some wonderful creations in the field of aviation over the past century and it’s gratifying to see that they still recognise these feats and put together this kind of recognition for types rarely seen abroad.

The CAP flight wasn’t the only set piece of the show. Early in the programme came a First World War display dubbed "The Age of Aces", featuring a (replica) Albatros C2 beating up the airfield - including pyrotechnics - then being chased off by a pair of replica SE5as, with some later era types flying above them to simulate a larger formation of biplane fighters. Though not quite as large in scale as the Great War Display Team, it’s still refreshing to see that era of aviation recognised.

A second impressive scenario was set on the Eastern Front of the Second World War. The rather impressive sight of paratroopers dressed in semi-period uniform with round parachutes jumping out of the side of a Ju 52 was complemented by the familiar antics of a Fi 152 Storch in front of the crowd, showing off its uncanny ability to travel at next to no speed. Then, out of nowhere, the Luftwaffe aeroplanes are chased from the sky by a pack of "Faucons de Staline", roaring in in formation with a thunderous noise. The Yak-11U, Yak-3M and two Yak-3s signified the famous Normandie-Niemen regiment of the Soviet Air Force, manned by French pilots on the Eastern Front; after the war, Stalin gifted 37 Yak-3s to the French Air Force by way of thanks for their huge efforts in defending the USSR.

By far the most impressive set piece of the show, at least of the Saturday display, was the Tora! Tora! Tora! event. Depicting the events of the 7th of December 1941 - the attack on Pearl Harbour - the act was very well choreographed, well thought out and a true spectacle. An opening of a pair of US Navy Stearmans bumbling about on training flights, with jaunty 1940s music playing over the speakers, set the scene. Then the peace was shattered by no fewer than eleven T-6 Texans (well, nine Texans, an NA-68 and a faux Zero) broke formation over the airfield and dived in to attack - explosions on the ground, gunfire and the feeling of chaos reigned, as it did on that "day of infamy". A solitary P-40N launched to try and counter the attack, in vain. With a pall of black smoke hanging in the air and the drone of radial engines overhead, the recreation was imposing indeed.

There were standout individual acts, of course. A pair of Fouga Magisters, part of the Patrouille Trenchant, performed a very graceful and energetic routine as the second act of the day. A true French classic, it’s been a number of years since a Magister was displayed in Britain and they were a welcome sight to our eyes. Dating to a few years earlier (the design that is - the actual airframe is a 1991 construction and in its current configuration since 2015), the Caudron G.3 was magnificent and as much a gem as any to be found at Old Warden. Indeed, a great collection of First World War and Edwardian era aircraft took to the air at La Ferté - the Bleriot XI and 1910 Deperdussin will be very familiar to any Shuttleworth regular.

But it was the Armée de l’Air that provided the two most breathtaking and jaw-dropping displays, first with a special forces C-160D Transall display that was over all too quickly - similar to the Italian C-27 display, without so many aerobatics but much lower, much bigger and with some outrageous wingovers. The second of the Air Force’s contribution was the much-lauded Rafale Solo Display. Entering the show in formation with the Australian-marked Sea Fury and a Swiss Hunter, Capitaine Jean-Guillaume Martinez was limited to his flat show and not the routine that won so much praise at Duxford only a week earlier. Nevertheless, it was as superlative as we’ve come to expect from one of the finest fast jet displays on the continent.

Sadly the same weather that forced the Rafale down put paid to the final hour or so of the show - a feeling so familiar to any British travellers in the audience. Disappointingly this included the "Good Morning, Vietnam" section of the programme. The pyrotechnics team had already laid out a line of enormous boxes in the explosions zone, so the scene was set for some spectacular napalm drops from a pair of Skyraiders and Trojans. Two other much-anticipated stars that were rained off were the Breguet Alizé that was slated for the Naval section, and the Breguet XIV making a return to the circuit after a very many years. Probably the single biggest loss for the show on the Saturday was the scrubbing of the Patrouille de France display which was to close the show with a formation involving an Air France Boeing 777. Fortunately, show-goers on the Sunday were treated to a much fuller display and much more clement weather.

The Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis are an aviation heritage group that truly "gets it", and the show that they put on annually is all the evidence one needs of that. The love of the flying, the aviation and the evocation of a bygone era comes alive at La Ferté-Alais. The focus is very clearly on the vintage, but for a show called the "The Age of Propellers" there is no fear of wowing the crowds with some jet noise and aerobatics - it is clear that the organisers are extremely confident in their themes. Even the show posters are of an era that is long gone in the UK, and over the years have been a fair bit more risqué than you’d ever get in this country any more. For any aviation fan, and especially for those of aircraft of the distant past, all efforts must be made to visit this wonderful place.