La Ferté-Alais

Saturday 19th May - Sunday 20th May 2018

Arguably one of the European airshow circuit's go-to events, La Ferté-Alais 2018 managed to attract a smorgasbord of aircraft from across Europe that celebrated over 100 years of aviation. The hosts of the airshow, Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis, seem to really know what the discernible airshow enthusiast wants, with not only an eclectic mix of pre-war, inter-war and post-war aircraft but a strong selection of more contemporary airframes from each of France's military services. With pleasant temperatures and sunshine throughout the weekend, the "Temps des Hélices" airshow really did deliver the goods.

Dan Ledwood popped across the English Channel for UK Airshow Review to report on the 2018 La Ferté-Alais show. Additional photography by Sam Wise.

Hidden amongst the quiet streets and rolling fields of the sleepy French town of La Ferté-Alais, the Cerny airfield is a little gem that houses the Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis museum. Somewhat similar to the Shuttleworth Collection, both in terms of the aircraft located within the hangars and the picturesque, tree-lined grass airfield beyond, the collection has a fine number of unique and interesting airframes on its roster. The majority of these aircraft take centre-stage during the two-day airshow, but the non-flyers of the collection are also dragged outside into the "paddock area" for one to peruse during the morning's open-paddock access. With the aforementioned sunshine beating down throughout the duration weekend it was reassuring, as a first-time visitor, that the crowd line was vaguely north-facing and only presented itself as a slight issue during the final handful of display acts. Rather annoyingly however were speakers set-out along the entire length of the crowd line on raised supports, making panning shots on take-off and landing a bit of a lottery. Whilst the speakers provided excellent sound quality for accompanying music and commentary (all in French, naturellement), laying them on the ground would have been much more practical.

Of note to first-time visitors is just how short the crowd line for this airshow is, comparable in length to East Kirkby. Although there is more space available in theory, the showground layout causes something of a pinch point as the western end of the site is used for car parking whilst the eastern end of the airfield is dominated by the aircraft paddock as well as a large VIP area. The lack of space available became especially apparent on the Sunday with a substantially bigger crowd in comparison to Saturday's visitor numbers. However, this may have been exaggerated due to one of two reasons; the first being a French bank holiday on the Monday and also the appearance of the Patrouille de France on the Sunday only. But just like Old Warden and East Kirkby mentioned previously, the airfield and layout really does have a fantastic charm to it; a finely-balanced selection of food and trade stalls accompany more aircraft-centric trade stands, meanwhile a quartet of ladies sing, very melodiously, 1940s-era wartime songs in front of AJBS' B-17G Flying Fortress "Pink Lady"... It all adds up to create a nostalgic atmosphere you can't help but be taken by.

The flying display doesn't begin until the early afternoon, with both vintage aircraft and helicopters operating pleasure flights in the morning, but this gives ample time for the sun to swing to crowd rear. Opening the show on both days was a banner tow like no other, with a PT-17 Kaydet trailing an exceptionally long ribbon over well over 200 metres long. Almost like an aerial game of Snake, (younger readers, ask your parents!) a Jodel chased the tail of ribbon across the sky whilst still being able to perform intermittent aerobatic manoeuvres throughout the short display. This was followed by a CJ-01 Minijet zipping along at a great rate of knots. In fact, the schedule was filled with a number of set-pieces and formations that really did boggle the mind, a lot of which have not been done in the UK for a long time, or indeed ever.

Arguably one of the most impactful set-pieces of both days was the 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' demonstration, which provided an especially visceral experience that really was quite an assault on the senses. Opening the scene was a PT-13D Kaydet and a very rare N3N-3, with the pair performing a sedate aerobatic display which depicted the training flights that were being conducted on the island of Oahu on that eventful day in 1941. During this time the mass of twelve T-6 Texans, all in unique paint schemes (including one stooging around as a Japanese Zero), had positioned in a long echelon formation over at crowd rear, with the aircraft then splitting from the highly-positioned formation to perform a fast-paced, high frequency diving attack on the airfield. The aircraft then swooped in again for a strafing run, this time with flack and anti-aircraft "fire" being targeted at the aircraft as they charged low-level in a roaring line of radial engines. Whilst the smoke from the previous attack run hung in the sky, a lone P-40N scrambled to try and fend off some the belligerents. Upon landing the Texans then lined-up along the entire length of the airfield to face the crowd, with everyone frantically waving back after a truly stunning spectacle.

Further set-pieces included an extensive review of the First World War referred to as the "Au Champ de Bataille", with a mass of replica biplanes from the era performing a dogfight early on in the display. They were accompanied by the visiting Great War Display Team, the team hopping over the channel with five of their aircraft. Oddly, Saturday's display seemed to be much closer and punchier, with the trio of Bristol F.2B Fighter and two SE.5A replicas displaying completely away from the airfield on the Sunday, almost out of view. In comparison, the trio of Edwardian-era aircraft was a much more polished affair on the Sunday, with the Bleriot XI, Déperdussin T and Morane Type H all exceptionally demonstrating the pioneering days of aviation. This was arguably one of the absolute charms of the airshow, as the organisers had aircraft at their disposal that may never be seen anywhere else and are unlikely to venture very far.

A couple of particular examples were, firstly, the Caudron G.3, an aircraft that really has to be seen to be believed. Secondly was the utterly immaculate, and original, SPAD XIII which performed a spritely number of close and low passes. This culminated in the aircraft flying in loose formation with the newly repainted Rafale Solo Display jet to celebrate 100 years of French-designed fighter aircraft. Apparently, the formation was only practised on the Friday but there was a definite improvement between the two days as the Rafale pilot, Captain Sébastien Nativel, clearly became more comfortable with positioning the aircraft at such slow speed alongside the SPAD. The sedate pace quickly disappeared once the formation split, with the Rafale going straight into its solo display and once again proving it's one of the most polished fast-jet displays on the European circuit.

Of all the formations however, the accolade for most impressive was the appearance of two DC-3/C-47s, two Dassault Flamants and three Beech 18s. Appearing towards the east, it isn't often quite so many transport aircraft are seen sharing such a small amount of airspace at once. After a couple of passes they then broke into their respective individual displays, with each one being flown with gusto. Special mention had to go to "Classic Formation" of DC-3 and three Beech 18s from Switzerland, which provided a prime example of how to display larger aircraft without large repositioning gaps. Rather amusingly the display felt like the DC-3 was acting as "mother duck", with the raspy Beech 18s being the "chicks" that followed the DC-3 very tightly. And on the subject of animals, it's even rarer to see a dog jumping out of a Junkers Ju-52 (whilst attached to one of the RAID paratroopers I might add). But the stand-out transport display went to the Lockheed Electra Junior, which was confirmed just a week before the airshow. Wearing the same markings that it carried in the 2008 film "Amelia" the aircraft really did dazzle, with numerous topsides featuring within an extremely well-flown routine.

The aforementioned Great War Display Team were not the only British participants in the flying display, with The Fighter Collection sending both the Hawk 75A-1 and the hotly anticipated return of their Hawker Sea Fury T.20. With the Sea Fury now fitted with a Pratt & Whitney R2800 instead of the standard Bristol Centaurus, La Ferté-Alais would actually be the aircraft's public debut in the new configuration, after spending nearly seven years in the hangar at Duxford. A testament to the great relationship between AJBS and TFC. The aircraft was labelled as performing alongside the French-based, Australian Navy marked Sea Fury. One might have imagined the latter might have taken the limelight, with the aircraft's impressive smokewinder system being all the more impressive in the calm conditions, but this wasn't the case. The incredible power of the Sea Fury T.20 really shone through, with a powerhouse display of the aircraft's performance in a "boom and zoom" style. Nick Grey really did perform one of the best displays of the weekend, with a topside on nearly every single pass whilst the single-seat Sea Fury performed its aerobatic routine on an almost secondary axis. Other British attendees also saw Air Leasing provide Spitfire Mk.XIV and the newly restored twin-stick Buchon, with each performing individual routines and a short tail-chase before joining the Hawk 75 for a couple of flypasts.

The Sea Fury T.20 was not the only warbird making its airshow debut however, with many exceptionally eager to see the return of the locally-based F4U-5NL Corsair. The aircraft, which was garnering the most attention within the paddock, has been subject to a ten-year restoration and only flew for the first time ten days before the airshow weekend. The hype to see the aircraft was intensified even further when it was published that it would perform a special flypast with four Aéronavale Rafale M, but this didn't quite happen when it came to airshow weekend. Once the Corsair had completed a spirited solo display, the aircraft looking resplendent in its night fighter markings, the aircraft came into view with not only the four Rafales but also a Falcon 10 MER and an MS.760 Paris joining the quintet. But the action didn't stop there, with a pair of MS.733 Alcyons acting as a "goose" to the formation before performing their own routine. It was a dizzying twenty minutes of French naval action, with a rare appearance by an Atlantique II performing a series of three flypasts in a variety of configurations.

Not quite as sedate as their navy counterpart was the Aeronavalé Rafale Demo, with a four-ship fighter demo being an all too rare occurrence and is believed to only be performed a very limited number of times this year. Speaking to the pilots beforehand, which will be part of a more in-depth preview on UK Airshow Review at a later date, the pilots have only been able to perform a very limited number of practices in the lead-up to a public display. This showed on the Saturday display, with some of the manoeuvres being slightly out of sequence and overall feeling very untidy. Thankfully this all changed on Sunday, with a vastly improved display that really did impress. The navy segment could have arguably been even more spell-binding than it already was too, with the Breguet Alizé and CM.715 Zephyr both being part of the very small handful of cancellations.

Worth noting was how well supported the show was by each of France's Air Arms, which demonstrates how important La Ferté-Alais is to the various militaria. Not only did the Armée de l'Air provide appearances by the Rafale Solo Display and PdF, but also an incredibly rare display and tactical demo by a C-160NG Transall, the highlight of which being a soft-field landing and take-off. Although not officially listed, a French Air Force AS.555AN Fennec in special markings and Super Puma also made appearances on the Sunday. Not wanting the Navy and Air Force to have all of the fun, a rare demo by an ALAT Gazelle also made for welcome viewing, despite being a bit of a "blink and you'll miss it" display.

The final set-piece of the day was simply titled "Good Morning Vietnam!" and provided the largest explosions of the day by a country mile. The segment began with some impressively low flypasts by a Cessna 337 Skymaster before a number of bombing and missile runs by the Skyraider pair, a recently imported T-28B Trojan and Bronco. Unusually, the Sunday saw a fully aerobatic Skyraider solo display, whereas nothing of the sort was witnessed the day prior. Closing the airshow following some fantastic flying alongside the unique MS.406 was the Swiss F-18C Hornet, which was a strong contender for being almost as impressive, if not more, than the Rafale solo earlier in the day.

As an airshow, La Ferté-Alais really did have a little bit of everything and potentially could not have exceeded expectations any more. It would have been difficult to have found a spectator that would have complained about the line-up and quality of the displays, with even acts like Nicolas Ivanoff in his aerobatic Beech Bonanza surprising many people. For UK airshow enthusiasts that cannot determine whether La Ferté-Alais is a show worthwhile attending, all I can simply say is it's a no-brainer.