Paris-Villaroche Air Legend
Saturday 7th September - Sunday 8th September 2019
The ability for airshow organisers to continually maintain a high-quality event is no mean feat. This was ably demonstrated by RIAT this year, undoubtedly one of the more established names on the airshow circuit. It's therefore extremely commendable for the Paris-Villaroche Air Legend, a show in its relative infancy, to strike proverbial gold in only its second year. The organising team, JM Airshows, have evidently taken stock of last year's efforts and attempted to differentiate itself from many other similarly themed shows, as last time providing a vast array of rare and unique aircraft. Not only did the show once again deliver the goods in providing a smattering of piston powered warbirds but also delivering arguably one of the best classic jet line-ups in Europe for quite some time. Add into the mix a more than generous showing by the French Air Force and the 2019 edition of the show really has made the show a force to be reckoned with.
pottered over to Melun-Villaroche Aerodrome for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the Staff Team.
A difficult trick to pull-off today, particularly in the current climate, is to create something that is unique. The premise of a new airshow for enthusiasts is nowadays something of a rare treat with the ratio of up-and-coming events to those disappearing sadly favouring the latter. It is, however, very easy for the newer shows to mould themselves on well-developed, tried and tested formulae that are inherently less likely to result in poor critical response. This is arguably what happened to the Paris-Villaroche Air Legend in its debut year - an event very akin to the style of La Ferté-Alais, albeit with the slightest of re-arranging. That isn't inherently a massive deal breaker, there are far worse shows to be used as inspiration, but considering that the two airfields are situated no further than 30 kilometres from each other it was certainly hoped that this year the show could deliver something original and different.
This certainly seemed the case when the announcements started trickling through on both the show's website and social media, with the final line-up boasting an eye-watering selection of the varied and wonderful. It certainly felt like there was something for everyone - but perhaps the most hotly anticipated were the several classic jets announced. For those of us residing in the UK the classic jet scene has somewhat died a quiet death, with many shows nowadays heavily reliant on the attendance of overseas examples - the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight and so on. Consequently, there was palpable excitement to see the likes of a Hawker Hunter T.68 and MiG-15UTI lined-up alongside a healthy number of French-based classic jets; including the ever popular five-ship of Patrouille Tranchant and Cocardes Marine with their MS.760 Paris and CM.175 Zephyr. A particular highlight was Top Gun Voltige's recently restored CT-133 Silver Star, the chromed aircraft making its airshow debut after making its initial post-restoration flight in June. Even the inclusion of an L-39C Albatros solo display, also operated by Top Gun Voltige, was a pleasant and well-received inclusion.
A definite highlight for many however would have been the appearance of Mistral Warbird's CL-13B Sabre, the aircraft sadly not being ready to make its first public showing last year. Annoyingly, the aircraft was only listed as appearing on the Sunday due to sharing flying duties with Airpower at Zeltweg. This seemed an unusual move considering how much attention the aircraft had garnered on social media during the pre-show build-up. Unfortunately, the aircraft's appearance never came to fruition, poor weather in Zeltweg meant that the Sabre once again wouldn't appear at Melun.
Nevertheless, the stage was set for what promised to be a good weekend's flying, with those that had signed up for the spotter's package able to get onto the historical airfield nice and early to walk to the lines of parked aircraft. Positioning of the display aircraft was relatively simple, with four neat rows stretching along the main apron and a small paddock area located towards the southern end of the venue. Rather frustratingly, a large proportion of the aircraft had their covers and additional intake blanks fitted for the entirety of the morning, with these only being removed once the general public had started trickling through the gates. Although it could be argued that the operators of the aircraft were not mandated to arrive early to take the aircraft covers off, it does raise the question as to why a spotter's package should even be offered. It was also frustrating to find metal barriers had been poorly placed along the row of jet aircraft, the reason for this not being particularly clear when the rest of the parking area simply used rope attached to cones. This all amassed to scupper some really good photographic opportunities, disappointing considering the early start and extra money being spent.
Also included within the spotter's package were two reasonably sized enclosures, with one set-up at crowd centre and the other at the southern-most end of the crowd line. The latter was essentially pointless though - with the zone being too far away to get any reasonable shots of aircraft on the taxiway and only the very occasional topside being of any solace. The other enclosure had its own issues as well, a large VIP chalet meant those that were sat any further than 3 metres behind the crowd line barriers were not able to see any aircraft approaching from the left. This resulted in a rather bizarre game of 'follow the leader' ensuing with those sat further back having to keenly watch those sat at the front of the enclosure and pay close attention to where their cameras were pointing. It did somewhat throw into question the purpose of the spotter's package - at €40 it didn't particularly feel like value for money this year. This became especially frustrating when the entry points for the aircraft parking area weren't even being policed on the Saturday, meaning anyone had the ability to just wander in without being checked. In hindsight, it might have been more favourable to also offer those paying for the spotter's package the opportunity to wander the parked aircraft once the flying display had finished when the light was at its best.
Initially it looked like the weekend was heavily centred around the flying display, with just a small handful of vintage aircraft announced as static items. It was therefore a surprise to wander onto the showground and suddenly find all manner of previously unannounced aircraft scattering the airfield, with the French Air Force obviously not having much else to do during the weekend and sending a good handful of airframes. Seeing a Rafale B, Mirage 2000-5F, CN-235-100M, PC-21 and recently de-mobbed TB.30 Epsilon parked together certainly felt like an airshow prior to the days of internet updates, where it was anyone's guess what might turn up. It was also extremely evident just what it meant for the crews to be there, particularly the pilots of the PC-21 who have only just commenced the first pilot intake but were still more than happy to sell a good selection of tat and chat about their new mount in both French and English. The attitude just felt totally different to that of the Royal Air Force in the UK, with a strong commitment to be seen and heard. This was further aided by all of the French Air Force displays teams being present, an incredible commitment considering there were no less than five other airshows taking place in France during the same weekend.
The flying display itself followed a very similar order on both days, beginning at approximately 1pm with the more diminutive classic aircraft and then flowing into the routines of the classic jets, piston warbirds and French Air Force demonstration teams. Due to the orientation of the display axis, predominantly north-south, it meant the first handful of acts involve glaring directly into the sun. This was a bit of a shame considering the rarity of some of the lighter types - such as one of only two airworthy Fairchild PT-26 outside of North America and the sole airworthy Klemm Kl.35 in France. Also of note was the appearance of the ever popular Bücker Bü181 Bestmann, or more specifically a Heliopolis Gomhouria Mk.6. Not only was the "Bestmann" making its debut at Melun but it was also Simon Wilson's first ever airshow display, with a good dosage of topsides on the Sunday.
As the displays seamlessly flowed from one to the next it did make things a bit difficult for those of us not fluent in French to fathom out what would display next, attributed to Melun's particularly unusual T-shaped runway layout. The longer east-west facing runway was being used predominantly by jet aircraft, whereas the majority of the other aircraft utilised the shorter runway opposite the crowd line. But with the other runway being quite so far away it was easy to miss an aircraft departing or recovering from its display, especially with the commentary volume being quite loud.
Eventually the sun had swung around to more a favourable position and therefore allowed the jets to be observed in much better light. The aforementioned Hunter T.68 put in a masterclass display and provided perhaps the best topside of the afternoon under glorious blue skies - a slow, sweeping turn with the flaps extended as white smoke twizzled away from the two wingtip pods. The CT-133 Silver Star seemed to be allergic to sunlight, however, both days displaying under rather mucky looking cumulus clouds. Nevertheless, the aircraft still looked absolutely resplendent in its highly-polished, bare metal scheme.
Interspersed within the classic jet displays on the Sunday was a unique flypast of Aeronavale both past and present, with two Rafale Ms conducting a flypast with the Paris, Zephyr, Vampire and the world's sole airworthy BR.1050 Alizé. Sadly, it transpired to be nothing more than a damp squib, with just a single high flypast before the Rafale Ms returned to base and the Alizé landed with little fanfare. Considering the six aircraft had been holding for a good 20 minutes prior to the flypast it certainly felt like a missed opportunity to not even see a couple of lower level flypasts. Interestingly it did later transpire that the Rafale pairing were limited in their showing due to operational commitments. Nevertheless, it was especially disappointing to see such a fleeting glance of the Alizé, especially with it arguably being one of the rarest items on the flying programme.
Confusingly there was a similar case for a number of other aircraft; one of the two Skyraiders that took part in the 'Vietnam' set-piece landing after only completing three passes, and the locally based TBM-3R Avenger solo display lasting no longer than about 4 minutes. Whether this was simply down to preference by the display pilots themselves or to stringently stick to the airshow timings is unclear, but it was shame to get such fleeting glances of some impeccably presented aircraft. There was also a distinct difference in the tempo of displays by a number of aircraft between each day. A good example was the F4U-5NL Corsair, which provided a relatively lacklustre display on Saturday - despite an insanely low fast pass with its Fighter Collection F8F Bearcat counterpart. Conversely, the display on Sunday was totally different, with an incredibly spirited 'boom and zoom' display a many handful of topside passes.
On the whole however the warbird displays were very impressive, with the majority of aircraft being paired up with similar variants or aircraft from similar eras. Surprise of the weekend, after being a last-minute announcement earlier in the week, was the debut of Kris Van der Bergh's Hawker Fury FB.10. Initially it looked as though many were to be left disappointed, the aircraft not appearing on the Saturday due to a small tech issue in Antwerp and therefore resulting in the UK-based Sea Fury T.20 displaying on its own. Thankfully Kris, who was also flying his recently imported Spitfire XVI, departed straight back home after his display with UK-based Spitfires ML407 and RR232 on the Saturday in order to bring the Fury FB.10 into Melun on the Sunday morning. Top mark,s it has to be said, for both being so committed in getting the aircraft to the airshow and for also painting it in arguably the best-looking paint scheme of any warbird in Europe, specifically the sandy-camouflage markings of the Iraqi Air Force (potentially an unpopular opinion I know).
Other piston-engine offerings included probably the most energetic display on the Sunday, courtesy of the Yakovlev quartet which comprised of a -11, -3UA, -3U and a -9UM. From the first aggressive, low-level, topside run-in it was just 10 minutes of raw power! Unlimited power! It really was a sight to behold these 'new build' Yaks blatting around the sky in a tail chase not too dissimilar to the Mustang displays we've become accustomed to expect from Flying Legends. The aforementioned trio of Spitfires also performed a spirited semi tail chase display on the Sunday, it being incredibly easy to forget that it's rare to see anything more than a single example of a Spitfire display in continental Europe.
As touched upon previously, the opportunity to see every current Armée de l'Air display team is not something to be shrugged at - particularly considering the quality of each demonstration. Naturally the Patrouille de France initially spring to mind, the Alpha Jet shod team also conducting a single flypast on the Saturday with the Seine Aviation C-47B Skytrain and P-51D Mustangs 'Nooky Booky IV' and 'Louisiana Kid' as part of the D-Day 75th anniversary. Even the likes of the EVAA Extra 330SC, an aircraft type that isn't everybody's cup of tea, put on an impressive showing in the hands of Victor Lalloue of the EVAA. It's probably as unlimited as unlimited aerobatics get for an Extra too!
But arguably the stand-out military acts were the A400M Atlas and Rafale Solo Display. Whilst the two aircraft types couldn't be more dissimilar if they tried, both provided an impeccable illustration of how to keep high momentum throughout a display. We've all come to expect a brilliant display of the Rafale C, but every year they somehow manage to eek just a little bit more out of the jet. The aircraft is constantly doing something to the point where its pilot, Sebastien Nativel, even finds time to chuck in a couple of aileron rolls between repositioning turns. It certainly proved that the RSD is still the undisputed king of European fast jet displays. The A400M, however, was something of an unknown quantity, the only yardstick being the 'in-house' Airbus displays which has become a stalwart of RIAT for the past nine years. But it can certainly be said that the Air Force Tactical Demo was equally as amazing, albeit a totally different beast entirely, with the aircraft spending more time repositioning in order to create an unbelievable amount of momentum between manoeuvres. The variation in speed throughout the display was perhaps the most dazzling - the opening of the routine being a high-speed zoom climb and wingover, with this immediately transitioning to a dirty pass that included two circa 90° topside showings of the A400M's upper surfaces.
As a whole, the show resulted in a lot of people coming away with big grins on their faces, with it definitely being felt that a more personal identity had been generated rather than a carbon copy of other shows. It certainly wasn't a perfect show, far from it, the spotter's package in particular is something that must be seriously overhauled in order to provide a more worthwhile experience. It was an outstanding line-up, one that many other shows would be extremely envious of - particularly with the organiser's having the nous to base a reasonable amount of the flying display around classic jets.
But the show had a bizarre feeling of being cobbled together at the last minute. Not that there was a lack of attention to detail, far from it, especially considering that the likes of the trade stalls were either relevant to aviation or the local area. Perhaps it's the venue itself which produces that unusual feeling. Never have I attended a venue with huge chunks of concrete lifting from the taxiways and large portions of the main crowd area being situated on an incredibly dusty corn field. It might have even been due to the rather laissez-faire atmosphere of proceedings, the weekend most certainly not feeling like a cash-grab exercise in order to generate a reasonable profit for the venue but instead an opportunity for people to just enjoy an eclectic mix of aircraft. No matter what that feeling is, it's certainly not a million miles away from being one of the best airshows in Europe. With an agreement being reached between the local mayor and the airfield to host an airshow for the next five years, it is certainly hoped that the Paris-Villaroche Air Legend continues to go from strength-to-strength. As far as new events go, this has certainly been one of the best!