Melun-Villaroche Air Legend

Saturday 11th September - Sunday 12th September 2021

Now in its third year, Paris-Villaroche Air Legend is gaining a solid reputation as one of the premier events on the European airshow calendar. Offering a solid mix of old and modern aircraft, this year was shaping up to be another great show, but a number of cancellations took a bit of the sheen away. The event was still represented well by the French armed forces and the return of a Mirage 2000 display was certainly a highlight for many aviation enthusiasts attending.

Nick Jennings hazmatted over to Melun-Villaroche Aerodrome for UK Airshow Review. Additional photography by Sam Wise.

Steeped in history, the aerodrome was originally built as a civil airport before being captured by the Germans in World War II. From here Junkers, Heinkels and Dorniers conducted raids on the Allies until the base was liberated by the Americans and in turn became home to USAAF tactical bombers. Following the cessation of hostilities, captured German aircraft such as Me-262s and Ar-234s were test flown at Melun before being transported to the USA. The Americans continued to operate at Melun until 1955, when it was transferred back to civilian operations. Later on it was used as a test centre for a number of French prototype aircraft, with engine manufacturer SNECMA (now Safran Aircraft Engines) having a large presence on site.

With the effects of the pandemic turning normality upside down and events only now starting to take place, it is no surprise that the aviation community has been heavily affected by the resultant lack of flying. It can be a difficult task to keep a warbird running when there are no shows or money coming in, so full credit to the organisers for managing to get such a fantastic line-up of warbirds confirmed, even if some couldn’t eventually make it. Whilst not a classic compared to the previous two Air Legend shows, you could still argue that it was easily one of the best shows of a COVID ravaged 2021 and it was nice just to return to some kind of normality.

The initial line-up confirmed for the show was very WW2-centric, compared to previous years there was a distinct lack of classic jets - with the notable exception of the Air Legend debut of Mistral Warbirds’ Canadair CL-13 Sabre, this aircraft was due to have made its debut at the show in 2018, and then in 2019, but various delays kept this from happening, so it was good for it to finally make its long awaited debut.

Having a mix of old and new aircraft types will inevitably lead to comparisons with the nearby and well established La Ferté Alais airshow. Normally the La Ferté Alais airshow takes place earlier on the airshow calendar, but this year it took place just a fortnight before the Air Legend show. This inevitably led to a lot of similar display acts, both from the civilian side and from the French armed forces. For foreign aviation tourists this is clearly less of a concern as they are only likely to visit one of the two shows, but for French aviation enthusiasts the decision whether to attend both must have been much harder.

Foreign participants at the show included Belgian Spitfire SL721 - this Mk.XVI wears the colours of Joseph "Jeff" Moureau’s Mk.IX Spitfire GE-S - an aircraft that was painted on the tail of one of the BAF F-16s at RIAT in 2019. Joseph served with the 349th Belgian Squadron of the RAF during WW2 and sadly passed away last year.

In the initial confirmed attendees list there was due to be a sizable participation by The Fighter Collection, unfortunately, only their Royal Navy Corsair managed to make the trip over to France in the end. Ultimate Fighters, however, did send their full complement of four aircraft to perform their French debut four ship display. The Ultimate Fighters display is a tightly flown formation of four aircraft, before they break off into pairs, the airmanship on display drew applause from the appreciative crowd.

Proceedings were brought to a short halt on the Saturday due to a takeoff incident involving the Beech E18 from La Ferté Alais. The exact cause isn’t yet known, however, the left wing tip clipped the ground and the aircraft ended up facing the wrong way in a field with a collapsed undercarriage strut. The pilot suffered minor injuries but was released from hospital the next day, the two passengers suffered no injuries.

Red Bull sent three of their airframes - the Mitchell, the Corsair and the Lightning - the last two flew in two very special set pieces. Love them or hate them, but Red Bull do take very good care of their aircraft which are immaculately presented. Their Corsair joined the TFC and the French example to make a three ship formation - albeit a fairly loose formation - which hasn’t been seen over Europe for a number of years (balbos aside). Probably even more unique were two Corsairs in formation with a pair of Aéronavale Rafales - this is the stuff of aviation geeks dreams. Not to be outdone, Red Bull’s P-38 did a formation pass with the Patrouille de France - though on the Saturday it was bringing up the rear and was obscured by the PdF’s smoke trails, this was rectified on the Sunday with the Lightning taking the lead. The P-38 and PdF formation celebrates the 75th anniversary of the publishing of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Saint-Exupéry was lost over the Mediterranean in his P-38 during a recon mission in 1944. The PdF aircraft carry illustrations from The Little Prince on their tails.

For the home team there was a welcome return of Christophe Jacquard’s PR.XIX Spitfire in its SE Asia RAF scheme, an aircraft not seen for a couple of years since its landing mishap. The diminutive CAC Boomerang was also in attendance, taking part in a mock dogfight with a Pratt and Whitney engined Yak-3 - not a very fair matchup, nor a historical one! Cancellations at airshows are inevitable and this was to be expected, it’s just a shame that of the acts to cancel were two of the bigger and rarer acts on the warbird circuit; the recently painted Skyraider in Vietnam colours went unserviceable before the show, with a T-28 Trojan/Fennec taking its place during the Vietnam section, along with the Grumman Avenger which also went unserviceable prior to the show, which no doubt would have taken part in the Pacific section of the airshow. The Avenger, however, was at least on static display being based at Melun-Villaroche.

As usual the French armed forces came up trumps with their airshow participation, wowing the crowd with speed, noise and in the case of the A400 - size. The French armed forces always seem to go the extra mile, with patch stands, chances to meet the pilots and spare aircraft in case of unserviceability. There was also a welcome appearance by an Aéronavale Bréguet ATL2 which created some impressive propeller vortices in the damp air on the Saturday, but was unable to make the Sunday show. The aforementioned A400 sported a special tail to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the “Touraine” 1/61 transport squadron from 1944 - 2019 - it’s always nice to see commemorative aircraft take part in flying displays, something that rarely seems to happen in the UK. Whilst the French A400 display isn’t as tight as the Airbus test pilot flown displays we’ve seen in the UK, it’s still a great showcase of the A400’s fine manoeuvrability for such a large aircraft.

Of course, a lot of the crowd came to the show specifically to see the PdF and the French fast jets and they weren’t left disappointed, with Rafales from both the Aéronavale and the Armée de l'air roaring around the sky. Sadly, the special schemed Rafale of the Rafale Solo Display team was not available, but an operational Air Force example took its place. The Navy Rafale display seems to lack the punch of the displays from a few years ago, with the dynamism of the Air Force display making the Navy display seem a little sedate, still, two Rafales in formation is an impressive sight to behold.

For some, trumping even the Rafales was the welcome return of a Mirage 2000C display. An official Air Force 2000C/5F display hasn’t been seen for over ten years now, so the Gusto Tactical Display is a welcome addition to the display circuit. At the show we actually had a 2000B and C variant for the display, the B being the two seat trainer. The display itself shares a number of similarities with previous Mirage 2000 tactical displays of the past by Ramex and Couteau Delta, combining punchy climbs and airfield beat ‘em ups. The aircraft are part of L’Escadron de chasse 2/5 “Ile de France” and are based at BA115 Orange-Caritat in southern France.

With all the positives of the event we do have to discuss the venue itself, which has an unusual configuration, with both a North-South runway and a longer East-West runway, the jets using the longer runway. Unfortunately, this is away from the crowd, making photographs of the departing/returning aircraft nigh on impossible to capture without a huge lens, which is a shame. The crowd is located on the western side of the North/South runway making photography at the start of the show very challenging, the situation improves during the day as the sun moves around behind the crowd. The crowd area is located in a farmer’s field, which when the weather is dry is fine, however, with the heavy rain on the Friday evening this turned parts of the field into a quagmire, none more so than the southernmost spotters’ area where wellies were definitely the order of the day!

With everything that has happened during the last 18 months and with around 30k visitors expected each day, it was no surprise that the wearing of masks was communicated as mandatory on the showground in the lead up to the event. Many, however, took no heed to the regulations, in fact even the local Gendarmerie weren’t wearing them, or had them pulled down, making a mockery of the rules and making them nigh on impossible to enforce. Another issue was the number of food and drink vendors on site, at peak times massive queues formed taking upwards of 30 minutes to get served, compound this with food vendors not selling drinks and vice versa and you could spend over an hour just to get some food and a drink. I think the message here is to bring your own food or be prepared to queue for a long time.

The organisers also made available a spotters’ package for the three days. On paper this looked like something that could be very special indeed, particularly on the Friday where spotters could get exclusive access to the site for arrivals, rehearsals and a small sunset airshow. Unfortunately, the weather conspired against the sunset airshow and all of the interesting modern military aircraft landed on the East/West runway, so the 40 euros for the Friday turned out to be poor value for money. The spotters’ packages for the Saturday and Sunday weren’t much better either, with poorly signposted parking, small spotter areas offering little over what you could get already on the crowd line, and access to the static area 30 minutes before the public and also at the end of the show - totally negated by most of the aircraft still having canopy covers, tags and engine blanks fitted. Although these are more issues with the operators and the venue layout itself.

So, in summary, not up to the Air Legend shows of 2018 and 2019, but considering the circumstances I think you could still definitely call it a success and certainly up there with the best shows of 2021. A few tweaks here and there could have this show rivalling La Ferté Alais as one of the best shows on the French calendar. Let’s hope the organisers can continue to build on the success of this show and the ones that have gone before.