Journées Portes Ouvertes Avord

Saturday 30th September - Sunday 1st October 2023

If asked to pinpoint on a map the dead centre of France, chances are your finger wont be too far from the small agricultural village of Avord or at least the historic city of Bourges, some ten miles to the West. Travel three or so hours in any direction of this point and youll be at/over a border or near/in some salt water, demonstrating not only the central strategic location of Avord but also what a huge piece of rock France is.

Geoff Stockle reports for UKAR.

To the North-west and completely dwarfing the quaint village that bears its name is the sprawling installation of Base Aérienne 702 'Capitaine Georges Madon', second only in size to Cazaux as French air bases go. Though an active flying station for many decades with an impressive single runway of 11,500 feet, much of the infrastructure of the base is connected with the storage of the French Air Forces stockpile of ASMP nuclear air-ground missiles as well as conventional munitions; several triple fenced, highly guarded enclosures bear witness to that. Regular detatchments of Nuclear strike capable Rafales (previously Mirage 2000NK-2 & Mirage IVA/P) are cycled at the base, operating from HAS sites.

The open days or Journées portes ouvertes (JPO) first came to my attention earlier in the year and given the recent scarcity of French military shows, especially ones with a favourable sun position and the chance of seeing some rarer French types I thought Id give it a punt and make a weekend of it. Even the forecast played ball with yet another period of sun and very high temperatures, and even though the Saturday was a little cloudier than expected, déjà vu set in with a similar feel to my last visit to France a few weekends prior.

I last visited Avord in (gasps) 1989 on an over-long day coach trip courtesy of Aeroprints and at the time the base was undergoing some changes - the Mirage IV unit had disbanded and its aircraft sent to Istres though the attendant C-135FR refuelling unit was still extant. Building was underway to accept the next generation of airborne warfare in the shape of four E-3F (still universally 'AWACS in French parlance) purchased in a joint programme with the RAF examples. But where our fleet of seven are either patrolling the skies of Chile or reduced to tin cans with no replacement in use, the French aircraft have been upgraded and remain alive and well performing a very credible job with Escadron de Détection et de Contrôle Aéroportés (EDCA) 00.036 'Berry. Much removed from the nuclear force and hi-tec AWACS wizardry, a rather more mundane and much longer standing unit is still based at Avord. Ecole de l'Aviation de Transport (EAT) 00.319 'Capitaine Dartigues is the latest evolution of the French multi-engine training school that became the only export, and now only current military operator of the Embraer 121 Xingu in 1983. Twenty-five were purchased to replace 1950s era Dassault Flamants with twenty-two still in service along with several of the 10 remaining French Navy examples in a joint multi engine training unit.

On to the show itself and whilst expecting to see a rather rare and tasty French E-3 or two, I did also expect a good smattering of French hardware both flying and static, as has been the norm at pretty much every other French show I've attended over the years; Especially as this JPO represents one of only two (the other being Salon) official French military open days this year. The flying programme was posted on social media some weeks prior and though not a devastating line up, the inclusion of a C/KC-135 and a few other bits and pieces perked my interest. I arrived at lunchtime on the Friday and spent the afternoon outside the base with a few locals to see some rehearsals and a few arrivals though given the nature of the base and the topography, the location is far from ideal. No hanging out on the roadside or adjacent fields on the approach as many of us have done many times over the years at (say) Cambrai, Reims, St Diz or Landivisiau etc.

I've largely given up applying for French spotters day tickets as they are gone in seconds and I rarely succeed in getting any Friday access. I did however go for weekend spotters tickets at 10€ each as even though public entrance is free, spotters get in a good hour earlier and have a dedicated enclosure with shelter and drinks on the crowd line as well as parking on base close to the show area rather than a 20+ minute walk away. That said, the aforementioned nuclear presence on base resulted in some very thorough pre-entry security measures. All non-based personnel- spotters, traders, VIPs, contractors, visiting crews etc were required to arrive at the base very early prior to opening and queue in their vehicle for an hour plus before being corralled in small groups into a small clearing in the trees and then before exiting their vehicle open all doors, bonnets, boots, even glovebox! We were then marshalled into a blacked-out tent whilst bomb dogs were let loose over the vehicles before receiving the all clear and a "car checked" certificate. We then had to follow a very precise route into the base, with guards located every twenty metres or so along it so no stopping to shoot the preserved Mirage IV or Flamants (I did in 89 anyway!) Even once in the display area though the Spotters blue tabards caught the attention of a squad of rather overzealous security forces who rounded us up and demanded to speak to the "chief spotter". An obvious lack of communication was eventually sorted and we were allowed to continue our business before the general public arrived.

Finally let loose on base I was immediately taken aback by the lack of aeroplanes! As said, French shows have always been very good at attracting a large static presence of aircraft from all of the host nations air arms as well as international visitors but the invite didnt seem to go out from Avord! There were no visiting French military types on static (unless you include the civilian operated Cirrus of the basic flight academy) with only a pair of home based Xingus and an E-3F available for close inspection - internally too in the case of the E-3. The international visitors were equally sparce with only a Belgian SF-260 and an Italian Air Force P180 Avanti (that departed on Sunday anyway) on view, these, along with a few civilian types from Bourges airport pushed the static total to a rather measly 16 aeroplanes.

The flying display fortunately had rather more variety and began promptly at 10am though with several periods of displays such as ground security forces, air defence systems and RC models, many of which were incredibly convincing! As evidenced from the large number of civilian run airshows in the country (particularly the evergreen La Ferte Alais and rising star of Air Legend), there is buoyant support for the industry and a plethora of warbird and aerobatic operators. The Avord show featured the rather well named "Shark", a Slovakian product of impressively sleek aerodynamics, the ex RAF & RCAF "Un Dakota sur la Normandie" DC-3 and the Dijon based Vertical Flight Experiences TB-30 Epsilon pair flown by former "Cartouche Doré" leader Sébastien Berneyron and Hugo Menard; their mounts now finished in a "stealth" black scheme. A pair of MD312 Flamants operated by Ailes Anciennes de Corbas and Association Montbéliard Dassault 312 were most welcome given their previous service at the base. I do like the Flamant with its growling in-line German designed, Renault built Argus engines and more than passing resemblance to a WW2 medium bomber. Likewise I've got a soft spot for the Nord Noratlas and was looking forward to the long established last airworthy example of Association le Noratlas de Provence displaying at Avord. However, it was a no-show on the Saturday and only performed a couple of flypasts on the Sunday. That said its rumbling SNECMA produced Hercules radials (of Halifax and Beaufighter fame) in that twin boom shape was most appreciated and apt too, as the French examples were produced by Nord at nearby Bourges.

Another civilian aircraft appeared in the flying in the shape of a hapless Robin DR400 that simulated a lost light aircraft of unknown intentions that needed intercepting and forcing down to be interrogated by the local forces. The interceptor in this case was an AS555 Fennec of EH03.067 (displaying some rather tatty, peeling titles on its starboard boom!) that co-ordinated with the Gendarmes and ground forces in an armoured vehicle in a well-received display.

Foreign military items consisted of the Red Arrows, Belgian F-16 and a dubious entrant in the shape of a German marked C-130J-30, operated as they are by the joint French-German Binational Air Transport Squadron (BATS) of 10 Hercules from Evreux. A couple of flypasts were all we got but the over the shoulder entrance from crowd right was notable. "Vrieske" or rather Senior captain Steven de Vries wound up his second year of simply stunning F-16 displays at Avord in a standard finished machine which I must admit was quite refreshing, unmarked though they are these days; the "Dream Viper" seemingly having a run of unserviceability of late. I must admit I was a little disappointed (and tad unpatriotic) to see the Reds listed as the only UK participant. Of all the foreign acts available, and moreover given the rather moribund seven and eight-ship displays recently I, personally, would rather have seen anything else! However, given the blue skies and a very enthusiastic crowd they went down very well and to be fair was a fitting end to the rather turbulent 2023 season for them. Hopefully with new leader and return to a nine-ship we will see an improved team in 24.

The remainder of the flying consisted of French Air and Space Force (Armée de l'air et de lespace) items, including most of the "Ambassadeurs" of established display items and some additional home based and visiting flypasts. An E-3F with 90 year markings on the Port side appeared several times, including a flypast with the Patrouille de France, a solo display that including a rather hair raising Khe Sahn approach and a gentle banking top side flypast. Following the same banking pass was an A330-MRTT "Phenix" and very probably the last public appearance by a French Stratotanker, dragging two Rafale Bs. The C/KC-135 has been a stalwart of French force projection, initially purely for the nuclear strike force, incredibly for nearly 60 years. Never a common aeroplane to be seen, the sight of this one (one of the ex USAF KC-135RGs) performing a curved pass around the crowd was a fine one to see- if only it had performed the full display as seen at RIAT, but alas no. More disappointment in that it only appeared on the Saturday. A shame too that it didnt do the same as the Phenix, which landed and taxied passed the crowd before departing. The A330 is a common sight now in the tanking world and at least the French ones add a bit of flair with colour markings and a not unattractive go faster wavy cheat line finish to contrast with most of the other operators dull lo-viz Grey.

The home based Xingus were busy celebrating their 40th anniversary with an obligatory special tail (the 30th anniversary marked machine is preserved on base) that appeared static, flew a solo and lead the rather charmingly named "Patrouille Chamomile" of four like machines. They were joined by the two Flamants representing multi-engine training at Avord over a period of some 65 years. For anyone interested in the special tails wavy line, it represents the Brazilian river Xingu of course - such a nice touch! All of the Xingus seen were in the rather nice original scheme of light grey/white - I can only presume the repainting of the fleet into horrible drab dark grey has been reversed?

Also celebrating a significant anniversary, La Patrouille de France are of course 70 years old this year and their Alpha Jets have received a new tail design as well as small stencils of the types theyve used previously on a few of the aircraft. Their display maintains the familiar, long standing flowing manoeuvres of all those years but always features fresh and innovative touches that stand them apart from the other European teams. For this year only, the two sections of four perform a rather shabby looking break leaving you thinking what are they doing, but there in front of your eyes following a loop and split is a huge "70" in smoke - formidable.

Another French team that makes good use of smoke is the less familiar (in that they rarely display outside of France) Équipe de Voltige de Armée de l'Air (EVAA), themselves 55 years extant. Quite a rarity amongst military air arms is the inclusion of a world competition standard aerobatic unit as part of the inventory but the EVAA have, via a miscellany of Stampe, CAP and Extra designs represented France in most World Aerobatic Championships (WAC). Indeed, EdV pilots won outright the individual WAC trophy for the last two years and also formed part of the French team that have won the last five years in succession - quite the achievement. Flying the incredible Extra 330SC, there are four pilots who alternate display duties and fly a freestyle and competition solo and pairs displays, all of which are absolutely phenomenal.

Rather more familiar to UK audiences is of course the excellent Rafale solo display and Avord marked the last two public displays by Bertrand Butin "Bubu" as 2023 display pilot. Another simply superb year of superlative fast jet solo demonstrations in the bag, we look forward to more next year.

Based alongside "Bubu" at St Dizier, a pair of Rafale, albeit in the two-seat "B" version constitute the "Requin Mike" tactical display. As expected, much high speed and noise is the order of the day as they thrash around the sky in a similar vein to the previous Mirage 2000N/D pairs as well as a couple of 2000B/C incarnations that have been around recently. As expected, the "Vautour Bravo" Rafale pair from Mont de Marson have not been seen this year following their incident last year. I was a little miffed that "Couteau Delta", the 2000D pair are still around but only flew three displays this year and two of those at small fly-in type shows; they would have been most welcome at Avord! The Requin Mike display was co-ordinated with some rather ragged looking insurgents in their minibus who dutifully hit the deck each time the Rafales roared past.

Mention must be made of the Phenix parachute team who dropped from a CN235 with some nifty stack formations and much flag waving.

Mention also to the A400M tactical demo purely for the fact it failed to show on the Saturday, and I had to leave before its slot on the Sunday. It is a wonderful display and one that would go down a treat at a UK show with its big wing overs and ample top side passes via wing waggling and tight turns.

With all of the above to be seen, I find it slightly disappointing to report that a major highlight for me was a very insignificant looking light aeroplane and I cant work out if its a reflection on me being an ungrateful old sod or of the gradual eroding of the current and future airshow scene. That highlight was a Jodel D.140R Abeille, one of a handful flown by the French Air Force for glider towing duties that have been in service for 57 years. I love seeing these, rare, unremarkable types that add considerably to an air event for me. Is it me being slightly jaded or that there is little sparkle and variety to look forward to, particularly on the military front?

I guess a bit of both but Avord was a very small show in real terms and was one of only two military events in France, similar to the UK, whereas there used to be at least 10+ to choose from annually across Europe. That said, the 30,000 members of the public who attended no doubt had a great free day out and saw a side of the military on a rather secretive base they only see very rarely.

With thanks to all staff at Base Aérienne 702 and the spotter team headed up by Vincent Giusiano.