Melun-Villaroche Air Legend
Saturday 9th September - Sunday 10th September 2023
Since 2018, Air Legend at Melun-Villaroche aerodrome has firmly become one of the finest airshows of the European airshow season. With a prominent 2023 poster promising a Second World War theme with B-17 'Sally B' and P-51 'Frances Dell', this year's edition also pledged a wonderful selection of vintage jets and their modern French counterparts. With a late summer's heatwave forecast, it was certainly an event not to be missed.
A dehydratedreports from a scorching weekend in France for UK Airshow Review. Photography by the author.
For a first-timer at Air Legend, there was plenty to get excited about when looking at the updates to the flying programme leading up to the airshow. Always attracting a grand selection of warbirds from around Europe, this year's show promised a classic Air Legend line-up that you will simply not see in the UK. Amongst the wonderful selection of warbirds in keeping with the Second World War theme as per the beautiful Romain Hugault poster that has become a tradition for this event, there was much eagernesses to see the selection of classic jets booked. This of course, was complemented with a healthy dose of current French military aircraft (spoiler: lots of Rafales!).
With a late summer's heatwave forecast, arriving at the airfield early on Saturday morning before sunrise was a fairly pleasant experience in comparison to the 35 degrees Celsius which was forecast for later in the day. After a 10-15 minute walk from the car park to enter the showground, one was met with rows full of parked aircraft, stretching far and wide. This was an impressive sight, especially with the sunrise providing a stunning backdrop. It is unusual to experience this sort of serene atmosphere at a major airshow, but Air Legend provided just that with the spotter's package allowing access onto the airfield an hour earlier to the general public, with traders, aircrew and organisers only just starting to open up. Realistically, this was probably the one and only advantage of the spotter's package, coming in at 50€ compared to 26€ for early bird general admission. It was worth a try for a first-timer, but for regulars is simply not worth it with general admission tickets providing much the same experience and view of the flying display.
Beginning at 1:30pm each day, the flying programme began with a Navy theme, with the Top Gun anthem played over the speakers and a flypast from Morane-Saulnier MS.760 Paris, Fouga CM.175 Zéphyr, a trio of Rafale Ms and an E-2 Hawkeye. After a brief display from the pair of vintage jets, the crew of the Hawkeye really put on a show, with a wonderful sneak topside pass from crowd left at the beginning of its display. The Chase Embarquée Rafale Ms were also an impressive start to the flying programme, demonstrating buddy-buddy air-to-air refuelling between two Rafales with the probe actually connected to the hose - something not seen at RIAT this year despite its SkyTanker theme.
All of the weekend's displays were accompanied by constant music played over the speakers which took some getting used to, and, for many, music and commentary can be a major downside to an airshow. However, at Air Legend, the concert quality speakers hired by the organisers, compared to a typical UK airshow with cheap PA systems, really enhanced the displays. Featuring soundtracks from not only Top Gun 2, but also Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor to name just a few, one could sense the hype and excitement despite the language barrier with some very appropriately chosen music.
The rest of the early afternoon's display stepped down a gear for a moment after the French Navy, though with the backlit conditions was a good chance to take a break from the heat and enjoy the cute police K9 being winched down from a Gendarmerie EC145. Sadly, the Classic Formation's homage to the late Bernard Chabbert was underwhelming, with the planned joint flypast with Chabbert's Electra scrubbed due to serviceability. Just before 2pm each day, the main WWII segment began in somewhat of a chronological order with the Battle of France and Battle of Britain displays. The Hurricane Heritage pair from White Waltham looked impressive with some graceful formation flying, with a crowd which certainly seemed to enjoy this insight into one of the most iconic British warbirds. The Luftwaffe segment with a pair of Morane-Saulnier MS.500s (Storchs) and Ju 52 was also impressive and well choreographed, to a backing soundtrack of Aces High (Luftwaffe March) from the Battle of Britain movie. It was also very refreshing to have a Pacific Theatre slot during the afternoon, focusing on the Catalina, Lightning, Mitchell, Corsairs, P-40 and a newly restored Mustang 'Miss aVa'. This theatre of war understandably gets overlooked at European airshows, so it is good to see the organisers trying to tell the story of Second World War aerial combat in the Pacific theatre with the resources at their disposal. Though 'Miss aVa' wears fictitious nose art, this Mustang - recently restored from the remains of old UK favourite 'Janie' - now represents a machine from the 75th Fighter Squadron based in China in 1945 and was one of the stars of the show, making its airshow debut over the weekend after restoration back to flight at Sywell. The importance and history behind P-40N 'Little Jeanne' must also not be overlooked, with this warbird being a real gem of the French warbird scene and performing a pairs routine with this Mustang over the weekend.
The predominantly French crowd clearly enjoyed the UK contingent of warbirds, on Saturday bursting into spontaneous applause as B-17 'Sally B' and her escort Spitfire Mk. V EE602 landed after their displays - perhaps a reminder not to take the Flying Fortress for granted at UK airshows. It was a shame however not to have P-51 'Frances Dell' fly together with the B-17 as per the airshow poster, but the solo routine from the German-based Mustang representing a machine from the 78th Fighter Group was stunning, with plenty of whistling vertical manoeuvres and close passes to the crowd with plenty of fury. P-51 'Little Rebel', based in Belgium, was also good to see, though was only limited to a couple of joint flypasts with 'Frances Dell', which would probably be the only criticism of the whole event. Though with the flying programme running around an hour late at this point, it is understandable that there just simply were not enough daylight hours in the day for a solo display from each participant.
This year's Air Legend however will not be remembered for its warbirds, but its swept wing classic jet segment. A formation to our knowledge not seen anywhere else before, with the Airbus Heritage Flight/Messerschmitt Flugmuseum Me 262 flanked by Mistral Warbirds' F-86 Sabre and Fundacja Eskadra's Lim-2. It was truly a sight to behold - showcasing the first Axis, Allied and Soviet operational swept wing fighter jets. Following a couple of formation flypasts and a solo routine from the Me 262, the MiG-15 and F-86 provided a sublime demonstration of the dogfights which took place in the MiG-alley during the Korean War, with the Sabre hot on the MiG's tail. Though the Sabre looked more powerful having to slow down and take a wider turn radius whilst tailchasing the MiG, it was the Lim-2 which stole the show. The only single-seat MiG-15 flying in Europe, it was a late replacement for the unserviceable twin-seat MiG-15UTI (also a Polish license-built Lim-2) from the Norwegian Historical Squadron but proved to be a very punchy display and much welcome sight at an airshow in Western Europe. And, of course, a wonderful solo from Frederick Akary in his Sabre in clear blue evening skies was also pretty special. Altogether it was a 40 minute slot which was simply magical; if seen at an UK airshow, it would easily be the top moment of the season.
The airshow could easily have finished at this point with plenty of smiling and satisfied punters, but the pure quality of aerial action just kept going and going. Some speculated that operational A400M displays would not be as good as the Airbus test pilot demonstrations, but the opposite was true with multiple topside passes from the Armée de l'air et de l'espace display team mixed with wing rocks and wingovers in what seemed like within touching distance of the crowd. And, as is now a tradition at La Ferte-Alais or Melun-Villaroche, there was a also a lovely but brief Vietnam display slot with a Douglas Skyraider and Bronco.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Both days were anticipated to end with the Rafale solo display team followed by the Patrouille de France on Saturday and Patrouille Tranchant on Sunday to leave a lasting impression. With the main Rafale display jet going unserviceable on Sunday though, a quick re-shuffle meant Patrouille Tranchant performed in the penultimate slot. A truly poetic display, far exceeding expectations, with the V-tail Zéphyr's providing a beautiful mount for a tranquil formation display. And in the last rays of sunshine on Sunday, it was 'Bubu' who closed the weekend's proceedings with a typically excellent display in the spare, twin-seat Rafale B.
So, how to summarise this year's Air Legend? Well, you simply would have had to have been there. Imagine spending a weekend at an airshow abroad in 30+ degree heat, from sunrise to sunset, full of magnificent historic airframes and a sprinkle of modern French air assets. A perfect recipe, cooked to perfection, and if one ever gets the chance to go - just do it.