These are the eight active members of a specialty devision of the Armée de l’Air & de l’Espace, the French Air Force. La Patrouille Acrobatique de France, the highly regarded flying acrobats affectionately called PAF, who, out of the blue, quite literally, honoured us with a low-altitude fly-over the other day.
We were sitting on the terrace when we became aware of an ever increasing crescendo of jet engines. Being life-long F1 fans, we are used to engine noise, but this was such a dominating, even crushing sound building up quite ominously and very fast. Just then, we became aware of a tight formation of jets swooshing above our house, practically in touching distance. WOW! How many had there been? 6, 9, maybe 12? The jets were gone before our brains had an opportunity to register details.
Naturally, the fly-over had happened so fast that there was no time to take a picture. However, later in the afternoon, I was fortunate to observe several of the PAF’s tight formation flights and synchros from my upstairs window as la Patrouille appeared and disappeared from my view while practising their routines in the distant southern sky.
La Patrouille Acrobatique de France is composed of nine fighter pilots and a corps of 32 mechanics who maintain the squadron’s 12 Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jets. The planes were designed and built in French-German cooperation for both country’s Armed Forces and are commonly used for training and as light attack jets. They are small and agile which makes them perfect for PAF duty. The pilots and mechanics for the acrobatic patrol are volunteers who are selected from the top echelon of fighter pilots and transport squadrons respectively.
Each year, the PAF pilots select several new fighter pilots to join their ranks. The radio code for the patrol pilots is “Athos”:
- Athos 1 – Le Leader [who’d a thunk it: the leader! 😎] determines the program of flying formations and synchronised acrobatic sequences or synchros. The leader serves for one year.
- Athos 2 & 3 – Les Intérieurs [the inner wings] fly next to the leader. These positions are reserved for the newest team members.
- Athos 4 – Le Charognard [the deputy leader AKA the vulture] flies directly behind the leader, thus swallowing all the exhaust and smoke the leader’s jet emits. As a reward, Athos 4 succeeds as the following year’s leader. In 2009 Commander Virginie Guyot was chosen by her fellow fighter pilots to serve as vulture, becoming the first and so far only female Athos 1 in 2010. (Btw, un charognard is really a Sparrow hawk, Accipiter nidus)
- Athos 5 & 6 – Les Extérieurs [the outer wings] have the most taxing flying jobs. Being the furthest removed from the leader adds even more difficulty to maintaining precision throughout the formations & synchros.
- Athos 7 & 8 – Les Solos [the individual flyers] dart in and out and through the either 2, 4, or 6-jet formations flown by their PAF colleagues.
- Athos 9 – Le Remplaçant [the replacement] is the most experienced squad member, having flown the other positions in previous years. Therefore, Athos 9 can be called on to replace any of the active members, except the leader. He must know the program inside out even though he isn’t actively participating in the current year’s routines. All nine Athoses traditionally open the military parade celebrating the Fête National on July 14th in Paris.
The mechanics who take care of the squadron’s Alpha Jets are subdivided into two groups. The trouble-shooters who perform their electronic magic from home base, and the members of the away team who travel with the patrol. As per tradition, a field mechanic chooses “his” pilot and he takes the rear seat in “his” jet during the transitional flights to the performance venues. The field mechanics ensure that each plane is in top shape and that all the specialised equipment, for example les fumigènes, the smoke guns, are ready to go for each outing. As one can easily imagine, the trust between mechanic and pilot is unconditional. La Patrouille receives additional support from a C-160 Transall transport plane which is loaded with 12 tons of equipment.
The elegant movements of the PAF squadron reminded me of the time in the early 2000s when we observed similar breathtaking manoeuvres executed by US Air Force Stealth fighters squeezing between high-rises, coming seemingly into touching range as we stood on our 16th floor balcony. Another amazing sight back then was the lumbering presence of an utterly menacing looking Northrop B2 stealth bomber. Goosebumps!
The emblematic figure of the patrol is the pierced heart formation, or so la Patrouille Acrobatique de France website says. But I believe, they were saying good bye to me.
P.S. Through an article just published on the flyboy’s website, I learned that la Patrouille was indeed in Cognac, just not specifically for me 😢. They flew their formations and synchros to honour the 13 fighter pilot students who received their wings last week right here in the Air Force base across the river Charente from us. Félicitations aux nouveaux pilotes de chasse !