The ex-Nato airbase where pandemic planes were stored
What do you do with aircraft grounded by the pandemic? Find a place to store them...
A former Nato airbase where actor Gérard Depardieu learned to box and broke his nose, contributing to his unconventional looks, has been a storage centre for grounded aircraft during the Covid shutdown. Several giant British Airways A380s, the world’s largest passenger plane, were parked at Châteauroux airport, in Indre – built by the Americans after World War Two. The airport opened in 1951 as the largest Nato logistics centre in Europe.
The ideal storage spot
Managing director Didier Lefresne said: “The story goes that the US general in charge of finding a site in France or the UK had trained as a pilot at a small grass strip near Châteauroux in World War One. He remembered the good weather and flat countryside, important when you are learning to fly, and it was on that basis that the location was decided.”
It acted as a supply depot for other US bases being built around Europe as a bulwark against communism American journalist Steve Bassett, in his book about the base Golden Ghetto, says the site was chosen partly to counter support for communism there. There was friction as several thous-and US families moved in, but many locals were won over eventually.
One old communist told Bassett that GIs would toss gum to children in the streets and they were invited to the base to see movies and eat popcorn. It “created special bonds”, he said. All went well at the base until President de Gaulle pulled France out of Nato in 1966 and gave the Americans a year to leave. The base was handed over to the local authorities, who did not know what to do with a huge two-runway airport, fitted with many parking bays and storage areas, sited in a quiet underpopulated part of France.
What is it used for, normally?
It was too far from large cities to have a future as a passenger terminal, but over the years it has built up an air freight business and attracted aircraft service companies, including one that breaks up aircraft. It has also been used for pilot training, including in the 1990s by British Airways and Air France for future pilots and crews for Concorde.
“Our runways are so long they can handle the largest aircraft in the world with no problem,” said Mr Lefresne. “In addition, there are many parking places, which made it an ideal base for airlines to store aircraft during the coronavirus lockdown.” Châteauroux was also the childhood home of actor Gérard Depardieu, who said in an Observer interview he befriended some of the GIs, “following them into bars and strip joints”.
He also picked up skills there in table football, baseball and boxing, acting as a sparring partner to GIs. He told People magazine he broke his nose in one bout, resulting in the wonky shape it has to this day. Investment by the owners over the years means the runway guidance and control tower systems are also up to the highest standards.
The most spectacular of the 47 aircraft parked there are six A380s that BA took out of service. The wide-bodied, four-engined, double-decker planes are nicknamed superjumbos. Parked aircraft require careful maintenance, including being moved a little so tyres do not crack, running air conditioning systems, and even starting up the engines periodically to make sure all parts stay lubricated. BA flies in a team of UK mechanics on day trips twice a week in an Airbus A319 to carry out the tasks. Other companies mostly make use of local aircraft service companies, including Airbus subsidiary AAA.
The extra activity and money brought in by the aircraft storage business is welcome, said Mr Lefresne, though the freight side of the airport continued during lockdown. “We were not the only freight airport open in France but we were the busiest. We had to take extra care during the lockdown, when everyone was worried about the virus spreading. So we have played two roles in the battle against Covid.”
As travel slowly picks up and airports reopen, it is likely that the number of aircraft parked will fall. Air France has stopped using A380s because they burn more fuel than twin-engined planes, but Mr Lefresne said “from everything I have heard, BA’s planes will fly again”.