WHEN Adolphe Pégoud pulled back the stick on his Blériot model XI monoplane in 1913, he was hailed as the first person to loop the loop – and in doing so he invented aerobatics and led, 40 years later, to the creation of France’s national air display team, the Patrouille de France.
This summer the Patrouille celebrated its 60th anniversary with a series of air displays and flypasts across France and in the UK. From Banyuls and Palavas in the south to Saint-Amand-Montrond in Cher and Perros Guirec in Brittany the blue, white and red jets headed for displays in Waddington and RAF Fairford.
They have flown the flag for France all over the world from Chile to China, Argentina to Greenland and are the world’s oldest air display team. This year they also marked the 100th Tour de France with displays at the first stage on Corsica at Porto-Vecchio and then again in Paris for the finish on July 21.
A busy summer for the eight elite pilots but also for the hand-picked support crew who make sure there are 10 service-ready Dassault-Bréguet Alphajets for each day’s flying. So much so, that they refer to themselves as “a singer, eight instruments and 40 technicians to keep the instruments in tune”.
Team leader Commandant Raphaël Nal, who has amassed 2,300 flying hours, says he feels like an orchestra leader in the air as well as on the ground. He adds that he can “only be a good leader if he is surrounded by good teammates”.
Flying at speeds of up to 800kph and pulling G-force varying from -3G to +7G they maintain formation at as little as two metres apart and just 30m from the ground. They must juggle the speed of the plane, the distance from other planes as well as the constantly changing wind and air pressure conditions.
They pride themselves on their safety record: despite the dangers they have had not a fatal accident since 2002.
Although dozens of pilots apply to join the Patrouille de France at its base in Salon-de-Provence each year, just three new pilots are chosen to join the team. Each has to have a minimum of 1,500 hours flying in jets but must also pass the ultimate personality test to see if they fit in with the team.
The new pilots are called Schtroumpfs (Smurfs) after an incident in 1964 where the blue smoke canister on one jet malfunctioned and filled the cockpit with ink drops... and when the pilot stepped out he was covered in blue dye.
Assigned to fly set positions in the inside of the formation, the Schtroumpfs need six months of intensive training from October to May to blend in. Two or three daily flights help them build up from small formations of four aircraft to the full team of eight – with the whole learning process taking more than 100 flights.
Meanwhile, team leader Cdt Nal is leading them through training for the first part of their display, the low-speed “ribbon” where the eight aircraft fly in diamond, cross, Concorde or arrow formations with streaming smoke showing the blue, white and red. The 20-minute display, called a série, is redesigned each year and the team rehearse any new figures for the second part of the display called the synchro. This is an airborne synchronised ballet where the smaller units of two, three or four planes pull off their tricks such as the classic heart, the formation barrel roll, the corkscrew, the bomb-burst and, special for this year, the 60.
They also prepare separate displays to match the day’s weather: with a largely vertical show if the skies are clear; an intermediary “diagonal” display if the cloud level is between 830m and 1,500m and restricts the visible sky, and a horizontal show if cloud is lower than 830m.
The Patrouille broke new ground in 2009 when it chose the first woman pilot, Virginie Guyot, who went became the world’s first woman team leader in 2010. When she joined the team was preparing for one of its most intense years to mark the Armée de l’Air 75th anniversary. The air force team travelled 50,000km with displays in France, Brazil, Chile, Moscow and Quebec before an eye-popping final display in Dubai.