July 14 celebrations, D-Day commemorations, World Cup victories… whenever people in France gather to mark an important event, the Patrouille de France (PAF) aerial display team is there.
Select pilots from the French Air and Space Force will perform for the Fête Nationale this month, an extra-special event as the unit celebrates its 70th anniversary.
For Captain Jayson Troy, half British on his mother’s side, it will also be his first July 14 flight as part of the elite team.
“We’ve all done it before but in the Rafale or Mirage 2000,” he said.
“To do it in the Alphajet of the Patrouille de France is incredible, as we have always been in their smoke as they kick things off.”
Coloured smoke opposite order to Red Arrows
Each year, three new pilots join the PAF, and the other team members change places.
Captain Troy’s call sign is Athos 3 – he is inner left wingman, as first-year pilots are positioned next to the leader.
“I release red smoke, so that when we are in front of the audience, it makes the bleu, blanc, rouge flag – the opposite of the Red Arrows.”
It does not always go according to plan and in 2018, one of the July 14 pilots who was due to trail blue smoke released red in error, said to be due to faulty communication.
The pilot thought his two tanks contained white and blue smoke, not blue and red as was the case.
Train for speeds of between 300 and 800km/h
There are eight pilots, plus one backup pilot in their fourth year (most only do three years) who can replace any team member, except the leader.
“That’s because we get used to the leader’s movements during winter training.”
New recruits spend a month with the previous year’s team to learn how things work, then spend six months in intensive winter training to refine their routines.
This includes daily sports training to prepare them physically for speeds of between 300 and 800km/h.
Rigorous recruitment process
They are all experienced fighter pilots – to join the PAF, you must have completed a minimum of 1,500 flying hours and be qualified as a patrol leader, or ‘four-ship lead’, the highest qualification, meaning you can have three or more aircraft in your flight.
The leader and Charognard (‘Scavenger’, just behind the leader) must have graduated from the Ecole de l’air in Salon-de-Provence and have been in the PAF for at least two years.
It is a rigorous recruitment process, with between seven and 12 candidates for two spots for the wingmen positions, and three to five candidates for the role of Charognard.
“You are not selected based on technical criteria, but on human criteria.
“If you are four-ship lead with 1,500 flying hours, they know they will be able to train you in six months.”
Even after years spent flying in combat zones, or on Quick Reaction Alert duty (responsible for intercepting any aircraft in their airspace), joining the PAF means “deconstructing what we have learned and starting from zero”, said Captain Troy.
We learn to fly to the leader’s music
The first half of the 20-minute show, labelled the ‘ribbon’ phase, where the eight planes fly as one, requires pilots to adapt their techniques to be perfectly synchronised.
“The leader talks a lot over the radio to let us know what he is doing so we can imitate him.
“We are used to flying in close formation in fighters, but the leader of a fighter squadron doesn’t talk. His plane turns gently, and we follow, but that means there are folds as there is a slight delay.
“To avoid this and so the display remains graceful, we fly to the leader’s music. He will say ‘Virage à droite, j’incline’ (Right turn, I am leaning), and we start to prepare – I am on the left so I will go a bit higher compared to the leader – and on the syllable cline I will push the stick to the right.”
Part of the rehearsal process involves sitting around a table and mimicking the hand gestures they will make, a strange sight that resembles a sort of phantom orchestra.
Flying three metres from fellow pilot
During their training, flights are filmed so that first-year pilots can be debriefed and correct their imperfections.
Precision is everything when flying less than three metres from your fellow pilots.
The leader comes up with the choreography in consultation with the third-year pilots.
During the year, they prepare three different shows: one for good weather, an intermediate version depending on the height of the clouds, and a third show in case of bad weather.
Frenchman first pilot to fly upside-down
Aerobatics (aerial acrobatics) dates back to 1913, when Frenchman Adolphe Pégoud became the first pilot to fly upside-down.
The air force has had aerobatic teams since the 1930s, but the most important date is 1953, when Squadron Leader Delachenal’s 3rd combat division, stationed in Reims and created the year before, was giving a show in Algiers.
The commentator exclaimed: “Ladies and gentlemen, here is the Patrouille de France!”
The famous blue, white and red smoke was added in 1958.
Frenchwoman first to lead national air display team
In 2008, Virginie Guyot was the first woman to join the Patrouille de France, before becoming leader – the first woman worldwide to lead a national air display team.
The PAF pilots are among the Air and Space Force’s ‘ambassadors’, as they represent not only their country, but the force.
After most performances, the pilots go to meet the audience.
“We are there to create vocations. When I was a child, I loved the Patrouille de France, and that made me want to join the air force,” Captain Troy said.
“You keep it in the back of your mind, because it seems so inaccessible, even once you are in the air force.”
It is a dream come true, then, for the 40-year-old.
“Every moment during the flight is wonderful,” he said, adding that there are moments when he can look down and see the density of the crowd.
“I find that really moving.”
That comes with its own kind of pressure. “We know we have to be irreproachable in the air and on the ground.
“We put pressure on ourselves all winter to be as perfect as possible for the summer season. All eyes are on us.”
Red Arrows and PAF do fly together
On rare occasions, the PAF has teamed up with the Red Arrows. They both flew over London and Paris in 2020 to mark the 80th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech on the BBC.
“Maybe we will be able to do something with them next year for the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings.
“I hope to get to meet them during my three or four years here, considering my British origins.”
From May to October, the Patrouille de France puts on around 50 shows, as well as flypasts for various commemorations and events.
You can see a list of PAF displays here.
“Don’t hesitate to come and see Athos 3 and say hello and speak in English,” said Captain Troy.