CHATEAUDUN's Meeting Nationale, 11 May 2003 - Andrew Bates blows the whistle on this irregular French event.
After a near four year wait, Base Aérienne 279 was once again granted the opportunity to host an Armée de l'Air open day during May 2003, only this time it was to be a 'Meeting Nationale' rather than a 'Porte Ouverte' - so this time an admission charge was levied (but still good value at a mere 5 Euros). Also unlike the previous show, the weather gods were a whole lot kinder, with dry and exceptionally warm conditions all day, although the sun was only fleetingly glimpsed, due to an abundance of grey and virtually motionless cloud.
Thanks to the airfield's role as a primary storage facility, there has always been much to fascinate the average enthusiast over the years. Consequently, the show was again subject to a mini invasion from across the Channel, with many a familiar Yorkshire, Brummie or Cockney accent, amongst others, being overheard above 'la langue française'.
As with most French shows of this nature, the event was a showcase for the Armée de l'Air, with a varied cross-section of types from the active inventory represented, both in the static and flying displays. These included fast jets such as the Mirage 2000-5, Mirage 2000D, and Mirage F1CR, along with training aircraft such as the AlphaJet, Tucano, and Epsilon, whilst transport types of varying capabilities were to be found in the shape of the Transall, Xingu, and TBM700.
Given that it is now in the twilight of its career (in France), it was ironic that the most prolific type on show was the Jaguar. In addition to another well executed two-ship display from EC 01.007, the last French Jaguar unit, there were no less than three examples to be found in the static park. All three had evidently arrived at Châteaudun for storage, ready to join the ever-growing ranks of Jags parked over the far side of the airfield. Of this trio, one was destined to cause many a raised eyebrow by virtue of an abstract colour scheme that was eye-catching to say the least. This was Jaguar A67/7-PV, which had received a special colour scheme back in June 2001 to commemorate the disbandment of EC 02.007. One can only assume that the guys in the St Dizier paintshop had perhaps looked at one too many Picassos prior to starting work.
As far as foreign participation was concerned, it was a surprise this time around to see no contributions from the UK, whilst equally surprising was the inclusion of a USAF C-9A in the static. Arguably the most popular visitors were the pair of Austrian Drakens from Flr 2, closely followed by a pair of German Mig-29Gs from JG-73. Of the former, it was especially nice to see that 'Red Dragon' 08 is still active, turning and burning as well as ever. The sight of the last remaining examples of Saab's distinctive double delta will be sorely missed once pending retirement finally dawns.
Other military visitors in the flying programme consisted of a Belgian trio of Magister and AlphaJet from 1 Wing, and also a 10 Wing F-16AM, whilst another F-16AM display was forthcoming from 322 Squadron of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, along with an EMVO PC-7. Cranking up the decibel levels was a German Tornado from JBG-31, which appeared in competition with the aforementioned Mig-29G and Draken for claiming the title of noisiest participant. With French Mirages and Jaguars thrown into the equation, there was certainly plenty of heavy metal action to choose from, though perhaps inevitably, the 'heroes of the hour' in the eyes of the local population were the AlphaJets of the Patrouille de France.
Not wishing to exactly quote an old football cliché, but the show proved to be very much a show of two halves. All the jets and modern military aircraft were destined to display during the afternoon, after the customary lunch break, which also coincided with a vast influx of extra spectators arriving through the gates. Prior to this, the morning display was almost entirely dominated by warbirds and other historic aircraft, which by virtue of the disparity of types involved, proved to be quite an entertaining and interesting spectacle.
Of all the privately owned and operated aircraft, by far the most exciting display had to be the Montelimar based ex-Luftwaffe OV-10 Bronco - the manoeuverablility of this machine just has to be seen to be believed. Your scribe has been lucky enough to see this rarity in action on a number of occasions at previous French shows, so it seems to be a popular choice for airshow organisers across the Channel. Equally familiar was the pair of ex-Swiss Vampires, painted in authentic Armée de l'Air markings, reminding us that not all of France's post-war fighters have been of indigenous design.
Other historic types included an AD-4N Skyraider, MH1521 Broussard, Fairchild UC-61 Argus, and a pair of immaculate MS733 Alcyons. At first glance, the Argus appeared to be sporting a spurious RAF 'Free French' colour scheme, but although it had originally been built for the USAAF, further research unearthed a previous UK military identity, so perhaps historical accuracy hasn't been too badly eroded after all. The pair of Alcyons were a relatively new airshow team, operating as the Patrouille Morane in deference to the manufacturer responsible for the original design. Pilots Sylvain Richon and Didier Bougarel put on a spirited display, which proved to be quite a hit with the audience, a feat that they would repeat just a few weeks later over the water at the Coventry Classic Airshow.
As the day drew to a close, there was just enough time to capture on film the last few of the preserved airframes your scribe missed out on during his previous jaunt to Châteaudun. Then it was time for the long drive back to 'Blighty'. Tired and weary, perhaps, but once again, worth the effort.