Andrew Bates samples some Champagne offerings at Reims on 4 July 2004
Thanks to some inspired planning, one of the 2004 French Air Force shows included a Meeting National at Reims, held on the same weekend as the two-day Belgian show at Koksijde. This enabled a number of enthusiasts to treat themselves to an airshow double-helping during the first weekend in July.
As with many other events during the impossibly grey, damp summer of 2004, the weather was decidedly unkind for most of the day. However, it was still worth the trek, if only for the sight of all those sleek and shapely Mirage F1s, not to mention the variety of other hardware on display.
Reims-Champagne, otherwise known by the l'Armée de l'Air as Base Aérienne 112, is home base to two reconnaissance wings; ER 01.033 'Belfort' and ER 02.033 'Savoie', both equipped with the Mirage F1CR. Also resident is EC 03.033 'Lorraine', equipped with a mix of Mirage F1CTs and two-seat F1Bs for the all-important pilot training rôle. Needless to say, all three units were keen to show off their aircraft to the visiting public, and as an added bonus, no less than five examples were to be found sporting a variety of special markings to keep all the photographers happy.
Although the event was destined to be a washout for most of the flying, the rain managed to hold off long enough to get some half decent shots of the static highlights. In fact, the sun even managed to break through for a short period during the morning, which vastly quickened the walk between aircraft for many camera-toting enthusiasts. The five special colour schemed Mirages obviously proved most popular, comprising of three single and two twin-seat examples. First in the line-up was Mirage F1CR 603/33-CB from ER 01.033 in a SAL33 90th anniversary scheme. Immediately alongside was Mirage F1CR 622/33-NH from ER 02.033 in a similar anniversary scheme to celebrate 90 years of SAL6. Then next to this, another scheme to commemorate the 90th anniversary of BR11 was to be found on Mirage F1CR 612/33-NJ, also from ER 02.033. Further along in the static was Mirage F1B 509/33-FS from EC 03.033, which was adorned with a very patriotic red white and blue tail fin, whilst from the same unit was Mirage F1B 520/33-FD in a very striking D-Day 60th anniversary scheme. Unfortunately, the powers that be decided to use the D-Day Mirage as the photo mount for the day, allowing the public the chance to sit in the cockpit and have their photo taken, whilst frustrating the hell out of the average enthusiast! So it was a tail shot or nothing. Nevermind, four out of five wasn't bad.
There was a good selection of other French military hardware on display, all nicely positioned for photographers. These included a Jaguar E from EC 01.007, a Mirage 2000D from EC 02.003, a Mirage 2000N from EC 01.004, a pair of Mirage 2000Cs from EC 01.005, with another from EC 02.005, an Alphajet from EAC 00.314, a Xingu from EAT 00.319 and a Tucano from GI 00.312. Foreign military participation was not as extensive as past shows in France, but still included a trio of F-16s and pair of Magisters from Belgium, with examples of both also being part of the flying programme. Also present was a pair of GAF Tornados from AkG51, an Italian 9º Stormo AB-212AM and RDAF F-16BM ET-204 from Esk 726. This particular example had spent a long time in the US as one of the first MLU development aircraft, so it was nice to see that it has finally returned after its long sojourn.
As is always the case at French shows, the flying programme featured a number of historic types in amongst the fast jets, including France's very own B-17G 'Pink Lady', which is surely as much cherished over there as 'Sally B' is over here in the UK. And of course, no French show would be complete without a demonstration from the Patrouille de France. Unfortunately, the start of the flying coincided with a deterioration in the weather, which initially was nothing more than persistent drizzle, but gradually worsened as the day progressed. Very soon, all the display hangars were full to bursting as everyone sought refuge from the rain. But in true showbiz tradition, the show must go on, and so it did. Full marks to all the pilots who continued their displays despite the conditions. Although the majority of the crowd was eventually consigned to the hangars, at least they were still entertained as they peered out into the gloom.
Despite the inclement weather, this was still a most enjoyable event. At risk of your scribe sounding like a stuck record, it has to be said that French military shows are a real delight in comparison to other shows, both in the UK and elsewhere. Part of the attraction lies in the fact that the French military choose to rotate the airshow venues each year, thus enabling each airfield the opportunity to host an event once every three or four years. They say variety is the spice of life, and this is certainly the case with French airshows. If only the UK military could do the same, perhaps it would rejuvenate our own airshow scene.