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Crusading in Brittany

Dave Eade avoids the cops...

Call me persistent, if you will, but having spotted only cement mixers, bull-dozers and dump-trucks at F8E #39 on approachLandivisiau in August 1997, this year’s holiday programme – a second visit to Brittany – just had to include a return visit.

Set some 50 miles to the east of Brest in the Finistere region of Brittany, Landivisiau is the land base for the French Aeronavale aircraft, when their parent carrier is in port. Four primary units are based here being;

  • 12 Flotille, Crusader F8E(FN)
  • 11 Flotille, Super Etendard
  • 17 Flotille, Super Etendard
  • 16 Flotille, Etendard
  • 57 Escadrille, Falcon (MER).

It was to see, and if possible photograph, the Crusaders of 12F that I had come again. With Rafale due to enter service, at Landivisiau, in December 1999, this could well be the last chance I had.

Since their inception way back in 1957, Crusaders have served in various versions with US Navy, Philippine Air Force and the French Navy – they having purchased 42 F-8E (FN), with provision for Matra 530 air-to-air missiles in 1964. Having always the reputation of being the last true US fighter, or the "last of the gun-slingers" periodic up-grades have kept this aircraft in the same aviation world, if not comparable to, today’s techno-jets.

Resplendent in a dark blue/grey colour scheme, all aircraft carry the 12F badge on the nose, just aft of the jet intake and before the rails for the AA missiles. Power is supplied by a Pratt and Whitney J57 turbojet, which, with reheat, gives the F8E Mach 2 capability. These, now dated (and smoky) engines give the spotter possibly his last experience of what, in the 1950s and 1960s, was common to all US built reheated jets – the loud bang and sheet of flame that accompanied the application of reheat. It was quite common to see the diamond shaped shock waves within the afterburner flame.

When spotting at any French military establishment, caution is the by-word. Large signs warn the spotter that filming and photography is forbidden, as do the ever-present Land-Rovers crewed with armed dog-handlers. Your reporter thought, however, that with a bit of guile combined with Franglais and friendship, ‘Le Spotter’ could become ‘le Tourist’ and get treated with the shoulder shrug that the French reserve for l’Anglais when on their ‘vacances’.

It was, then, armed as always with a copy of Paul Jackson’s "Airfields of Western Europe" (now out of print – how about a new one, Paul?), my 8 x 30’s and my trusty Canon that I drove around the base in mid-August. It must be said, this is not the best time to go because the French Navy Squadrons, if at home, take their Summer leave in August as well, but on this occasion, Lady Luck was with me. The airfield is set some 3 miles north-west of the town of Landivisiau, which being typically Breton is itself worth a visit, boasting a thriving market and elegant church. An ornate entry gate leads one into the base which as France’s newest military airfield, lacks the ever-present relics of WW2 found on so many airfields in that country. Access is easily gained to both ends of the runway, although "best-end" for me is 08, which is accessible, legally, from a small lane off the D32 road. Light would be a problem for photographers (but you wouldn’t anyway because its forbidden), but good views may be found of the mirror landing aids, runways and to the north-west, pans and hangars.

Crusader heavenThe day of my visit revealed no Etendard traffic or Falcons but 12F were, thankfully, busy with their F8E’s. Dispersal for the Crusaders is well to the western end of the airfield and before take-off they can be found backtracking the length of the runway before looping into a 180 degree turn for take-off.

Within 30 minutes of my arrival at the fence, I was greeted with a perusal visit from the guard, followed by the sound of four back-tracking F8E’s off on a training mission. If I had had any thoughts of pulling out the EOS, they disappeared in the face of the glare I got from the Land Rover – hence by the time he had moved on my four-ship was down to three. F8 take-off is noisy but could never be called sprightly, the angled wing being clearly seen from this range.

At this point le spotter francais arrives and for the next twenty minutes or so we held a good, well so for us, conversation in his native tongue, extolling the virtues of both the view from there, and the Crusader itself.

"Do you photograph?" he asked.

Alarm bells rang, don’t ask me why.

"Only if the light is right." I stuttered out.

""That’s good" he retorted, pulling a wallet from his rear trouser pocket, flicking it open to reveal, behind a Perspex window, a pink card which read "Police Militaire".

I was grateful for the thought that had made me include a spare pair of trousers in the boot of the car.

F8E #7F8E #29Conversation was, to say the least, stilted after this, and I beat a hasty retreat away from the field on the D32. Nearly an hour passed before, as I basked in the midday Breton sun, my four-ship returned – in pairs – to cross the road to my front at about 150 feet, with the results you see – although I have to say – I didn’t hang about!


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