Meeting de l’air FOSA, BA709 Cognac-Châteaubernard

Meeting de l’air FOSA, BA709 Cognac-Châteaubernard

One of the first major European international airshows of the season took place at BA709 Cognac-Châteaubernard in France.  Organised by Fondation des Œuvres Sociales de l’Air (FOSA), the annual Meeting de l‘Air events are amongst the biggest airshows in France and showcase the equipment and capabilities of l’armée de l’Air et de l’Espace to the French public as well as civilian aviation organisations. The 2022 meeting at Cognac marked the return of these events after a three hiatus with a truly international line-up in the air and on the ground.

Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author.

Fondation des Œuvres Sociales de l’Air (FOSA) exists to provide assistance to personnel and families from l’armée de l’Air et de l’Espace, Météo France and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation who find themselves in difficulties. As part of their annual fundraising efforts, FOSA organise some of the biggest airshows in France held at different military bases each year. These events are considered amongst the most prestigious on the French air display calendar and attract support from far and wide.

Base Aérienne 709 at Cognac-Châteaubernard in the heart of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France supports a number of different roles. It is home to École de Pilotage de l’Armée de l’Air 315 Général Jarry flying the Grob G120 basic trainer and the Pilatus PC-21 advanced turbo-prop training aircraft. The school is the initial flight training centre for the French Air Force preparing pilots further training on the Dassault Alpha Jet. The recent introduction of the advanced PC-21 has expanded the role of the school somewhat as the high-performance PC-21 allows it to perform some of the roles previously only available on Alpha Jet. Alongside the training role, BA709 also houses Escadron de Drones 1/33 Belfort which operate the General Atomics MQ-9B Reaper from base and other remote operating areas.

 

The airfield boundary is adjacent to the southern limits of the main town and is therefore well served by the local road network. Cognac is easily accessible from Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Limoges. However, for those unable to drive, it was unusual to see no public transport links to the event especially as Cognac has its own station a little over 2km from the air base. Given the weekend saw some incredible temperatures those that did arrive by train faced rather an unpleasant walk to reach the show. Having said that, the French military personnel manning the car parks and entrance were very efficient creating a very smooth entrance and exit from the venue. The event also offered exceptional value for money with a day ticket for just 17 Euros or two-day tickets for 30 Euros (just over £25 at the time of writing.) More dedicated enthusiasts could also take advantage of a spotters package which offered access during Friday arrivals and their own dedicated enclosure on the flight line.

Just like events such as Cosford and Yeovilton, visitors were treated to military displays, hangar exhibitions and a small but varied static display on the main apron areas. For many, the stars of the static display were the two Dassault Mirage 2000C-RDI from L’Escadron de chasse 2/5 “Ile de France” both wearing special markings celebrating the squadron and the retirement of the type from service. Other French fast jets in the static display included the Dassault Mirage 2000C-5 and 2000D plus a Dassault Rafale B. The training fleet was very well represented with various example of the Cognac based Grob 120s and Pilatus PC-21s on show plus an Embraer EMB-312 Xingu, Jodel D-140 tug and DG Flugzeugbau DG-1000 glider and Diamond HK36 Super Dimona.  Completed the French Air Force contribution was an example of the Cognac based MQ-9B Reaper RPAS complete with weapons fit.

 

The other armed services of France also contributed to the static displays with L’armee de terre sending an Aerospatiale Gazelle plus a EC120 Colibri from HeliDax. The French Navy also participated with a Dassault Rafale M parked alongside a Eurocopter AS365F Dauphin.  On Saturday, the Sécurité Civile aerial firefighting force was represented by a Canadair CL415 at the head of the static park. Another rare participating government aircraft was a Socata TBM-800 from France’s DGA Flight Test centre.

International military aircraft also featured in the static park. One of the standout participants was a Leonardo M346 Master from 150 Squadron of the Royal Singapore Air Force. 150 Squadron has been based at BA120 Cazaux in the south of France since 1998 taking advantage of the huge airspace areas for flying training which is not avilable to them back home in Singapore. The squadron previously operated the McDonnell Douglas T/A-4SU Super Skyhawk and converted to the M346 between 2012 and 2014. Despite being based in Europe, the RSAF training jet fleet has been a very rare participant at airshows so their aircraft certainly caught the attention of enthusiasts. Joining the RSAF M346 was a Croatian Air Force Mil Mi-17 Hip , Spanish Air Force Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoon and a Luftwaffe Panavia Tornado IDS.

 

Completing the static displays were a variety of civilian aircraft from various organisations as the Airbus Flight Academy, Grob GmbH plus historic aircraft.

The flying displays were planned to run for nearly eight hours from 10am to 6pm each day. However, the threat of some severe thunderstorms on the Sunday did curtail the flying at around 5pm. The crowdline was aligned to Cognac’s east-west runway with most of the display aircraft parked right in front of the crowd allowing them to view the various crews to prepare of for their display. However, it did mean that take-offs and landing were on a runway much further away from the crowd. The distance aircraft had to taxy also meant the display had a relaxed feel with some long gaps between the different displays.

 

The display itself was a very pleasing mix of historic and modern aircraft. Much of the early part of the display was set aside for the historic aircraft from several different eras. The show was opened by a UTVA Aero 3, a Yugoslav built training aircraft that saw service during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was just one of a number of lighter aircraft appearing in the first part of the display including a pairing of Stampe SV4 and Starck AS80, a punchy aerobatic routine from a Cessna 150 Aerobat and a Boeing Stearman Kaydet.

The interwar French Air Force was marked with a display by a Morane-Saulnier MS.317. The MS.317 aircraft were modified for use as glider tugs from the original MS.315 training aircraft which was used in the 1930’s as a training aircraft.

 

France’s Flying Warbirds based at Melun presented a trio of powerful warbirds in the form of their Curtiss P-40N Warhawk, Yakovlev Yak-11 and Douglas AD4N Skyraider.  The Yak-11 is actually a Czech built post war aircraft, but it painted to represent the Yak-3s of the Normandie-Niemen unit of French pilots that flew with the Soviet Air Force on the Eastern Front. FFW’s North American T-6G Texan was also part of the flying display and was paired with a similar example from the Amicale Jean-Baptiste Collection based at Cerny-La Ferté Alais Aerodrome.

Another unusual aircraft in the display was the Nord 1101 Ramier which was also used by the French military for communications and liaison following the second world war. It was developed from the prototype Messerschmitt Me208 which the German had intended to produce at Nord’s factory during their occupation of France to replace the Bf108 Taifun.

Adding to historic military displays were three very different aircraft from the Cold War. Saturday’s display saw an exceptional aerobatic display from the Musée Européen de l’Aviation de Chasse de Montélimar North American OV-10B Bronco. This aircraft is actually a former Luftwaffe target-tug aircraft but is painted to represent a United States Marine Corps aircraft from the 1991 Gulf War.

 

One of the most iconic ‘airshow’ aircraft in Europe is the Fouga CM170 Magister and a beautiful civilian operated example, F-AZXV, took part in the flying display. This aircraft wears the classic bare metal and day-glo orange stripe schemes of French Air Force training aircraft during the cold war and looks absolutely immaculate.

But perhaps the star of the historic line-up was the North American F-86E (Canadair CL-13B) Sabre flown by Frédéric Akary. This particular example served with the Luftwaffe between 1958 and 1970. It then became part of the MBB test fleet before being acquired by famed British aviation collector Ormond Haydon-Balllie in 1977. It then found its way to the United States first as a target towing aircraft before passing through a number of different owners. Akary acquired the aircraft in 2019 and brought back to Europe and it currently the only airworthy example on the continent. It wears a very unusual livery painted in an experimental camouflage scheme worn by some F-86s of the 461st Fighter Squadron when stationed in Germany in the mid-1960s. Sadly, technical issues prevented the Sabre flying on Saturday but it made a wonderful sight sweeping in the warm French skies during Sunday’s programme.

One of the standout civilian contributions came from Patrouille Yako Team, a three-ship display consisting of a Yakovlev Yak-18T leading a pair of Yak-52s. The colourful team put on a really engaging routine of formation aerobatics that kept the action in front of the crowd throughout their display.

 

As well as the French military, a number of international displays took part in the flying. The Royal Air Force was represented early in each day’s flying by the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team in their 61st display season. The Belgian Air Component sent all of its main display teams to Cognac with the Agusta A109BAi, Red Devils and Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcon flying at various points in the display. For 2022, the F-16 is flown by Commander Steven ‘Vrieske’ De Vries from Kleine Brogel Air Base. His display jet was not yet available so he flew a standard grey jet at Cognac with a very different routine from what we have seen previously. Particularly notable was the negative half Cuban!

Further F-16 action came from the Hellenic F-16C Fighting Falcon solo display team ‘Zeus. The team have really developed their display in recent years moving away from the USAF style routine to a more European flowing routine. Rounding off the international fast jets was the Spanish Air Force Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoon solo display from Ala 11.

 

But perhaps the ‘guests of honour’ for the meeting were the Croatian Air Force’s national display team, Krila Oluje (Wings of Storm). Flying six Pilatus PC-9M training aircraft, the team are one of true stars of the European air display circuit with their highly original and dramatic display routine which includes formation tailslides, stall turns and their trademark triple-mirror formation pass. They are based at Zadar on the Croatian coast and the pilots are all full-time instructors. Their aircraft are all standard machines though they have started to equip some aircraft with a smoke system which will hopefully be used in future displays.

The emphasis of the flying displays was very much on the French Armed Forces. The L’armee de terre was represented in the display by their highly enjoyable and near aerobatic Eurocopter EC120 Colibri solo display from HeliDax. It was however l’armée de l’Air et de l’Espace that took centre stage. Central to their presentation were their core display teams – ‘Les Ambassadeurs.’ First of these to appear were L’équipe de Parachutistes de l’armée de l’Air who presented a range of skills include some superb canopy relative work formations as well as flying some huge national flags.

 

The high point of the afternoons display for the local audience was the display by La Patrouille de France flying eight Dassault Alpha Jet E training aircraft. Despite the heat it was very much standing room only during their superb and photogenic display. Their use of smoke during their display verges on aerial art and they have several new touches for their 2022 routine. They were immediately followed by a further ‘ambassadeur’ display, the solo Dassault Rafale C display. The 2022 season sees Captaine Bertrand ‘Bubu’ Butin flying the jet supported by coach Capitaine Jérome ‘Schuss’ Thoule who was the 2021 display pilot. The Rafale is an incredible display aircraft and Bubu’s display really highlights the aggressive speed and agility of the type and a very tight piece of airspace.

Joining the core display teams were a number of other demonstrations. More Rafale flying came from the Valtour Bravo Tactical Demonstration drawn from EC2/30 ‘Normandie Niemen‘ and EC3/30 ‘Lorraine’ based at Mont-de-Marsan. The display demonstrates both the air to air and strike capabilities of the Rafale in a very eye-catching fashion. Things did however become a little too dramatic during Sunday’s display went a formation re-join away outside the airfield boundary went wrong and the two jets struck each other. Despite damage to both aircraft, they both landed safely though some debris did land in a local village – fortunately without injury.

 

Cognac also had its own tactical demo, the Mustang X-Ray display with a pair of Pilatus PC-21s. The PC-21 is an incredibly impressive aircraft and flies much more like a fast-jet then a turboprop trainer covering a huge amount of airspace. The team open their routine with a topside formation pass like other French tactical demonstrations before splitting to demonstrate an air interception and some aerial skills work.

During the main afternoon flying display there were also flypasts by other l’armée de l’Air et de l’Espace aircraft. It is very rare to see Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS) take part in flying displays so it was really interesting to see a couple of passes from one of Cognac’s MQ-9B Reapers during Saturday’s display. The aircraft was infact launched early in the morning before gates opened and spent the day on a training mission which included the passes for the crowd before returning to its tasking. Saturdays display also saw a flypast by one of France’s newest military aircraft, the Airbus DS A330-MRTT Phénix. The new tanker aircraft recently entered to service and will eventually replace France’s aging fleet of KC-135 tankers.

Sunday’s truncated display also saw a flypast by a Boeing E-3F Sentry. These aircraft are rarely seen at public events and its appearance during the meeting was not even publicised so it was a very welcome surprise to the display.

A special forces role demonstration was performed by a Eurocopter EC725 Caracal. The helicopter showed off its ability to rapidly deploy and subsequent retrieve a small unit of special forces personnel in a tight space. Their exit was certainly eye-catching with the troops all attached to one long-line slung from under the helicopter.

But perhaps the most eye-catching display came from the newest ‘ambassdeur’ display, the Airbus A400M Tactical Display. While it may not quite match the Airbus demonstration, the French Air Force display really does show off low level capabilities of the mighty airlifter with some very steep wingovers and tight turns at both low and high speeds.

The showdays at Cognac were certainly very long, particularly in the very warm conditions. However, it was a very smoothy run event and  there were some really interesting aircraft showcased both on the ground and in the air that made for a very enjoyable weekend.