Fête Aérienne – Le Temps des Hélices, La Ferté Alais

Fête Aérienne – Le Temps des Hélices, La Ferté Alais

“Fête Aérienne – Le Temps des Hélices” is an annual pilgrimage for many aviation enthusiasts from across Europe. Traditionally held on the Pentecost Holiday weekend, the event is one of the finest celebrations of aviation culture in Europe with a focus on heritage and some incredible set-pieces in the Flying Display. The 2024 event came just ahead of major commemorations in France to mark the 80th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings in June 1944.

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

Every year I receive many recommendations from like-minding enthusiasts and those connected with the airshow community about which airshows I really should visit one day. Then there are those events that simply by reputation I’ve always wanted to get to someday. One event that fits in both is the famous “Fête Aérienne – Le Temps des Hélices” organised by l’Amicale Jean-Baptiste Salis at l’aérodrome de Cerny-La Ferté Alais.

To the south of Paris, Cerny-La Ferté Alais lies in the Essonne region of France on a hill top and is a beautiful example of a traditional all-grass aerodrome. It is home to Musée Volant Salis, which houses a collection of 70 historic aircraft in from AJBS, the Memorial Flight, Fortresse Toujours Volante and Casque de Cuir. Jean-Baptiste Salis himself was born in 1896 and was inspired by the pioneering aviators such as Louis Blériot. He pursued his passion for aviation and in the 1930’s set the groundwork for what grew into today’s museum and collection.

 

The annual “Fête Aérienne” marked its 51st edition in 2024 but traces its history back to an event called “Fête Aéro-folklorique” organised in 1970. Today’s event carries on the tradition of that first event by combining flying displays with ground based ‘animations’ to tell the story aviation and inspire a new generation into an aerospace career. Walking around the showground and hangars, you are immediately struck by the enthusiasm in France for aviation with a multitude of exhibitions by a huge variety of industry and aerospace affiliated organisations. There were also areas celebrating French aviation artists and plenty of support from the French military. Adding to the ‘revival’ atmosphere was live music from the Satin Doll Sisters and the 92nd North Fox Pipe Band.

 

Before the afternoon flying displays, the aircraft parking area is opened to the public to walk around. As well as many of the display aircraft there were many other historic and civilian aircraft to enjoy. France has a thriving historic aviation scene and its own unique aviation heritage. Catching the eye was a gathering of Morane-Saulnier parasol winged aircraft and a wonderful collection of First World War types from the Memorial Flight. Restoration projects were also on display, not least the AJBS de Havilland DH89a Dragon Rapide which is now finished in the colours of the Royal Navy.

Bar a handful of civilian and military displays, each section of the flying display has its own theme celebrating a particular moment in aviation history. Each days display opened with perhaps the most basic form of powered flight today, a team of 11 paramotors. They gave a really impressive display with some very close formation flying with the leader just a few metres off the ground. A pair of them even showed off some of the more extreme flying they can achieve by carrying long streamers to height before releasing them and spiralling around them as they fell to earth. They were followed by Team Raven from the UK representing modern day homebuilt aircraft with their six Vans RV8s. They are proved very popular at French airshows and have multiple visits to France planned for the 2024 season.

 

The first major historic theme followed with a creation of aerial combat in the First World War – The Time of Aces. The sequence opened with the remarkable looking Caudron GIII reproduction flown by Christophe Bailly. This was a French aerial observation aircraft used during the First World War. The action ten switched to the dogfights with a pair of RAF SE5 replicas (based on later types) taking on a pair of Fokker Dr1s. As a backdrop three Stampe SV4s and Bucker Jungmanns flew formations over the top to give the feel of a sky full of aircraft over the battlefield. Sadly the second First World War display which would have closed the show, the Memorial Flight BE2f, did not fly on either day.

 

Sunday’s display saw some even earlier machines take to the air in the form of the AJBS’s Blériot XI-2 Pégoud and Morane H piloted by Christophe Bailly and Robert Villanova. While the Blériot is a familiar type, the Morane H may at least for international visitors may be less so. However, it is this type that Roland Garros made the first crossing of the Mediterranean Sea in 1913 flying from France to Tunisia.

Interspersed amongst the displays represented the two world wars were a trio of displays reflecting the golden age of aviation. The Mauboussin Aéro Collection brought the elegant Mauboussin Corsaire flown by Robert Villanova. Visually similar to the Miles Magister, the Corsaire was a training and touring aircraft built during the 1930’s and then again after the Second World War. Further art-deco elegance was added later in the display with the beautiful Stinson Reliant from the Casques de Cuir collection piloted by Franck Salis.

 

Adding some true ‘Barnstorming’ to proceedings was the 46Aviation team of Emiliano and  Danielle del Buono with their very distinctive pink and white Boeing Stearman. Danielle was a member of the Breitling Wingwalkers but has now developed a completely different and highly entertaining wingwalking display with Emiliano. Their display harks back to the Wingwalkers of the 1930s who actually did walk out on the wings of their aircraft with Danielle moving from a traditional rig above the wings to walking out to the end of the lower wings and even hanging upside down over the leading edge.

Many of the displays reflected themes and events from the Second World War. The arrival of the Luftwaffe was marked with the Junkers Ju52/3m (actually a CASA 352), the Fiesler Storch and a Pilatus P2 (masquerading as a Bf109) from the AJBS fleet. There was also a salute to the work of the French Resistance and the Special Operations Executive with the Aircraft Restoration Company’s Westland Lysander III flown by Jon Gowdy. During Saturday’s show, Jon gave a demonstration of the Lysander’s short landing capabilities picking up a member of his ground from a vintage Citroen car re-enacting an SOE mission.

 

The bitter air war on the Eastern front was marked with AJBS’s own Polikarpov Po2 piloted  by Nathalie Rostaing celebrating the ‘Night Witches’ – the 588th Night Bomber Regiment of the Soviet Air Force. The all-female unit conducted some extraordinary bombing missions on German forces by idling their engines on approach to the target making little noise apart from that of the air over the aircraft surfaces. The display also paid salute to Groupe de Chasse 3 “Normandie-Niemen” which was a unit of Free-French pilots which flew with distinction on the Eastern Front with Soviet forces and flying a range of Russian supplied aircraft including the Yak-3. To mark their contribution Stéphane Canu flew a very dynamic routine in a modern Yakovlev Yak-3UA reproduction wearing the Blue, White and Red colours of the unit.

 

A central theme to this year’s event was the 80th Anniversary of D-Day (or J-Jour) and this was marked with a combination of displays. The role of paratroopers was marked by Phenix, the French Air & Space Force’s Parachute Team, jumping from the rear cabin of a OV-10B Bronco! The small team parachutists gave a very patriotic display on the Saturday leaving a colourful spiral of smoke in the grey skies before flying the flags of France and the Air & Space Force.

 

The main part of the D-Day commemoration was an impressive formation of Dakota sur la Normandie’s Douglas C-47B Skytrain leading Fighter Aviation’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, W Air Collection’s Supermarine Spitfire FR.XIVe and Christophe Jaquard’s Spitfire PR.XIX. For Saturday’s display, the formation was set against some very dramatic skies and by the time the C-47B was flying its solo display quite a substantial funnel cloud had formed in the backdrop. Fortunately, it soon dissipated. All three fighters also gave some really stylish solo displays with Brice Ohayon making some stirring passes in the Spitfire FR.XIVe before Eric Goujon gave an exhilarating display of the Spitfire PR.XIX’s performance. The sequence was closed by the P-47D Thunderbolt which was elegantly flown by Baptiste Salis.

 

The Pacific Air War also garnered plenty of attention in the flying display. US Maritime aviation in the theatre was marked by Plane Sailing’s Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina and the Casques de Cuir Chance-Vought F4U-5NL Corsair. However, the biggest set-piece of the flying display was La Ferté Alais’ most well-known – the recreation of the Japanese Navy’s infamous aerial attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbour – ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Inspired by the great war film, the sequence started by setting the scene of the morning of 7th December 1941 with a pair of US Boeing Stearman PT-17 Kaydets cavorting in peaceful skies unaware of the impeding attack. As they land things soon changed as 11 North American T-6 Texans of various colours approached from the rear of the airfield. As they drew level with the runway, the peel away from each other diving at the airfield. As they swooped over the runway, the volley of pyrotechnics goes off to simulate bombs hitting the airfield. The group of Texans then wheeled around in a tailchase for a Second attack with more pyros going off recreating anti-aircraft fire as well as further ground explosions. The Second attack also saw the first sign of a reprisal as the Fighter Collection’s Curtiss P-40F Warhawk scrambled into the air. The set piece then switched to aerial combat with first AJBS’s AT-6M ‘Zero’ (an AT-6 Texan modified to resemble a Mitsubishi A6M Zero) despatching a US aircraft before finding itself being attacked by the P-40F. The set-piece was closed by an aerobatic solo by Patrice Marchasson in the P-40F. While it required a little imagination on the part of the audience, the set-piece was an outstanding piece of aerial theatre that really has to been seen in person to be appreciated – truly one of the great spectacles of the European airshow circuit.

 

The 1960’s conflict in South East Asia was marked in similar style with a slightly smaller, but no less eye-catching display. This saw the North American OV-10B Bronco of Musée Européen de l’Aviation de Chasse joined by four colourful North American T-28 Trojans and W Air Collection’s Hughes 369HE recreating the close air support and combat rescue missions that took place in the Jungles of Vietnam. It opened with parachustists dropping from the OV-10 playing role of downed airmen. The OV-10 played the role of a forward air control aircraft locating the downed pilots and calling in the T-28s to neutralise enemy forces. The helicopter then quickly picks up the airmen before the T-28s return to finally clear the area of all enemy forces.

The Post War French aerospace industry was celebrated by a formation combining the Dassault MD311 Flamant of Amicale des Avions Anciens d’Albert with a pair of privately owned SOCATA TB30 Epsilontrainers. Of the latter, one of the aircraft wore the colour scheme of the French aerobatic team, Cartouche Dore.

 

One final piece of post-war nostalgia was the Hawker Sea Fury FB11 of Aéro Restauration Service. Pilot Bruno Ducreux flew a very punchy routine in the big piston fighter which is fitted with the original Bristol Centaurus engine and appears in the colours of the Royal Australian Navy.

2024 sees the l’armee de l’air et espace mark it’s 90th Anniversary. At La Ferté Alais they presented four different display items in addition to the previously mentioned parachutists. The Mustang X-Ray Tactical Demonstration Team presented a pair of Pilatus PC-21 advanced trainers from Cognac. The team fly a fast-paced routine of formations and basic combat manoeuvres taught at L’École de L’Aviation de Chasse.

 

The French Air Force has a great tradition of aerobatic flying and to this day still competes at Aerobatic competitions with l’equipe de Voltige de l’Armée de l’Air. On both days of the show, the team presented solo displays by Florent Oddon with one of their Extra 330SC. The mastery of flying Florent demonstrated was just sublime and at times seemed to defy the principles of flight. As the Extra landed, the feast of French aerobatic continued with the arrival of Patrouille de France and their eight Dassault Alpha Jet Es. Of all the national jet teams, the Patrouille de France are the most balletic combining some very sharp formation changes and elegant flying punctuated by a very artistic use of smoke.

By constrast, the Dassault Rafale C solo flown by Captaine Jean-Brice ‘Mimouss’ Millet was frenetic. There is little moment for rest during Mimouss’ display with the aircraft constantly pitching or rolling through the sky. For the 90th Anniversary, the display jet has received a very patriotic colour scheme with a swirling French tricolour enveloping much of the fuselage and wings.

There was further fast jet action earlier in the day too with the Swiss Air Force’s McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet solo display. Like the Rafale display, there is a new Hornet demo pilot for 2024, Captain Marcel ‘Frodo’ Rust. Though on both days cloud meant ‘Frodo’ could not perform in full routine, it was nevertheless an ear-splittingly noisy display with vapour exploding over the top surfaces of the Hornet has it turned tightly under the overcast.

 

The finale to the flying (sadly only seen on the Sunday) was a combination representing L’Aero Club de France. It is not a display unique to La Ferté Alais and is seen at other major airshows in France. However, it is certainly a spectacular display of France’s passion for aviation. It opened with a combined flypast of the Fouga CM170 Magisters of Patrouille Tranchant with a Beech Bonanza, Pitts S-2B Special, Extra 300L and MXS in close formation.  Hugues Duval then led Patrouille Tranchant through their beautiful routine of formation aerobatics – the sun glinting from the colourful jets in the deep blue sky. Following their final break, the four light aircraft return for a really stunning sequence of synchronised aerobatics. Given the excellence of the flying, it is no surprise that all four were flown by some of France’s best-known exponents of the aerobatic art. Red Bull Air Race pilot Nicolas Ivanoff flew the surprisingly spritely Beech Bonanza; Bertrand Boillot, former leader of Patrouille de France, was at the controls of the Pitts while champion aerobatic pilots Catherine Maunoury and Aude Lemordant flew the Extra and MXS respectively. They conclude the routine with an absolutely sublime tailchase which was enhanced by just the most beautiful cloudscape.

Over the course of the weekend, I was told numerous times that this perhaps was not the strongest line-up seen at La Ferté Alais. Certainly, it was something of a disappointment not to see some of French Navy displays or the other unusual formations that have been such a hallmark of the event. There was a little further disappointment with some of the publicised displays seemingly dropping from the flying programme without explanation such as the ‘Heritage Flight’ which would have seen a formation of Rafale, Spitfire and Thunderbolt. However, none of that detracts from this being one of the most enjoyable airshows I have been to for some time. There were some really interesting aircraft to see on the ground and in the air, a great flow to the flying displays and an incredible atmosphere to the whole weekend that highlighted an immense passion for aviation heritage.

(Thanks to Ben Dunnell for his help in compiling this review)