70 years in the skies – Patrouille de France

This year, the most famous French aerobatics team Patrouille de France, celebrates its significant anniversary – 70 years since the team was officially established and adopted the current name.

However, the beginning of the French military aerobatic team dates back more than twenty years earlier. The first flying display performed by formation of the French military aircraft took place on 14th September 1931 at Étampes-Mondésir airfield. The formation included three Morane-Saulnier MS.230 high-wing aeroplanes from l’École de perfectionnement au pilotage (English: the school of improvement/perfection of pilotage) and for the first time used the name en patrouille (English: patrol).

Starting from the next year, ´patrouille d’Étampes´ led by Capt. Pierre Fleurquin, continued with performing flying displays during domestic and international aviation events. In 1935, the team was re-equipped with Morane-Saulnier MS.225 and in the following year expanded by two more aeroplanes. In 1937, the name of the display group was changed to Patrouille de l’École de l’air (English: Patrol from the aviation school).

In the meantime, another aerobatic group that used the name en patrouille was created by Groupe de Chasse 1/7 (English: fighter wing) in Dijon. Named after its leader, la Patrouille Weiser de Dijon (English: Weiser´s Patrol from Dijon) became known from the stunt of flying its aeroplanes tied together with a rope. It was reported that during one show the Weiser´s team managed to fly such a stunt in formation of eighteen aircraft.

Regrettably, the outbreak of the Second World War caused termination of further display activities of the French Air Force.

The post-war history of the French military aviation display team began as early as in 1947. Following the decree of the Minister of Air, a special squadron was established at aviation school in Tours, becoming the official display team of the French Air Force. The squadron was equipped with twelve Stampe et Vertrongen SV.4 biplanes. Shortly after its establishment, the team moved to Étampes and adopted its new name – Escadrille de Présentation de l’Armée de l’Air n°58 (English: No. 58 display squadron of the French Air Force).

Line up of Patrouille de France jets – Belgian Air Force Days 2023

In 1952, Pierre Delachenal, pilot from 3e Escadre of the 112th Air Force Base Reims-Champagne, created a display flight of four Republic F-84G Thunderjet aeroplanes. In May of the next year, the new team performed a display in front of approximately 50,000 spectators at Alger-Maison-Blanche air base in Algeria. Jacques Nœtinger, the show commentator, enchanted by the display group and its breath-taking performance, for the first time called the Delachenal´s team Patrouille de France (English: the French Patrol).

On 17th September 1953, the French Air Force authorities approved that designation as the official name for the French Air Force display team.

Interestingly, the name and honour to host the official display team of l’Armée de l’Air did not remain only with the 112th air base where it was created. In the following years Patrouille de France changed its home base several times – already in 1954, the display team was assigned to 2e Escadre of the 102nd AFB Dijon-Longvic, later it moved to 12e Escadre of the 103rd AFB Cambray-Épino, 4e Escadre of the 136th AFB Bremgarten (Germany), then again to 2e Escadre of the 102nd AFB Dijon-Longvic and finally to the 4e Escadre of the 133rd AFB Nancy-Ochey.

The aforementioned rotation also meant change of the team´s display aircraft with each relocation. Between 1954 and 1964, and in addition to the initial F-84G, Patrouille de France used to fly also with Dassault Mystère IV A and Dassault MD 450 Ouragan. What´s more, during the 1956 air show season, there were two French display teams flying parallelly and both carrying the name of Patrouille de France. The first was assigned to the 103rd AFB, flew with the Mystère IV jets and performed internationally, the second was at the 136th AFB, operated the Ouragans and flew the domestic displays.

The first decade of Patrouille de France aviation displays was marked by several milestones. In 1956, the team for the first time performed abroad. Next year, the aeroplanes of the team were for the first time equipped with smoke generators and performed with red smoke trails. The tri-colour smoke in colours of the French national flag was introduced in 1958.

Patrouille de France display, 2023

Starting from 1959, the squadrons assigned to fly the displays within Patrouille de France team, were almost exclusively focused on that task. In December of the same year, the display team assisted Gen. de Gaulle, at that time the President of France, during his official trip to western Africa and visited Senegal, Mali and Niger.

Regrettably, in January of 1964 it was decided to cease operations of Patrouille de France display team, due to budgetary constraints.

Nevertheless, the demand to see Patrouille de France in the air was so high that it returned to the skies just a few weeks later. This was due to Pierre Messmer, at that time French Minister of Armies, who took advantage of the fact that the aforementioned Patrouille de l’Ecole de l’air of the aviation school in Étampes was still active and operating. The team was allowed to adopt the name of Patrouille de France and for sixteen consecutive years performed with their six to nine Fouga CM.170 Magister aircraft, being recognized as the official display team of the French Air Force.

Unfortunately, years when the team flew with the Fouga Magister were marked with first tragic accidents and death of seven members of Patrouille de France crew in total. In 1967, Cpt. Didier Duthoit died as a result of crash that occurred during the display performed at Paris Air Show. In 1969 and 1974, four airmen were killed in accidents that happened during training flights. And in 1980, two pilots were killed as a result of mid-air collision over Salon-de-Provence air base.

On 16th September 1980, Patrouille de France performed their final display with the Fouga Magister aircraft. Shortly after, the team was equipped with new aeroplanes which are used to this day – Dornier/Dassault Alpha Jet trainer. Initially, Patrouille de France performed with seven aircraft of this type, but in 1982 that number was increased to eight.

The Alpha Jet era meant an entirely different kind of flying displays for the team. Already at the time Patrouille de France flew the Fouga Magisters, the pilots continued to increase their skills and the French team began to be compared with other military aerobatic jet teams in the world. With the Alpha Jets, the French group gained the reputation of one of the best jet aerobatic teams in the world, standing in line with the RAF Red Arrows, Blue Angels and Frecce Tricolori.

Patrouille de France display, 2015

In 1986, Patrouille de France went on its first tour around the United States. On 4th July that year, the team´s Alpha Jets flew over New York and the Statue of Liberty, celebrating the 100th anniversary of that sculpture.

Regrettably for the team, also the Alpha Jet years were marked with a few fatal accidents. The first one occurred in October of 1981 with one fatal casualty and was followed by another one in January of 1982, also with one pilot killed.

In September of 1983, two Alpha Jets from the team collided in the air during airshow in Niort, resulting with death of one aviator. Another collision was recorded in 1991, during the training flight. One pilot managed to eject safely while the other one died on spot. The last two fatal accidents were related too late ejection from the aircraft that caused the death of Patrouille de France pilots. The first one of that kind occurred in 1992 and the other one a decade later.

It is worth to mention that also the contemporary times were marked with several significant milestones for the team. The 2009 season was emphasized by Virginie Guyot, the first female pilot that became the leader of Patrouille de France formation. In 2017, the group again toured the United States to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the American entry into the Great War, in support of France. It was also an opportunity for Patrouille de France to fly in joint formations with the famous aerobatic teams, the Blue Angels of the US Navy and the Thunderbirds of the USAF.

On 8th July 2022, for the first time in the team history, Patrouille de France performed the flight with current President of France on board. Emmanuel Macron made that flight on the back seat of aircraft number 5.

Nowadays, Patrouille de France is one of the best recognizable jet aerobatic teams in the world. The team is not only the symbol of the l’armée de l’Air et de l’Espace, but the entire French aviation and its historical heritage.

Each year, three new pilots are honoured with possibility to join the team. They are chosen by current team members from volunteers that meet Patrouille de France requirements.

The entire Patrouille de France team consist of approximately 60 people – 9 pilots, more than 30 mechanics and also management, communication, administration, operation, photo and logistic specialists. Usually, the display team is supported by cargo aircraft. For many years, it was a C-160 Transall that recently was succeeded by CASA CN-235.

Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet of Patrouille de France, 2023

The team aircraft are flying with Athos callsign, taken from ´The Three Musketeers´ novel by Alexandre Dumas. That callsign emphasizes the spirit of Musketeers that is common for Patrouille de France – a mistake of one is the mistake of all.

Current livery of Patrouille de France aeroplanes was introduced in 2018, when it replaced the original one used since 1981. In addition, a small tail art was added this year to emphasize the 70th anniversary of the team.

Without any doubts, the flying display of Patrouille de France is always among highlights of any air show. The basic formation of the group is called Diamond and is flown in scheme of 1-2-3-2 aircraft. In addition, the official web page of the team indicates over twenty other formations and aerobatic manoeuvres that are used by Patrouille de France during its displays.

It is worth to mention that on the opportunity of Patrouille de France 70th anniversary, a new manoeuvre was added. As part of the display, the team aircraft use their smoke trails to create in the sky the big seven and zero.

The official French Air Force aerobatic team is not only a showcase of the French armed forces, nor performing its displays only during air shows or other aviation events. With no exaggeration, Patrouille de France is now the French national symbol, and the team can be seen performing displays and flypasts during major national holidays or official celebrations. Usually, the group highlights such performance by creating a huge French flag in the sky.

During the coronavirus outbreak, Patrouille de France supported the French morale by flying over the hospitals that were fighting with the pandemic.

The heritage of Fouga Magister years with Patrouille de France is currently continued by Patrouille Tranchant, the French private jet aerobatic team founded by Jack Krine, Hugues Duval and Benjamin Tranchant. The team is flying with five Fouga CM.170 Magister aircraft and from time to time performs joint formation with Patrouille de France.