Nicole Cloutier asked questions, and got some surprising answers from Patrouille de France 2017 North American Tour crewmembers.
This year’s Melbourne Air and Space show was special in that it marked the first American air show performance in over thirty years by the Patrouille de France. I had the pleasure of speaking with a few of the pilots at the take-off party at the Hilton Rialto place Friday night before the show. If you have the opportunity to attend one of these events, I highly recommend it. Nearly all of the performing pilots were there taking pictures, signing autographs and sharing stories with fans.
I was slightly apprehensive to “interview” these guys at such a busy event, but quickly realized they were more than happy to answer my questions. I first met Captain William Leroy, more commonly known as Athos 5. He is a Mirage 2000-5 pilot when not flying the Alpha Jet, has over 3,300 flying hours, and is in his 6th year with the team. The first question I asked was “Why Athos?” He explained to me that the Patrouille represents a brotherhood and Athos is one of the famed Three Musketeers with their famous saying “All For One and One For All, United We Stand, Divided We Fall”. I also wondered why their flight suits are a powder blue in which he chuckled and told me that at one point blue smoke entered the cockpit and stained one of the pilot’s suits. To their surprise they actually liked the color and chose to replace their suits with this signature color as their performance suits. They also call their new recruits “little smurfs” as homage to the well-loved cartoon.
I then caught up with Athos Zero (yes that’s a thing), Lt. Col Gauthier Dewas. He is their Commanding Officer and was the leader of the team in 2012. Although he doesn’t fly in the shows, he travels with the team as their Commander and announcer of the show. I thanked him for coming to America to commemorate WWI, and he reminded me that they came with two missions to accomplish: “to fly and to meet the public”. He also wanted me to reiterate to American fans that this trip is about “being allies since the very beginning, and one of peace and brotherhood.”
Lastly, I got the chance to meet LCL Ben Paillard of the 1/16 Touraine Squadron, Armée de l’Air, and pilot of the beautiful Atlas A400M. He is the first commander of the world’s first A400M and it shows. He beamed when talking about his aircraft. Currently, the Armée has 11 and are looking to get 2 a year going forward until they have their goal fleet of 35. They were traveling with a team of 80 which included their mechanics, crew chiefs, load masters and all PR personnel. They were also carrying 20 tons of freight including spare parts -“the Alpha breaks a lot”-consumables, smoke oil, etc. They were especially excited because they had received word that day they were able to fly in the show – something they weren’t sure was possible with the schedule. We couldn’t be more thrilled as this was the first performance by the Atlas A400M on American soil.
The show itself was spectacular. I have always been fond of the elegance and beauty of foreign jet teams and this performance did not disappoint. Although it looks fluid and graceful from the stands, Cpt. Leroy was elated to tell me they had taken the Thunderbirds up for a ride and they remarked on how “aggressive” the performance was from inside the jet, mostly due to the tight formations, agility of the Alpha jet and proximity to the shows visible airspace they work in.
They created a formation for this tour called the Apollo and will use it along the trip. While it’s fitting for Melbourne and NASA’s presence, their sponsors are two French astronauts Jean-Loup Chrétien and Patrick Beaudry. They had the honor of flying them over Cape Canaveral Thursday before the show.
Their show, gratefulness, humility and commitment to their fans were present and surely represented the meaning behind Athos. They were overjoyed to be here and said their warm welcome to America was more than they could have ever imagined. We wish them well on the remainder of their tour.