The first to take off is the Blériot. Its engine sputters to a triumphant start, and two Memorial Flight members hold its tail down until the chocks are removed. Mars and fellow Memorial Flight member Jean Pierre Garibaldi are at the controls. The crowd cheers as the Blériot heads merrily down the grass strip. The old airplane takes off, but a moment later bumps back onto the grass and disappears over a low slope. A few minutes later, the airplane taxis back. This is the Blériot's first flight since it was restored; its balance had not yet been adjusted to match its payload (Garibaldi and Mars). "It's just a matter of adjusting a bolt on the tailplane," says Melvyn Hissock, 48, the sole member of Memorial Flight's British contingent.
The Blériot finally gets airborne, and the other antiques follow, creating a romantic group portrait of early flight above the rolling green hills of central France. A steady drizzle soon turns into a drenching rain, however, forcing everybody to land.
The airfield is perched above farmland; trying to land here, many pilots say, is like trying to set down on an aircraft carrier. With only 3,000 feet of grass strip, pilots are advised to land a little deeper than they're used to. A number of aircraft that cannot land at the small airfield, including the jets, are based out of Orly airport, several miles to the north.
Through the rain, a glamorous-looking Dassault Flamant MD 311, a late-1940s French trainer, lands gracefully. As soon as the Flamant touches down, a shaggy sheepdog appears in the aircraft's transparent nose. The dog jumps out of the airplane barking madly, only to get hopelessly wet and gummy in the rain.
After the delicate antiques have been stowed away, a no-nonsense Dassault Mirage 2000 jet interceptor appears and thunders through a low-level aerobatics routine. The afterburner is the only bright spot in an otherwise sullen sky. The sound reverberates through the airfield hangar, dramatizing the contrast between the jet above and the ancient airplanes on the ground.
The contrast between old and new is also evident in the pilots. The jet pilots are lean, compact, and dressed in neatly pressed flightsuits. The pilots of the antique airplanes are like something out of a photograph from the early 1900s, right down to the handlebar mustaches, leather caps, and goggles.
Regardless of which era the pilots are representing, the camaraderie among them is strong as they mingle in the hangar, which is now serving as something of a clubhouse for the devoted. There's a large open area of tables and a field kitchen that looks like it could serve about a hundred. Scattered throughout the rest of the space are hulking airplane skeletons and aviation odds and ends.
Every wall is covered with beautiful watercolor renderings of airplanes from important moments in French aviation history: Henri Guillaumet crashing his Potez 25 biplane in the frigid Andes mountains in 1930; Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flying a Bloch 174 to Arras during World War II.
It's a fitting setting for the painstakingly restored aircraft that Memorial Flight keeps here. The group's philosophy: "Each airplane should be absolutely identical to when it was originally built," says Mars. Group members don't hesitate to point out that their aircraft are all "original replicas"-detailed copies built around original engines-while the Jean-Baptiste Salis Association's aircraft are rebuilt with modern engines, brakes, and sometimes navigational equipment. Some start out as other types of airplanes altogether, and are altered cosmetically. "They create copies of aircraft to use in the movies," Mars says. "The public can't tell the difference, but we can."
The Salis association was formed to continue the work of its namesake. From the moment Salis received his pilot's license, in 1917, he was devoted to aviation. In 1939 he agreed to create a school for air force pilots and mechanics in the town of La Ferté Alais. World War II disrupted the school's activities, but by 1946 Salis had reopened the Cerny field as home to a glider school.