Where can you see a a formation of World War I fighters, a Mirage 2000, and a Junkers Ju 52 all on the same day?
- By Bettina H. Chavanne
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
(Page 2 of 4)
One of the airplanes remaining in the hangar is Memorial Flight's 1918 SPAD XIII. "Preparing the SPAD to fly is like tuning a piano," says Arnaud Mars, 31, who works full time at the Musée de l'Air, in addition to volunteering as a Memorial Flight restorer. "All the cables have to be strung and tightened perfectly in order for the SPAD to fly." Today there's no time, so the SPAD-the oldest XIII in the world and the only one still flying-stays in the hangar.
After running through the systems on his airplane, each pilot signals to the person standing at the propeller to give it a whirl. There's a marvelous sound the engine on a very old airplane makes as it "catches," then roars to life.
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.