The French aircraft carrier ‘Charles de Gaulle’ (R91) was on an exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, leaving the port of Toulon on Monday morning December 4th 2006. Soon after leaving port, 10 Super Etendard Modernisé (SEM), 1 E-2C Hawkeye and 2 Search-And-Rescue helicopters (the older Alouette 3 and the newer Dauphin) arrived onboard. Four days long, the ‘Charles de Gaulle’ would sail along the south coast of France, keeping the coastline in sight. From sunrise until after sunset missions were planned. Main target for this exercise were the first carrier landings and catapult take-off’s, flown by the enhanced NorthropGrumman E-2C Hawkeye. The French Navy flies with 3 E-2 aircraft and number 3 (BuNo 166417) was fitted with the new 8-bladed propellers and it was flown during these exercises by testpilots of NorthropGrumman.
The 10 Dassault ‘Super Etendard Modernisé’ (SEM) aircraft of the 11F Flottille were preparing for their upcoming cruise with the ‘Charles de Gaulle’ into the Middle East region. The older Super Etendards are used in the ground-attack en photo-reconnaissance roles. French Navy’s new Dassault Rafales (not on board during small cruise) will provide air-cover to the Super Etendards during operations.
Before flight operations, one of the two SAR helicopters (callsign ‘Pedro’) would take-off and position itself near the left side of the aircraft carrier. Always prepared to act in case of problems with the aircraft.
Operational since 2001, the ‘Charles de Gaulle’ has 2 nuclear powerplants, delivering a speed of 27 knots. The length of the ship is some 290 meters and the flight deck has 3 arresting wires (US Navy carriers have 4). There are 2 steam catapults (US Navy carriers have 4), 1 on the angled deck and on 1 the front of the deck. The ship has an advanced stability system, just like a commercial cruise ship. During a turn, the flight deck will remain nearly horizontal.
After this short cruise, the ‘Charles de Gaulle’ will prepare for a 3-month cruise into the Middle East region. And after mid 2007, the ship will go into a dock, for a 1.5 year maintenance period. Pilot qualifications will be performed on other aircraft-carriers, perhaps American or Brazilian carriers.
The Super Etendards were preparing for the middle-east cruise early 2007. During the one-week cruise, all pilots of 11 Fottille prepared for catapult take-off and cable recovery. Many short missions were flown. After the launch, a few circuits were flown and the aircraft landed again. Often the aircraft were back on deck within 30 minutes after the launch. 3 newcomers in the 11 Flottille did their carrier qualifications.
If they were successful after the week, they would become member of 11 Flotille. (As I left before the week was over, I do not know if they succeeded). 11 Flottille has 2 exchange pilots; 1 pilot is a former US Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot and 1 pilot normally flies the French Air Force Mirage F1.
The trip to France
On the morning of Sunday December 3rd, I started my car trip to Toulon, driving by car from Eindhoven in the Netherlands for 1100 kilometers. Good weather, without traffic jams, brought me to Toulon by 20:00 in the evening. After a check at the gate of the Marine base we, an American video-photographer and the onboard host of the SIRPA.MARINE, went to the ‘Charles de Gaulle’. Onboard we went to our 4 person cabin for some sleep. After we had breakfast, the ship left the port of Toulon while the deckcrew started to prepare for the aircraft to arrive. An hour after leaving port, the aircraft circled the ship and came in for the landing, 10 Super Etendards and one E-2C Hawkeye.
For the next 4 days all aircraft would fly short missions, catapult launch some circling around the ship, followed by the landing. The Charles de Gaulle will go the Indian Ocean during the first quarter of 2007 and the Super Etendards of 11 Flottille were practicing for their next tour. The E-2C Hawkeye was testing the new 8 bladed propellers; this was the first time it was tested by the French Navy on an aircraft carrier. From 08:00 in the morning until 20:00 in the evening the aircraft would fly their missions, whereby the nightflying started after sunset around 17:30. After sunset, it was very difficult to make good photos.
All pilots of 11 Flotille were present on the carrier. There were 2 exchange pilots, one pilot from the French Air Force Mirage F1 squadron 33 (based at Colmar) and one F-14 pilot of the US Navy. Also 3 new 11F pilots were doing their qualifications, when they successfully ended the qualifications; they would become new 11F squadron members.
On the flightdeck it was easy to find the way, but under deck it was quite difficult. All decks look the same and after climbing or descending several ladders, the navigation became very difficult. Only on the 3rd day it became easy to navigate by ourselves under deck.
The first visits to the flight deck were under close control by the deck crew. Positions could only be changed after a confirmation by one of our deck crew guides. Later we could walk to another position after pointing to the direction. The allowed positions on the deck were near the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) platform near the rear of the ship. Other positions were near the ‘Island’ or ‘Hotel’ of the ship, behind a line of towing trucks. We were obliged to wear a blue shirt and a helmet with ski-glasses. It was not allowed to remove the ski-glasses to make a photo.
Without being controlled, we were able to walk to the platform near the meteo-office.
End of the trip
On the last day of the embarkment, we were flown by a helicopter (Super Frelon) to the base of Hyeres. Everybody was wearing an orange wetsuit as a precaution in case of emergency. After landing, I drove back the the Netherlands, arriving at home at 03:00 on Friday morning.
It was a very relaxed atmosphere onboard, everybody was very gentle and very relaxed. On American aircraft carriers, the atmosphere is more ‘controlled’. But the greatest difference between French and American aircraft carriers is the fact that it was possible to drink some alcohol (beer and wine) onboard.
A special ‘thank you’ for SIRPA.MARINE, the crew of the ‘Charles de Gaulle’ and onboard host Pascal Subtil, for their assistance.
Source: Sentry Aviation News
Pictures provided and copyrighted by G.J.A. van Boven/Sentry Aviation News
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