The Paris-Villaroche Air Legend Air Show
by Nigel Hitchman
The Paris-Villaroche Air Legend air show has been running since 2018, and the third iteration of this superb event took place over the weekend of September 11th/12th, 2021 at the historic Melun Villaroche Aerodrome near the town of Melun, just southeast of Paris, France. This site is steeped in aviation lore, first emerging as a civilian airfield prior to WWII. During the German occupation, the Luftwaffe stationed squadrons of Junkers Ju 88s and Heinkel He 111s here, but of course the airfield changed hands again following the Allied liberation in September 1944. After that, the U.S. Army Air Forces called the base home, first fielding Douglas A-20s and A-26s at the site and then, later, C-47s. The U.S. forces moved out by the early 1950s, after which the airfield became a flight test center for Avions Marcel Dassault (now Dassault Aviation) and the engine manufacturer SNECMA (now Safran). Presently, the airfield is primarily a bastion for general aviation, although a government flying school and several vintage aircraft collections are also on site. Safran still has a big presence just south of the main runway, within the airfield’s historical boundaries, but not its present-day incarnation. They operate a massive factory producing the CFM56, the world’s best-selling jet engine, and its successor the LEAP. These high-bypass turbofans power the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737. Interestingly, Safran also maintains an excellent aero-engine & space museum on site, which is well worth a visit.
But I digress… The air show had plenty to see on the ground as well as in the air. The aircraft parking area was open to the public during the mornings, so getting a close look at the aircraft was quite easy. There were several other aircraft on static display too, including a former Swiss Air Force de Havilland Vampire FB.6 (J-1115).
For aviation enthusiasts, perhaps the most interesting airfield location to visit during normal operation is the hangar for the Association des Mécaniciens Pilotes d’Avions Anciens (AMPAA), an organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of vintage aircraft. Unfortunately, during the show, the hangar was not open to the public, but they did have four of their pioneering aircraft displayed just inside the main doors. This included a WWI-era SPAD VII biplane fighter. It is complete, with an engine that runs, but does not fly. Also on view was a newly-built (to original plans) “Channel crossing” Blériot XI (F-AZQB) with an original 25hp Anzani engine. This aircraft performed its first engine run on Saturday evening. The other two aircraft in front of the AAPAA hangar were a replica Fokker A.I monoplane (F-AYAI) with a 80hp Gnome rotary engine in place of the original Oberursel and a replica Blériot XI-2 (F-AZNP) which was under rebuild following an accident at Vichy in 2016. Both of these aircraft were under restoration at Compiegne on behalf of their Austrian owner.
This year’s Air Legend display featured mostly warbirds in the air, but with a sprinkling of modern military aircraft too. It is a truly European event, with warbirds arriving from England, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium, to join the many French-based examples. This year opened with an excellent flypast by two French Navy Dassault Rafales together with two Vought Corsairs, these being the Salis Collection’s F4U-5 BuNo.124724 and Red Bull’s F4U-4 BuNo.96995 in the slot. This then lead to an excellent pairs display from the two Rafales.
Things then slowed down a little with a Fieseler Storch (actually a French-built Morane M.S.505 F-BEJF) and Piper L-4 Cub F-GHIP re-creating one of the most bizarre air battles of WWII, when pilots in the two aircraft shot at each other with their pistols!
We then had the beautiful Douglas Dakota Mk.III (WZ984) painted to represent one of Air France’s first Douglas DC-3s (F-BBBE) leading the newest French Air Force heavy-lift transport, the massive Airbus A400M. A few nice sedate passes from the DC3 lead to an exciting aerial demonstration of the A400M’s capabilities, which showed the types very impressive roll rate, slow and fast passes and tactical landing demonstrations (although it didn’t actually touch down).
The tempo and noise level then increased with the “Patrouille Gusto tactical display” featuring two Mirage 2000Cs in another fast-paced and dynamic display. We then returned to the early days of WWII, with a performance from the sole airworthy EKW D.3801 HB-RCF (a Swiss-built variant of the Morane Saulnier M.S.406) and the unique sound of its license-built Hispano-Suiza 12Y engine. The M.S.406 was the most numerous fighter aircraft in the French Air Force at the start of WWII, but was no match for the Messerschmitt Bf 109s they faced during the Battle of France in May, 1940.
The next performance in the show featured a dogfight demonstration between two unusual “adversaries” a Soviet Air Force Yak-3U replica F-AZZK (which started life as one of the many ex-Egyptian Air Force Yak-11s brought to La Ferte Alais in the 80s) and a replica of the Australian CAC Boomerang (N32CS) which Sanders Aviation built up from T-6 parts in the US a couple of decades ago. Of course Yak-3s and Boomerangs were on the same side in WWII, albeit in entirely different theaters of operation!
Next came another highlight of the day, with the Sywell/Duxford based Ultimate Fighters fabulous four-ship aerobatic display featuring John Gowdy in Republic P-47D Thunderbolt 45-49192 Nellie B, Dave Puleston in Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vc EE602, Richard Grace in Hispano HA1112-M1L Buchon G-AWHH (Luftwaffe white 9) and Andy Durston in North American P-51D Mustang 44-84847 Contrary Mary. There were an amazing sight to see – performing formation loops and barrel rolls before splitting up into pairs, with the Spitfire shooting down the Buchon, and the Thunderbolt and Mustang demonstrating more tightly flown aerobatics.
A Pearl Harbor-themed display came next, featuring Plane Sailing’s Canadian-Vickers Canso A, RCAF 11005, (a Canadian-built variant of the Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina) taking to the skies for some nice fly-bys representing those returning from patrol missions and then a Stearman trainer doing some gentle maneuvers, before the attack from the “Imperial Japanese Navy” represented by six North American T-6/Harvards, who carried out a lively airfield attack. Following the ‘Japanese attack’, a lone Curtiss P-40N Warhawk (42-105915) took off to try chasing away the aggressors. We were then treated to a superb aerobatic display flown by Sonoma, California-based pilot, Chris Prevost; for me, this was probably the best individual display of the day!
The Pacific Theatre of Operations theme then continued with a tribute to U.S. Marine Corps ace, Pappy Boyington and the TV series featuring his “exploits”, Baa Baa Black Sheep. A lone Stinson L-5 (42-99107) took to the skies on a reconnaissance mission and was then followed by Red Bull’s North American B-25J Mitchell 44-86893 bombing a ‘Japanese’ position, but soon after the Mitchell was chased away by two Japanese ‘Zeros’ (modified T-6s/Harvards) F-AZRO and F-AZZM, which were soon hotly pursued by three Corsairs, these being the afore-mentioned F4U-5 and F4U-4 along with The Fighter Collection’s FG-1D BuNo.88297 (marked as Royal Navy Corsair Mk.IV KD345). It would have been nice to see these three Corsairs make several passes together, but sadly they split up almost immediately – that being said, we were treated to some great formation aerobatics from the F4U-4 and FG-1D, while the F4U-5 flew some solo aerobatic flypasts.
A civilian interlude came next, with Sébastien Mazzuchetti’s superb Spartan 7W Executive (N47W) followed by the Swiss-based Classic Formation Team and their unique formation display featuring their highly-polished DC-3 N431HM (C-47A-45-DL 42-24133) and three Beech Expeditors N223CM (blue ex-RCAF 2344), N21FS (red – ex-RCAF 1538) and N184KP (yellow – ex-RCAF 1530), all owned by Hugo Mathys who flew one of the Expeditors during this show.
A French Air Force Dassault Rafale then gave a great aerobatic demonstration, which culminated in a reverse half Cuban 8, extending the undercarriage while inverted as the aircraft began the half loop to land.
There was also a Vietnam War-themed display, although it was smaller than usual, with only one Douglas AD-4N Skyraider (BuNo.125716) joined by two North American Trojans, T-28A/Fenec (51-7545/TL-206) and T-28C (BuNo.146287), attacking the ground base while T-28B BuNo.138360 flew a separate routine as Forward Air Controller. Despite the small showing in this sequence, we were treated to some nice aerobatics from the Skyraider, and a pairs formation display from two T28s (which you could later buy rides in along with a T-6, Stearman and Travel Air 4000).
The Korean War era was represented by Frederick Akary’s superb Canadair Sabre Mk.6 (ex-Luftwaffe KE+104) painted to represent an F-86 Sabre of the 461st Fighter Squadron when based in Germany.
The Normandie-Nieman Squadron of French pilots serving in the Soviet Air Force during WWII was commemorated by the Yak-11 F-AZNN (converted to a single seater) and Yak-9P F-AZOS. The latter aircraft was originally a Czech-built Yak-11 tandem-seat trainer. Obtained from the Egyptian Air Force and taken to La Ferte Alais, it was later restored as a single seater in the US, and modified with the Allison V-1710 engine to represent a Yak-9P. The aircraft came back to France in the mid 2000s and has recently undergone a second restoration, with its first flight taking place last year at La Ferte Alais.
Three Supermarine Spitfires attended the air show. In addition to Ultimate Fighters Mk.Vc, Christoph Jaquard’s PR.XIX (PS890) and Fast Aero’s Belgian-based Mk.XVI (SL721) were on hand. SL721 is a well-travelled Spitfire – she was restored for Bill Ross in Atlanta during the late 60s as N8R and then later moved to England as G-BAUP with the legendary Doug Arnold. She returned to the US in 1977 with Woodson K. Woods as N8WK and then N721WK. Restored again, she joined Mike Potter’s then-nascent Vintage Wings of Canada in 2000 as C-GVZB, where the aircraft gained her current paint scheme representing 421 Squadron (RCAF). She moved to Belgium in 2018 as OO-XVI, although she now sports a modified paint scheme and different side-codes to her previous Canadian livery.
The show’s finale and major highlight featured Red Bull’s Lockheed P-38L Lightning 44-53254 flying with the Patrouille de France, the French Air Force’s aerial demonstration team. The reason for this unusual formation involved a celebration for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous book The Little Prince. This year marks the 75th anniversary of its publication in France, (following its 1943 issue in the United States). Although he is now most famous for writing The Little Prince (the world’s most translated novella, and still a best seller) Saint-Exupéry initially became famous for his pre-war exploits as an airmail pilot. Almost 40 when he joined the French Air Force at the beginning of WWII as a reconnaissance pilot, he was a determined aviator. After the fall of France, and his subsequent demobilization from the military, Saint-Exupéry ventured to the USA in an endeavor to persuade the nation to fight the Nazis and free France. He stayed in America for 28 months, during which time he wrote The Little Prince. Following the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1943, he travelled to that continent aboard an American troop ship to join the Free French forces there, wangling a position as a reconnaissance pilot. Sadly, he disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea on 31 July 1944, while flying a Lockheed F-5B, a photo-reconnaissance variant of the P-38 Lightning (hence the connection to the Red Bull P-38). Interestingly, Red Bull’s Lightning was also once modified as an F-5G.
Saturday’s Saint-Exupéry formation was somewhat problematic, as the Patrouille de France were in the lead and mostly obscured the trailing P-38 in their red, white, and blue smoke trails. Therefore, on Sunday, they reversed the aircraft order so that the P-38 lead the formation with much better viewing results! The Lightning then flew a superb aerobatic display before the Patrouille de France concluded the show with their famous routine.
Many thanks indeed to Nigel Hitchman for this entertaining air show report and lovely images!