Home » Aviation » French, U.S. Naval Aviators Learn to Work Together Ahead of Middle East Deployment


French, U.S. Naval Aviators Learn to Work Together Ahead of Middle East Deployment

Cmdr. Marc, commander of the French carrier airwing training at Naval Air Station Oceana. USNI News photo

NAVAL AIR STATION OCEANA, Va. — Since carrier flight skills atrophy over time, French naval aviators are spending two months training with US Navy air wings so they’ll be ready for missions this summer when their carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) finishes repairs after almost two years in the yard.

For almost a month, passersby at the Virginia Beach oceanfront have caught glimpses of French Navy Dassault Rafale M fighters fighter jets thundering into the air and out to sea from Naval Air Station Oceana.

While the 35,000-ton Charles de Gaulle completes a major 18-month overhaul, about 350 French Naval aviators, flight deck crew and maintenance personnel flight line crew are now undergoing carrier training in Virginia Beach and are scheduled to perform carrier qualifications aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in May.

“Pilots, most of them are very experienced, but 18 months without doing something is a long time,” Cmdr. Marc, the French airwing commander, said while talking to a small group of reporters on the flight line at Oceana, as members of his squadron flew exercises. Citing security concerns, French Navy officials asked to be identified using first names only.

French Rafale fighter at Naval Air Station Oceana. USNI News photo

Working alongside U.S. Navy personnel, though, is not so foreign to the French aviators, Marc said. France sends its naval aviators to Mississippi, where they learn how to land on and fly off carriers in the same courses and with the same training jets used by the U.S. Navy. From an operational standpoint, Marc said it’s easy to integrate into the U.S. Navy airwing’s operation.

“What’s nice is we have a common baseline in that their pilots go to U.S. flight school. The Rafale and E-2 pilots start their training here in the United States and continue their training in France,” Capt. Jim McCall, the commander of Carrier Air Wing 8, told USNI News.
“So what we’ve done here is fully integrated here into our air wings.”

Charles de Gaulle has been a steady presence in the fight against ISIS. Before going into the yard, the carrier deployed three times to the Middle East. In December 2015, during a gap in U.S. carrier presence in the region, Charles de Gaulle served as the flagship for U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Task Force 50.

Captain James McCall III, right, commander, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8. US Navy Photo

During operations aboard George H.W. Bush in May, McCall said, the plan is for the French personnel to seamlessly join regular carrier operations, which includes flying with U.S. aircraft and performing flight deck duties with their U.S. counterparts.

“They’re actually going to plug and play into our airwing like they’re a U.S. squadron,” McCall said. “They’re going to integrate into our air plans and our methodologies out aboard the ship. They’re going land like we land, they’re going to come aboard the ship like we do, they’re going fly the same cycle times we do.”

The French E-2C Hawkeye aircrews will fly with and in U.S. Navy Hawkeyes, Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 124 commander Cmdr. Christian Goodman told USNI News. The French E-2C airframes are the same as those used by the U.S., and the two nations’ E-2C pilots go through the same training. When Goodman was in flight school, he said, one of his instructors was a French E-2C pilot. When on Bush, Goodman said they’ll operate as one squadron.

“There’s no learning,” Goodman said. “Now it is really about sharing knowledge with each other about how to operate an aging aircraft.”

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), left, and the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) transit the Northern Arabian Gulf on March 8, 2015. US Navy Photo

Flying with and sparring against the Rafale in exercises have been extremely valuable for the F/A-18E Super Hornet pilots in Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 31, squadron commander Cmdr. Kevin Chlan told USNI News. Usually his squadron practices against other Super Hornets, but he said it’s been interesting learning how the French tackle missions, arriving at the same end result but using different tactics that draw on the Rafale’s strengths,

“The Rafale is an impressive aircraft,” Chlan said.
“When you go up and fight against it, it’s a little rocket ship.”

The Rafale entered service with the French Navy in 2002, shortly after the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1999. Both are designed for carrier operations, and both can reach a maximum speed of Mach 1.6. But the Rafale is a lighter and carries different weapons.

A Sailor guides an F-1 Rafale, attached to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, to a catapult for launch on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) in 2014. US Navy Photo

The closest comparison in the U.S. is probably the F-16 Fighting Falcon, Chlan said. Originally developed by General Dynamics and now built by Lockheed Martin, the F-16 is used by the U.S. Air Force and more than two dozen foreign air forces.

“The French are great partners. We see them in the skies, we operate alongside them, but we don’t really interact with them. Here we’re actually getting the chance to talk, and to brief, and plan for a flight,” Chlan said.
“I’ve been in the Navy for 18 years and I’ve never had a chance to do something like this.”

  • DaSaint

    Fantastic integration with our only current fixed-wing-capable carrier ally.
    The Brits are next with integration of our F-35s on the QE.

    • Scott Ferguson

      I give you the Italian AV-8B Harrier capable Cavour…

      The Spanish SPS Juan Carlos I…

      • DaSaint

        By fixed wing, I meant non-VSTOL. My bad, and misleading with my transition to the Brits, who will also have VSTOL-only operations. Of course, we have our Italian, Spanish, and Thai friends.

        • Brian C. Lee

          The Thai carrier is basically a yacht for the royal family. She’s just barely operational. All of her aircraft are helicopters (the Harriers were retired over a decade ago).

          • DaSaint

            So true.

        • Scott Ferguson

          The Thais still use their carrier and Harriers?

          It looks like they went the way of their A-7’s, sadly.

          • DaSaint

            Not sure about their Harriers, but their Sea Control Ship is reportedly still active.

    • NavySubNuke

      Don’t forget the Japanese and their “helicopter” carriers — just about the right size to start doing F-35B ops should they decide they need to do so….

      • DaSaint

        I thought about them and the Koreans, but they’ve got to purchase some F-35Bs first.

        • Secundius

          South Korea decided to build Three Nuclear-Powered Patrol Submarines instead. Loosely based on the French “Barracuda” class…

          • verity

            france dont export nuclear weapon. we sold conventionnal sub to australia. indeed named shortfin barracuda.

          • Secundius

            Never said that France WAS, only that SK Nuclear Patrol Sub’s were “Loosely Based” on Barracuda design. Try Reading First than Interpreting the Meaning…

          • Graeme Rymill

            No decision on building nuclear powered subs has been made. It is under consideration by the South Koreans.

      • muzzleloader

        And I’ll wager that they will…

  • Bryan

    There is no doubt the French have a very talented, capable carrier navy. Sadly their government decided on one carrier. The old adage 2 is 1 and 1 is none rings true here.

    The CdG has not been a constant presence in the war on terror. It goes into the shop quite often due to it’s design. The French government absolutely needs to fund a second carrier.

    With the pride, capability and shared values on how to police the commons there is no reason we should not coordinate yearly cruises where UK, France and the U.S. at a minimum to share presence duties.

    We could reconfigure our ESG for fast attack where the Marines put 14 F-35’s on the LHA. To support our unique national interests in the med. That would be more than enough and save our carriers.

    There has been a lot of talk about U.S. leadership lately. I suspect what most mean by leadership is that we simply protect the entire world and, “do it ourselves.” That’ll work, right up until we go broke.” We need real leadership between allies.

    • DaSaint

      Agreed. The UK and France should each have 3 to keep 1 each deployed.

      • Hugh

        Agreed, need 3s.

      • Bryan

        You are correct. The U.S. desperately needs to change how it does business. At this time neither China or Russia can defeat us. Our main vulnerability right now is going the way of the Soviets. So broke we can’t put our ships to sea and our society is rocked by waves of revolutionary change.

        We need to continue to press our allies, who share our basic values, to up their ability to project power. There is no reason between the U.K., France, Spain and perhaps Italy that the Med shouldn’t be covered year round in carriers, large and small. During cold war, keep the peace patrols, we absolutely can share the load. i.e. we don’t need as many carriers.

      • Tullzter

        The French technically have 3 carriers: CDG, Dixmude and Mistral although the two latter are helicopter carriers

        • DaSaint

          I can’t include their Mistrals as carriers. Otherwise we have to say that Egypt has 2 also. Lines are getting blurred.

          • Secundius

            “Mistral’s” don’t count anyway, because of their Inability to Support, Maintain and/or House the F-35B’s…

        • Killian Delin

          Last but not least, french navy also has Tonnerre, exactly the same kind of helicopter carriers

    • Hugh

      The French Navy had a long and difficult time funding just one nuclear powered aircraft carrier, for which they started preparations in the 1970s, though they certainly would have appreciated a second.

      • Bryan

        And the UK had the same problem so they compromised with their carriers. France should do the same.

        • Obelix38

          By “compromise”, do you mean to switch on STOBAR configuration ?
          I prefer to see my Navy having one Nuclear powered CATOBAR aircraft carrier rather than two conventionally powered STOBAR aircraft carriers (UK Navy).

          • Secundius

            You don’t have a STOBAR either! The “QE” and “PoW” are SRVL’s ( Short Rolling Vertical Landing)…

    • tiger

      Hard sell to a public that sees terrorism on the street. Far from the sea.

  • Cor

    Rafale max speed is Mach 1.8 not Mach 1.6.
    Otherwise great article !

    • Scott Ferguson

      Clean?
      A-A load out?
      A-G load out?
      High altitude?
      Low altitude?

  • RDF

    We have had a French exchange aviator program since A7 days.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Ah, but the takeoffs and landings would be in extreme crosswinds.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Je suis Charlie Hebdo. Vive la France!

    I guess the biggest difference for the French pilots is the catapult takeoff? Are all their carrier planes fitted for that? Do our USN and USMC pilots ever train on their CDG?

    • Hugh

      The French carrier has cat and traps.

    • Scott Ferguson

      Same gear the USN uses.

      Refer to their E-2 Hawkeyes.

  • publius_maximus_III

    The article mentions joint operations aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in May, but that CSG is not showing up on the USNI News Fleet and Marine Tracker this week. Assume it is still stateside getting ready to depart?

  • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

    Maybe the French should adopt strength over socialism? One is survival, the other is spending your entire pension for a single cup of coffee, as in Venezuela…

    • Secundius

      Somewhat of a “Lame Excuse”, blaming “Socialism” as France’s Ill’s. Napoleon Bonaparte introduced “Socialism” to France in 1804, and STILL nearly Conquered most of Europe in the process…