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Sat, Jun 04, 2005

French Navy Lands On American Shores... Buys Gas

Lafayette Is Back

After exercising with other forces, including exchanging deck landings with American carrier forces, France's latest capital ship, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, was steaming for home yesterday, off the Atlantic coast of the USA. It might have cost the French over $4 billion and taken twenty years and three sets of propellers, but they have got their nuclear supercarrier going.

The mission has generally been a success for the new French ship, its new Rafale M fighter (the pilots were excited to finally replace the 1950s vintage Crusaders), and its crew. It's been a great vindication for a ship that has had a lot of teething problems (in 2003, military expert James Dunnigan used it as key to an article he called "How NOT to Build an Aircraft Carrier").

And then they couldn't, er, land the planes.

This happens more often that one might think in carrier operations. In this case it's because the predictably unpredictable North Atlantic weather closed the "airport," the French carrier's flight deck. High winds and low visibility, stirred up by an unpredicted storm, were the problem when the aircraft tried coming back to their ocean home from combined exercises with American and Canadian naval forces off the coast of Virginia.

Navies plan for this, and the ten aircraft -- sleek Rafale M fighters and Super Etendard strike planes, along with an E-2 radar control aircraft -- recovered to Atlantic City International. (A bureaucratic foul-up with getting the French a clearance number prevented them from landing at a military field. To the amazement of all, the State Department worked quicker arranging diplomatic clearance to land that the military did).

According to radio 1010 WINS in New York, two of the pilots stayed with the planes overnight on the FAA ramp; other news sources said that French marines were dispatched along with translators and officials from the French embassy in Washington. Accommodations were arranged in a local hotel.

One wonders what the French airmen did to pass the time in Atlantic City, which is known for its casinos and gambling dens. According to radio stations WINS and WPVI, airport regulars claimed that one of the pilots attempted to pay for the fuel, his credit card was declined: the purchase was over his credit limit. (I wouldn't want to tank a jet squadron on mine either). But the station couldn't confirm that report, and neither could the AP or Aero-News.

If you're in New Jersey today, you might still be able to see the French naval aircraft, rare visitors to these shores. The French Navy plans to demonstrate their planes at the McGuire AFB airshow in Southern NJ. The aircraft will rejoin Charles de Gaulle off Halifax.

Earlier this week, the de Gaulle's group exercised with the US Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier battle group, including making "bolters" -- think of them as high-energy touch and goes -- on the flight deck of the "Ike." A French and E-2 actually "cross-decked," which is to say, landed on teach other's carrier. This required an arrested landing and a catapult launch.

The E-2 was an obvious choice for this because it's the one airframe used by both navies, but the French report with pride that they also recovered and launched a US Navy F-18 "without any difficulty. It's the first time in 60 years that an American fighter has touched down on a French carrier."

The purpose of Multi National Maritime Exercise (MNME) 05-01 was to ensure that NATO navies could interoperate with one another; no surprises were expected as the French, American and other Coalition navies have been operating together in Operation Enduring Freedom for four years.

Finally, has anyone else noticed that Eisenhower and de Gaulle were working together again after sixty-one years?

FMI: www.defense.gouv.fr/sites/marine/  (in French!)

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