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Aviation Légère de l'Armée de Terre; Dax-Seyresse, May 30, 2010

Le Tour de France 2010 Part 2; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

The first major visit during my tour through southern part of France was at Dax. On May 30, 2010, there was an air show at this base from the French army aviation which is called l'Armée de Terre (ALAT). At Dax are about 45 Gazelles helicopters stationed which are used for the training of pilots for the French army.

The Aviation Légère de l'Armée de Terre (ALAT), roughly translated as “Army Aviation” means “the armed airborne forces of the Army”. The ALAT was created by the French artillery as part of the aerial observations at the front lines. The ALAT was separated from the French artillery after a few years which makes it a fully independent department of the French Army. The ALAT consists almost completely of helicopters. The helicopters are used to support ground troops such as; tanks, infantry, artillery, identification of targets and evacuation of wounded soldiers. The American counterpart of the ALAT is the U.S. Army which was split from the U.S. Cavalry in the past. The ALAT has currently ten bases in France and they use helicopter types such as: the SA330 Puma, the SA341 and SA342 Gazelle and the AS532 Cougar. The ALAT has been involved in virtually all French participations to crisis areas around the world since the beginning of its creation in 1954. Some examples are: the war in Algeria, the Gulf war, the Libo-Chadian independence conflict, the war in Somalia and the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The helicopters of the ALAT are currently becoming outdated and there is not enough personnel available to fly them. The number of available helicopters has declined substantially since 2004. The high age of the helicopters makes them much more sensitive for malfunctions and maintenance of the old helicopters is difficult. In 2005, the ALAT received finally his first Tigres after a long wait. This helicopter is specifically designed for offensive tasks and the protection of military convoys and troops. A total of eighty Tigre helicopters are ordered to replace the outdated SA342 Gazelle Mistral. The SA342 Gazelle Mistral is the armed version of the SA341 Gazelle in the French Army. Just twenty Tigres were currently delivered to the ALAT. There are many technical issues on the brand new Tigre and therefore it is a hard process to get them all operational. The Puma's will be replaced in the near future by the NH-90 TTH. The

first NH-90 that will be delivered is expected in 2011. The ALAT has placed a temporarily order for 68 helicopters of this type. The lifetime of the Puma and Cougar will be extended if necessary until all NH-90's are delivered.

The SA341 and SA342 Gazelle at Dax will be replaced by a brand new helicopter type. The EC120 Colibri will take over the training tasks from the outdated Gazelle. The first of a batch of thirty helicopters were delivered in 2009. The expectation is that they will all be delivered before the end of 2010. Besides these thirty aircraft, there is also an open option for six more helicopters. Eurocopter signed a contract in 2007 with the ALAT for the delivery of 22,000 flight hours with this type. The company has signed a contract for a period of 22 years with the ALAT. The project is funded by the "Public Private Partnership" program. The main advantage is that the cost of the helicopters will drop considerably. Besides that, the ALAT will also outsource the maintenance of these helicopters which saves a lot of money. The EC120 helicopters at Dax are used for the basic training of pilots for all types of helicopters within the ALAT. Unlike the Gazelle, the Colibri's will receive a civil registration because they are owned by Eurocopter and not the ALT.

The weather was quite bad when we arrived at Dax. The sky was dark and there was rain from time to time. Not the most ideal conditions for photography of helicopters. There weren’t many people at Dax for the air show because of the bad weather. We decided to start our day with a tour through the hangars at this base because it was raining at this moment. Most of the hangars were empty; only two hangars were filled with helicopters. One of the two hangars was closed for the general public and therefore I was not allowed to enter it. I heard that this hangar was filled with Gazelles of the French Army. We asked one of the quads if we could enter this hangar. We were escorted by the guard when we entered the hangar and I saw seven helicopters in the building. These helicopters were all seven of the type Gazelle; it were the only gazelles which I saw during the air show. The Gazelles were spread through the relatively large hangar. Most of them had no rotor blades because they were in maintenance.

The weather was still bad when I arrived on the platform. This would not change, unfortunately; it rained all day long and there was nothing to do about that. There were luckily enough many helicopter demos today at Dax. The highlights of the demo program were the French EC725 Carancal and the French AS330 Puma. Both helicopters were from the French Army. All the helicopters would take off and land in front of the general public at the air show. I was very lucky with this, because the distance to your subject is very important under these bad weather conditions. The Carancal proofed itself as a true all-weather helicopter because it is designed to operate under the current weather conditions. The best moment of the demo was every time when the helicopters were hovering over the platform. I had no problems with the high contrast in the deep gray sky because of the green background. The light on the helicopters was very nice to capture a few spectacular helicopter shots. During the demo of the Carancal, a number of French commandos showed the fast rope techniques during a landing in enemy territory. The helicopter was hovering at a height of thirty meters while soldiers lowered themselves along the ropes to the ground. There were more demos next to the Carancal demo, namely: the French Army AS330 Puma, the AS532 Cougar of the Swiss Air Force, the Mi-24 Hind of the Czech Air Force and the PC-6 of the French Army. All demos were quite spectacular, but I made the best pictures during take off and landing because of the short distances. I returned to my hotel after a beautiful rainy afternoon at this French helicopter base. Tomorrow I will drive to Cazaux to take photos of the French and Belgian Alpha-Jets.

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