French air wing on unprecedented deployment to train aboard Norfolk aircraft carrier
Hundreds of French sailors and more than a dozen of their aircraft are in Hampton Roads this week getting ready to train aboard the Norfolk-based aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush while their nation’s only carrier undergoes a midlife overhaul.
While France’s navy pilots are trained in the U.S. and the nations have long worked together, the sheer scale of the French air wing’s deployment to Virginia is unprecedented.
France has sent about 350 sailors, 12 Rafale Marine fighter jets and one E-2C Hawkeye to train at Naval Air Station Oceana and Naval Station Norfolk before flying out to the Bush next month for nearly two weeks. This will be the first time the French aircraft have taken off or landed on a carrier since the Charles de Gaulle began its overhaul in early 2017. The nuclear-powered ship isn’t scheduled to return to sea until early next year.
One of 27 French Navy pilots in the “Chesapeake” deployment, identified as Commander Marc, is photographed in front of a French Rafael fight jet at Oceana Naval Air Station on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. For the “Chesapeake” Deployment, 13 aircraft and 350 French sailors will be training with their U.S. counterparts aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.
The last time French pilots trained aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier was about a decade ago, and that only consisted of six jets.
Before they fly out to the Bush next month, two French jets and an E-2C Hawkeye participated in flyovers of downtown Norfolk on Thursday and will again Saturday with a pair of U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornets and an American E-2C Hawkeye as part of the Norfolk NATO Festival.
The longtime allies are celebrating their shared history by calling this joint training the “Chesapeake Deployment” in honor of the “Battle of the Chesapeake” during the American Revolutionary War, where French ships kept British forces from reinforcing troops during the decisive battle at Yorktown.
Once at sea, the French aircraft will conduct more than 180 joint exercises with the U.S. Navy. They will include aerial combat, practicing attacking and defending ships, supporting ground troops and searching for targets and making bombing runs.
Each country is hoping to learn from the other.
“Any time you have an opportunity to fight against somebody who doesn’t necessarily train with you … may improve how we fight,” said Capt. James McCall, commander of Carrier Air Wing 8 aboard the Bush.
The commander of the French air wing said there are only minor differences in how U.S. and French aircraft carriers operate, with the major one being that the Charles de Gaulle is about 200 feet shorter than Nimitz-class carriers like the Bush.
With a shorter flight deck, French pilots are used to catching their aircraft’s tailhooks on landing cables much sooner.
“I would say when you’re above the ship, the U.S. ship is huge compared to Charles de Gaulle,” said Cmdr. Marc, who in accordance with French policy did not reveal his last name. “On the Charles de Gaulle, which is shorter, you would see the blue of the sea and you see the rear of the deck, join the trap, the wire. You landed. … From my experience, I was just wondering, arriving on the U.S. ship what’s going on? I’m supposed to be on the deck right now.”
The French aircraft are expected conduct 430 flights with Rafale aircraft and 40 flights with their E-2C Hawkeye. Of the 27 French pilots who are here, five will be making their first carrier landing with a Rafale.
The French air wing, which arrived in Virginia earlier this month, is expected to return home at the end of May.
While there has been plenty of training, the visitors also are hoping to experience as much of the United States as they can while they’re here. Some sailors have already traveled to Washington and New York, while others like the air wing commander explored local historic sites like Yorktown Battlefield, Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg.
“So it’s really interesting to see all those things that we are seeing in the history books that I have the luck to visit it for real,” the commander said.
Brock Vergakis, 757-222-5846, firstname.lastname@example.org