Aviation News Journal
The Gendarmerie Air Forces
Text and photography by Roelof-Jan Gort and Bjorn van der Flier of FlyHighAeromedia.com
Colonel DRY (name withheld for security reasons) is group commander at the Gendarmerie Air Forces and has been serving in that position from August 2021. He has been with the Gendarmerie Air Forces since 2006 and has about 4000 flight hours on various types of helicopters, and he still flies about 180 hours per year. He told us about the history, organization, and training within the Gendarmerie Air Forces.
An EC145 awaits its next mission while an H135 takes off - Björn van der Flier
Brigadier Emmanuel Josse was appointed chief of staff of the French Gendarmerie Air Forces in August 2020. His career has comprised postings in both territorial ground units and gendarmerie air units.
Student at Saint-Cyr, the French Army's military academy and a graduate of the French War College, he is also a recognized specialist in air safety issues after two assignments at the BEA-E (Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for State Aviation Safety), first as an investigator and subsequently as deputy director.
The Gendarmerie Air Forces (FAGN) has about 500 members, which, compared with 100,000 Gendarmerie personnel, means that they are a mere 0.5% of the total Gendarmerie. They have around 150 pilots, who are based at 30 bases, training centres and headquarters.
The pilots have a 24/7 duty. That means they must run shifts on a frequent basis. In addition to the 150 pi-lots, the Gendarmerie Air Forces have about 200 mechanics, flight engineers, officers, and non-commissioned officers. They also have about 450 drone pilots, and about twenty-seven drone instructors.
The headquarters of the Gendarmerie Air Forces is based at BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay near Paris, which also houses an operational unit. This unit is specialized in all types of operations, and is responsible for planning, supervision and debriefing of all helicopter missions of the units throughout France and the over-seas departments. At the headquarters, there is also a special group of people, and their work has every-thing to do with logistics and implementation, for example purchasing uniforms and computer equipment, but they also prepare all external maintenance contracts. There are different levels in this system, and everything is about extracting the most use out of the equipment, from helicopters and camera systems to other smaller equipment, for the missions.
Colonel DRY in front of the EC145 of BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay - Björn van der Flier
The Gendarmerie Air Forces have about 24 locations in France and six overseas (see the map below). The location that is not shown on this map is Calais. Since the migration problems and the 32 people that drowned in November 2021, French authorities have decided to station one Gendarmerie helicopter in that region.
Those who are deployed to one of these six overseas locations, are stationed there for about three years. “For the people who are working at one of these six overseas locations, it is very special. This is because they are very far from their home base in France. So, they must be versatile, and they have to do almost everything by themselves. Their home base is about 12 hours’ flight from the base where they are working. There is a very important purpose for them and that is, sovereignty overseas,” Colonel DRY stated.
A student pilot in the cockpit of anEC145 - Roelof-Jan Gort
The missions carried out by the Gendarmerie Air Forces can be divided into four different categories.
The first mission is observation. This is because they must be able to assist all the Gendarmerie and Police on the ground, with special camera-equipped helicopters to assist them with their jobs, whatever the con-ditions.
The second type of mission is counterterrorism, which is a support mission, but with special task forces, GIGN for Gendarmerie and RAID for Police, two specialized units in the vicinity of BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay serve this purpose. Within ten minutes of the call, they can be in helicopters to travel any-where in France. “We will fly the GIGN and RAID forces when they need to go faster or to be dropped on inaccessible places like rooftops, in a forest, on a ship, or when they need sniper overwatch,” DRY commented.
“We use the EC135 for observation and the EC145 for transportation and hoist operations. We can take about four or five of them with us, depending on their equipment.”
The third type of mission is intervention in a specialized environment, which means that they have special capabilities to fly in the mountains or over the sea, but especially in the mountains. Flying in the mountains is special work for pilots and flight engineers. So, they have dedicated training and a dedicated unit for this environment.
The fourth type of mission is projection, which means that with each helicopter they can send a special unit to the appropriate location in France, for example after the crash with the Germanwings Airbus in 2015. All special police officers and air crash investigators were in Paris, and they had to be transported to the crash site as quickly as possible. So, from BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay, they had to bring them to the site in the French Alps. The crash site was only accessible by foot or helicopter because of the remote location within the mountains.
Left to right: Four members of the GIGN in front of an EC145 at BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay; Major WNK in front of an AS350 at the GMCO that is based at BA123 Orléans/Bricy; Mechanics working on the AS350 at the GMCO; An Airbus EC135 takes to the sky from BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay - Photographs by Roelof-Jan Gort
The helicopter fleet of the Gendarmerie Air Forces
The Gendarmerie Air Forces has about 56 helicopters in its fleet. First is the AS350 Écureuil in two variants, the BA (15) and the B2 (11). The B2 is an updated and stronger version of BA, with a stronger engine and updated avionics, while the airframe and gearbox are pretty much the same.
“When they want to operate them in the mountains, they need the B2 version, and also at sea to rescue people”, said Colonel DRY. They fly this helicopter in Cayenne in French Guyana, for example. “Because it is very hot and wet over there, it’s not the most fun place to fly,” he stated. “But this type of helicopter is doing very well in these circumstances; it’s like a Swiss knife for us.” He continued, “The pilots can do al-most everything with this helicopter. It is very easy to maintain and to fly, but they are getting pretty old now, so there is a decision to make in the coming years.” At the moment, they have 26 AS350s and most of them are based overseas.
In addition to the AS350s, they operate EC145s, and these are currently about 20 years old. In the Gendar-merie, they are used in two different environments. At BA107 Vélizy-Villacoublay, they are used for the transportation of the RAID and GIGN, but most of the time they are used in the mountains, because they are much bigger and more powerful.
Finally, is the EC135 and is the youngest helicopter type of the fleet. The main feature used by the Gen-darmerie is the L3 Wescam MX-15i camera system. “When the first helicopter arrived with the Gendarme-rie in 2010, it was a major gamechanger for the Gendarmerie”, said Colonel DRY. For the first time, they had a camera system which was already fully integrated into the helicopter. That means that they can use them for surveillance, criminal investigation, and assist ground units in their daily operations. When intro-duced 10 years ago, it was a state-of-the-art camera system, with a good infrared camera for night opera-tions. Although superseded by more powerful cameras, the Gendarmerie is still happy to work with these. Another part of the equipment is the searchlight. Once again, something that is quite common now, was something very new twenty years ago, and it was the beginning of their night operations. Before the night missions began, there were only ferry flights from point A to point B. With this kind of equipment, it started with air support of the police officer on the ground.
A flight engineer keeps a close eye on the screen of infra-red camera during a night sortie over Paris - Björn van der Flier
Gendarmerie Air Forces (FAGN) - Number and helicopter types per base:
2 Villacoublay, 1 Metz, 1 Dijon, 1 Colmar, 1 Lyon, 1 Hyeres, 1 Montpellier, 1 Mérignac, 1 Toulouse, 1 Cazaux, 1 Rennes, 1 Tours, 1 Amiens, 1 for maintenance.
2 Villacoublay, 1 Chamonix, 1 Modane, 1 Dignes, 1 Briançon, 1 Pamiers, 1 Tarbes, 1 Ajaccio, 1 Cayenne, 1 Saint Denis de La réunion, 1 Cazaux, 3 for maintenance.
Écureuils: 1 Guyane, 1 Mayotte, 1 Martinique, 1 Guadeloupe, 2 Nouvelle Calédonie, 1 La Réunion + 1 Metz, 1 Rennes, 1 saint nazaire, 1 Lyon, 1 Hyères, 1 Mérignac, 1 Bayonne, 1 Toulouse, 2 Cazaux, 1 Limoges, 1 Egletons, 5 for maintenance.
will arrive in 2024/2025: 4 Villacoublay, 2 Lyon, 2 Hyères, 2 Mérignac.
We would like to thank Colonel DRY and Captain Lahri of the Gendarmerie Air Forces headquarters for their help to make this article possible.
The Cessna 337 At War
Text by Divan Muller
Quite possibly the most recognizable Cessna light aircraft, the Cessna Skymaster had some unique characteristics that made it well suited for military use.
An O-2 marking a target in Vietnam - Gary Danvers Collection
The first Cessna 336 Skymaster flew in February 1961. It was different to other twin engine utility aircraft in that it made use of a push-pull engine configuration. Three years later, the prototype of its successor, the Cessna 337 Super Skymaster, completed its maiden flight. The new aircraft looked similar to its predecessor, but featured numerous improvements, as much of the aircraft had been redesigned. It had more powerful engines, retractable undercarriage and increased tail boom and wing incidence angles. By 1965, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) had already experimented with arming a 336 as a potential replacement for its Cessna Birddog Forward Air Controllers (FAC), which were becoming increasingly vulnerable to enemy fire in the Vietnam War. In 1967 the USAF placed an order for more than 170 Cessna 337s, which were designated O-2 Skymasters.
The USAF was delighted with the Skymaster’s excellent load carrying capability. The twin engine layout also made the aircraft well-suited for situations where small arms fire posed a threat. The addition of armoured seats and fire resistant fuel tanks also contributed to making the Skymaster an exceptional FAC platform. Each wing had two underwing hardpoints, whilst the cockpit was equipped with an optical gun sight. A smoke generation system in the rear engine made it easy for friendly fighters to locate the O-2. Initially, O-2s were equipped with two 7.62 mm mini guns, but FAC pilots of the Vietnam War proved to be too ‘trigger happy’ when encountering enemy forces, so the guns were banned. A normal O-2 payload consisted of phosphorus rockets and parachute retarded flares for marking targets. Even so, there are many stories of O-2 crews firing automatic rifles, handguns and even throwing grenades through the side windows. In addition to FAC duties, the USAF also used O-2s to conduct psychological warfare. These aircraft were armed with loudspeaker systems and leaflet dispensers. The O-2’s ruggedness and ability to absorb battle damage became legendary. At least seven O-2 pilots were awarded Air Force Cross medals.
Reims FT337G of the Portuguese Air Force - Pedro Aragão
Enter the Milirole
Meanwhile, in France, a company called Reims Aviation had begun producing the Cessna 337 under licence. In fact, Reims continued production of the 337 even after Cessna had moved on to different projects. Considering the success of the O-2, it seemed inevitable that Reims would build its own military variant, called the FTB337 Milirole. Most of these aircraft ended up serving with the Portuguese Air Force, but some found their way south to see action in Africa, most notably Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Cessna 337 variants were used all over the world in patrol and reconnaissance roles, but in southern Africa they would truly be used to their full potential.
In 1975, sixteen Reims FTB337s were secretly ferried to Rhodesia. After reaching their destination, the aircraft were immediately modified for use in Rhodesian operations. Engine exhausts, for example, were redesigned with heat shields to make it more difficult for heat-seeking missiles to track the aircraft. For the most part, the Rhodesian 337, named the ‘Lynx’, was similar to the O-2 used by the USAF. That said, Lynxes were armed with more offensive weapons loads. Standard counter-insurgency (COIN) armament could include two .303 inch machine guns above the cabin with ammunition cartridges inside the cabin, rocket pods, Mini-Golf anti-personnel bombs and Frantan (napalm) tanks. In an FAC role, Lynxes carried phosphorus rockets and flares. During rapid response ‘Fire-Force’ missions, Lynxes operated alongside gunship and troop-carrying Alouette IIIs, Bell 205s and C-47 Dakotas. Often, whilst conducting close air support, Lynxes would expend all their ammunition, fly back to a forward airfield, be rearmed in ten minutes and return to the combat area. In an FAC role, Lynx pilots would direct Vampires, Hunters and Canberras to ground targets. Several examples survived to see service with the Air Force of Zimbabwe.
A Lynx in service with the Rhodesian Air Force