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July 16, 2014

La Fête National 2014

by soundlandscapes

LA FÊTE NATIONAL forms the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.

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The Défilé at a glance courtesy of RTL

In the Champs Elysées this year the défilé comprised 3,752 men and women from the military and civilian services, 285 vehicles, 82 motorcycles, 76 dogs and 241 horses from the Garde Républicain. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and among those taking part in the défilé were representatives of 80 countries who fought in that conflict.

This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of l’armée de l’Air, the French Air Force and, in a spectacular display of precision flying, 54 aircraft led by nine Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team, approached over La Défense in the west of Paris and flew along the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Avenue de la Grand Armée and into the Champs Elysées.

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Being both a sound and an aircraft enthusiast I record this fly-past each year and this year I decided to record it from the Esplanade de la Défense.

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The green arrow indicates the direction in which the aircraft fly and the yellow arrow indicates the position from which I chose to record

The aircraft fly-past:

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The green arrow indicates the fly-past route from la Grande Arche de la Défense to the Presidential review stand at Place de la Concorde

Getting 54 aircraft of different sizes, weights and speeds into exactly the right place at exactly the right time is a complex business but each year the French Air Force accomplishes it faultlessly.

If the défilé in the Champs Elysées is to proceed seamlessly, the first aircraft, the Patrouille de France, have to appear over the plus belle avenue du monde trailing their bleu-blanc-rouge, blue, white and red smoke, at exactly 10.36 am and the last aircraft must arrive 8 minutes and 30 seconds later. For this to happen, the aircraft have to arrive at la Grande Arche de la Défense at precisely the right time, at the right speed and with exactly the right separation between each aircraft or groups of aircraft even though they are all flying in from different places.

The way they do it is similar to the way that air traffic controllers bring commercial airliners in to land at busy airports. The aircraft are directed to fly a given route at a given speed and then at a pre-determined point they are fed from different directions into a single stream taking into account their size, speed and wake turbulence.

For a military fly-past like this one over the Champs Elysées though there is a further complication. Some of the aircraft fly in clusters; the Patrouille de France for example flew in a formation of nine aircraft, the large E3F aircraft with its flying radar dome had three fighter aircraft flying close behind it and the KC135 tanker aircraft had two fighter aircraft flying either side of its tail. These clusters of aircraft have to get into formation and effectively fly as one aircraft as they turn into the stream.

Once in the stream and heading for the Champs Elysées the pilots, as well as keeping a constant height and compensating for the wind speed and direction, must maintain their allotted separation from each other. While it’s just about acceptable for an experienced fast-jet pilot to fly a relatively small fighter aircraft dangerously close to a much larger four-engine tanker aircraft for example, it would be catastrophic for a smaller propeller-driven aircraft to try to do the same, the wake turbulence from the larger aircraft could overturn the smaller aircraft in the blink of an eye.

It was with all these things in mind that I settled down to record the aircraft fly-past.

La Fête National 2014

The Patrouille de France passing over my recording position in La Défense

I was fascinated to watch how all the aircraft entered the stream. The turning point was just beyond la Grande Arche de la Défense and just as with the approach to commercial airports, they approached from the left, the right and from straight ahead.

The Patrouille de France were the first to appear from the far distance. Nine Alpha Jets in perfect formation with their landing lights blazing from the front and blue, white and red smoke issuing from behind. Alpha Jets have a very special sound and by the time they passed me the next cluster of aggressive fast jets were approaching.

From then on it was pure theatre – clusters of aircraft turning in from the left followed by more coming from the right punctuated by those coming from directly ahead, all with perfect timing, perfect separation and all culminating in a faultless display of military might over the Champs Elysées.

If you listen to the sounds I recorded you will probably notice several things. Of course, you will hear the distinctive voices of each aircraft as they pass overhead but you will also hear the subtle differences in the critical separation of the aircraft clusters. In the relatively quiet separation pauses you will hear the sound of young children. As with my recording of the same event last year, I find that the juxtaposition of the voices of innocent young children on the ground and the mighty war machines flying overhead speaks volumes. For those of you with an eye for detail, you will also find that the time taken from the first aircraft passing overhead to the last is exactly 8 minutes and 30 seconds, exactly as it should be.

All these aircraft passing in what I call a fly-past, is officially known as the Défilé arien d’ouverture (the opening aerial parade would be a rough translation) but that implies that more was to follow. And indeed there was.

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At 11.20 precisely, a stream of 36 helicopters was scheduled to pass over the Champs Elysées in what is called the Défilé arien de cloture. Still at my recording position on the Esplanade de La Défense I waited until they appeared.

Getting the helicopters into a stream is much less complicated than with the aircraft. All 36 helicopters approached me from over la Grande Arche in a single line and I could see all of them as they passed over me and headed to the Champs Elysées.

Défilé arien de cloture – The helicopter fly-past

The stream of 36 helicopters included 21 from l’aviation légère de l’armée de Terre, 6 from l’armée de l’Air, 3 from la Marine nationale, 3 from la Gendarmerie nationale and 3 from la sécurité civile.

La Fête National 2014

In previous years I’ve spent the afternoon of la Fête Nationale visiting the Franciliens accueillent leur soldats displays that pop up around Paris. But this year I came upon something a little different.

Bearing in mind that this year is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I went to the Jardin des Tuileries where I came upon a display of First World War vehicles and memorabilia including men and women dressed in costumes of the period.

La Fête National 2014

But what really caught my eye were two magnificent examples of original Taxis de la Marne, Marne Taxis.

La Fête National 2014

What we now refer to as Marne Taxis were originally the Renault Type AG Parisian taxicabs designed by Louis Renault and built between 1905 and 1910.

The 1,205 cc, two-cylinder, 12 horsepower, Renault AG was a robust motor car for its time but it became really popular during these years thanks to a car-rental company who ordered 1,500 of them to which they attached a new invention, the taximétre or, taximeter, which automatically calculated how much the passenger had to pay.

La Fête National 2014

But this little taxicab was about to achieve a fame far beyond that which could be imagined.

La Fête National 2014

By the beginning of September 1914 Paris had lost its glitter. War had been declared, the Germans were approaching the capital at an alarming pace and the French Government had decamped to Bordeaux leaving the defence of Paris to its military governor, General Joseph Simon Gallieni. Retiring from the army in April 1914, Gallieni was recalled in August to oversee the defence of Paris. His only directive: to defend Paris to the last.

With the German army perilously close to the city, fate took a hand. Confusion on the German side, almost inevitable in the fog of war, together with a stroke of good fortune for the French revealed that there appeared to be a gap in the German defences. In order to take advantage of this, Gallieni needed to move his troops quickly. With the rail lines nearly crippled and few army motorised vehicles to hand, Gallieni instructed his staff to commission all of Paris’ taxis to drive French troops to the front.

La Fête National 2014

On the evening of 6th September, hundreds of taxicabs assembled on the Esplanade des Invalides and by morning they were heading off for the front. By the end of the following day some 600 taxis, each making several runs, had delivered over 3,000 troops. The taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, insisted on being paid for their efforts but, after some hasty negotiations and in a spirit of patriotism, they finally settled for 27% of the full fare for each trip.

The troops that the taxi drivers delivered became engaged in what we now know as the First Battle of the Marne, often known because of its significance as the Miracle of the Marne. It was fought from the 5th to the 12th September and it resulted in an Allied victory against the German army commanded by Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was also the prelude to the stalemate that was to ensue for most of the next four years.

La Fête National 2014

Looking at these two original Marne Taxis in the Jardin des Tuileries it was hard to imagine that they had actually taken part in this momentous event.

But both were obviously well loved, well cared for and in pristine condition: a fitting tribute to their contribution to the Miracle of the Marne.

La Fête National 2014

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