The last time the United States and France combined for an operation off the coast of Virginia, the French Navy defeated the British and prevented resupply of Gen. Cornwallis’ troops, who were surrounded by French and American troops at Yorktown. The British surrendered and the United States won its independence.
Now, 237 years later, the two long-time allies are at it again, this time experimenting with the idea of integrating aviation squadrons of both navies into a single air wing during an exercise called the “Chesapeake Deployment.”
Navy officials say although the allies have operated together in carrier operations before, they’ve never attempted such an extensive integration.
In early April, 27 French aviators and 350 sailors arrived in Virginia with 12 Rafale Marine fighter aircraft and one E-2C Hawkeye. Starting ashore in Virginia, the French trained alongside their U.S. counterparts at Naval Air Station Oceana. The training then moved to the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush and out to sea on May 7.
“[The French] are integrating as essentially two squadrons into an American air wing,” said Capt. Jim McCall, who commands the Oceana-based Carrier Air Wing Eight.
“So, the Rafale squadron is acting much as an F-18 squadron would, and their E-2 squadron is acting much like an augment to our E-2 squadron.”
The timing of the exercise has practical value to the French, as their own carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, is currently completing the final stages of an 18-month mid-life overhaul.
“We are beginning early what we are supposed to do next autumn. So this means in autumn I will have people who saw the carrier for several days that are trained back to carrier procedures,” said French commander “Marc,” who commands the French carrier air wing.
For security reasons, the French don’t allow their pilots and sailors to release their full names in the media, and even asked that the U.S. news outlets blur the faces of any pilots in photos or video.
Marc said that U.S. Navy and French Navy carrier deck procedures are 95 percent the same, and having pilots and other personnel with high-level flight operations gives them a head start toward becoming a fully operational ship and air wing team.
One French aviator named Nicolas, who is the equivalent of an aviation maintenance master chief and is working in the E-2C Hawkeye squadron, said having the opportunity to work on the Bush has been critical in the development of his youngest sailors.
“We have some guys at the squadron who have never gone yet on the boat,” he said. “So it’s a good opportunity for them to learn how to live and work out here, how to find their way [around the ship], how to be safe on the flight deck … that is very important.”
Nicolas said he is amazed at the size of the U.S. carriers, and with it, their ability to carry more aircraft. And he doesn’t even mind that the U.S. Navy doesn’t serve wine or beer on board as the French do.
But even with 32 years in uniform, Nicolas is still picking up on new tricks while on the Bush.
“You have to learn every day,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a young sailor or an old sailor like me.”
The U.S. and French navies are the only two in the world that operate carriers that use catapult launch systems, which allows the placement of more fuel and weapons on the aircraft they send out to fight.
There’s no doubt a carrier flight deck is one of the most dangerous places to work, and that alone leads to a tight bond between sailors who launch and recover jets.
The man in charge of ensuring the safety of the Bush’s deck crews is Lt. Cmdr. Winston Cotterell, known around the ship as “the handler,” as his job is to oversee the execution at the deckplate-level of all moving, launching and recovering aircraft on the flight deck.
Before going to sea, Cotterell and other crew met with the French to discuss how each side worked the deck and how to overcome any differences. They also shared knowledge about the respective aircraft of each navy and how to safely work around their differences.
Once sorted, the rest went fairly easy, as most communication and hand signals were universally applicable.
“Pretty much they have the same skills, but procedure-wise, it can be a little different as to how they direct aircraft and hook up to the catapult,” Cotterell said. “Because this is our deck, we oversee what they are doing, but they know what they are doing and it’s been pretty seamless out there.”
But when it comes down to flight operations at sea, it’s all about the pilots, and there’s a brotherhood between U.S. and French naval aviators that has roots dating back long before the French arrival on the Bush.
That’s because, McCall said, the French receive their first carrier flight operations training in the United States — from the U.S. Navy.
“As we integrate another nation into our operations, their procedures mimic ours, so it should be seamless. But until you go out and do it, I think we’ll learn some lessons there,” McCall said.
The early days of the operation, as is normally the case when carriers return to sea, are to ensure all pilots are fully qualified to land on the deck. But weather, in this case, caused some delays.
“As we progress through the carrier qualifications phase safely, we will move into the next phase and have some magnificent training for both airings,” McCall said.
That training included flying at night and day, performing what is referred to as cyclic operations. That’s how, McCall says, you fight an aircraft carrier at sea.
In doing so, the French were able to experience the kind of sustained, intense flight operations the U.S. runs.
“There is a difference in the way they execute as compared how we do that,” McCall said. “The ability to simultaneously launch aircraft and recover aircraft is a difference between our carriers and [the French carrier Charles de Gaulle], as there are some differences to their flight deck configuration that doesn’t allow that.”
But once in the air, it’s all between the pilots.
“Any fighter pilot from any country, it seems, is the same,” said Lt. Brandon Rodgers, an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot from the “Golden Warriors” of Strike Fighter Squadron 87.
“We’re a little bit full of ourselves, but we love flying ― that’s the commonality between all of us — getting together, talking about fighting, that’s where we all have that common bond. It’s something kind of special.”
During the land-based phase of the training, the U.S. and the French spent time flying against each other in mock combat.
Rodgers likened the experience to being sparring partners in boxing. If a boxer always spars with the same partner, there are no surprises.
Learning about the Rafale has given Rodgers a respect for the aircraft’s capabilities.
“When it’s light, it can pretty much stand on its tail and go straight up,” he said. “When you’re on deck and you see them go straight up — all right, I guess I can’t do that with you.”
The operation concluded May 17 after 10 days of at-sea operations, which saw the execution of carrier qualifications, as well as multiple combat scenarios. In the end, the combined air wing flew 458 total sorties while racking up 752 traps during a combined 725 flight hours.
“The relationships being built during this exercise will matter when it comes time to operate together in combat conditions,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said while onboard the Bush.
“So we’re proud to be operating side-by-side with our French allies as we deepen our interoperability.
“As described in the National Defense Strategy, we’ll need combined training like this to become habitual so that we are prepared to compete and win in this new era of great power competition.”
There could be additional international training off the East Coast in September, when the newest British aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, expects to arrive to conduct her first F-35B Joint Strike Fighter VTOL operations, sources told Navy Times.
Royal Navy sailors previously embedded in 2016 with their U.S. Navy counterparts as part of the flight deck crew onboard of the amphibious assault ship Wasp. Six sailors integrated into Wasp’s flight deck operations to prepare for working the deck of the newly commissioned Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, which is still being fitted out.
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.