Naval aviation, fundamental component of the French national navy, was created early XX century. At that time, it was made of land-based aircrafts and a few seaplanes, capable of taking off from oncarrying vessels.
War stimulates progress in aviation
The First World War significantly stimulated development in aviation. Learning lessons from the war, the Fleet Air Arm had itself equipped with aircraft carriers, floating air bases, thereby making it easy for on-board aircrafts to carry out their mission of protecting structures on the ground, covering military convoys, attacking and bombing enemy positions.
Thus, in 1918, an aircraft carrier, le Bapaume, was commissioned with only one plane on board. In 1920, la Béarn, a battleship, was transformed into an aircraft carrier on which 40 aircrafts could land. Its flight deck was made of wood. The snub line was invented.
Aircraft carrier becomes an admiral-ship
During the Second World War, aircrafts equipped with radars were successfully used against submarines. It was also then that the aircraft carrier started serving as a squadron base, given that it had become an admiral-ship and a centre for operational decisions. In 1945, the Fleet Air Arm was able to air-launch more than 1200 aircrafts, a few dozens airships and 200 captive balloons.
CORSAIR F4U-7 de la 12 F sur le PA « LA FAYETTE »
Coll. Jean Marie GALL
During the Indochina War, the Fleet Air Arm played an extremely determinant role in support of the army. In turns, aircraft carriers like Dixmude, Arromanches, followed by Lafayette and Bois Belleau served in the area. All through the war, except in 1949 and 1950, their squadrons carried out a good number of risky operations like the destruction of communication facilities, bridges and runways, and also executed close tactical support, reconnaissance and transportation missions.
Though armistice was signed in Geneva on July 21, 1954, it was only in December 1955 that the Bois Belleau and Lafayette aircraft carriers brought back to France the last squadrons. Meanwhile, the Algerian War had already started.
The crucial role of the helicopter
Given the Fleet Air Arm’s missions of tactical transportation and close tactical support, it equipped itself with a fleet of helicopters. The Vertol HC 21 helicopters, “flying bananas”, airlifted between 6 and 8 men (legionnaires, parachutists and commandos), and used sticks to drop them as close to the rebels as possible once the latter were located. In liaison with land-based units, the attack helicopters, Sikorsky HSS- 1, “mammoths”, equipped with 20mm cannons or 12.7 mm machineguns, proved to be awfully efficient in locating and destroying rebel units on the ground. It was thanks mainly to these combined actions that the French army emerged victorious in the guerrilla warfare.
The Fleet Air Arm’s war missions in Algeria ended on July 5, 1962, the day of independence. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that its last units finally left the Mers el Kebir base.
Pilote de Crusader sur le pont du FOCH
Coll. MP FROMENTIN
The nuclear propulsion era
A historical page had been turned. The Fleet Air Arm received the Clemenceau aircraft carrier in 1961, followed by Le Foch in 1963, and also the Jeanne d’Arc helicopter carrier. Both aircraft carriers could accommodate 78 Super-Etendard, Crusader and Alizé planes. Clemenceau remained in service until 1997 while Le Foch’s services ended in 2000, the year the Charles de Gaulle nuclear aircraft carrier was commissioned, with 40 planes.
Le porte-avions Foch
Thus commissioned, Charles de Gaulle, with its approximate crew capacity of 2000 men, was ready for use in Overseas Operations (OPEX). It was used during the War in Afghanistan where it accomplished its mission successfully with its Super Etendard, Rafale and Hawkeye planes as well as its Puma and Dauphin helicopters.
Compagnie de sauvegarde maritime
14 juillet 2007 - Champs Elysées, Paris - Coll. PC FNCV