On October 2 the chief of staff of the French air force, Général Philippe Lavigne, visited Base Aérienne 709 at Cognac-Châteaubernard to welcome the Pilatus PC-21 trainer into service with the Armée de l’Air (AA, French air force). France is acquiring 17 of the Swiss-built trainers to replace Socata TB-30 Epsilon basic trainers flying at Cognac and some of the Dassault-Dornier Alpha Jet advanced jet trainers that operate from Tours, both of which are assigned to the Ecole de Pilotage de l’Armée de l’Air (EPAA, French air force flying school).
France’s PC-21 program is being managed under an 11-year contract signed with a joint venture between Babcock Mission Critical Systems France and Dassault. With CAE as a sub-contractor, Babcock has installed two full-mission simulators at Cognac, alongside associated part-task trainers and other ground-based training aids. The aircraft itself has embedded simulation capabilities for functions such as radar, air combat, and weapons release. The cockpit systems can be tailored to recreate aspects of the Rafale fighter’s mission management and display systems.
While the Babcock team is managing the program itself, the AA is providing its own instructors. The program is expected to deliver 50 pilots per year, including 10 for the French navy. All 17 French aircraft are due for delivery by early 2019, and with the first arrivals, France becomes the second European nation to adopt the PC-21 after Switzerland itself. The UK’s Empire Test Pilots School received its first PC-21 earlier this year.
During his trip to Cognac Général Lavigne also visited the base’s operational unit, Escadron de Reconnaissance 1/33 “Belfort," which flies the General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper. France’s original order for six has been doubled, with the additional six due for delivery during the course of 2019. The AA has been using the MQ-9 from a base at Niamey in Niger for counter-insurgency operations as part of Operation Barkhane in the sub-Saharan Sahel region.