High Desert Hangar Stories with Bob Alvis

Courtesy photograph

American Triple Ace Bud Anderson and the French military pilots at Mather field. 

Vive La France
World War I was over 100 years ago and, to many, it’s a faded memory of just another war that exists only in the history books.

As time moves on, the connection to living people is also fading, for only a very young child from that era or a son or daughter of a veteran that fought in that conflict would remember it.

We on foreign shores do not drive or walk among the battlefields of that distant war or see the rows upon rows of headstones of those that lived and died in the carnage of that very brutal war. But the countrymen of France that do experience that daily reminder in their land feel and see the pain of generations of French that fell on those battlefields. Among those headstones they also see the names of men that came from afar to fight for French freedom. One of those countries that gave its cherished young men was the United States of America.

There are French citizens today, facing the 100th anniversary of “the war to end all wars,” who believe that a thank you is in order for the brave American soldiers and their families that gave their all to turn the tide and win the war and bring peace to a troubled European continent.

April 15 at Mather Airport in Sacramento was a working day for me at a very unique one day air show.

The French Air Force A400M “Atlas” support aircraft ready for taxi.

A grateful French nation showed its appreciation by sending its Patrouolle de France elite military jet team to say thank you to the United States on its tour at scheduled stops across the country, ending up on the West Coast at Mather. My blessing was getting to spend some time with the airmen and aircrews and learning of their history and service to their country in the French Air Force.

Spending that time together, the language barrier became more fun than a hindrance as we searched for common words to share our stories. Our common bond was our love of flying, and that was all that was needed to overcome the missing words. Interacting with the Jet Team on Friday night, I was a kid living his dream. With the arrival of World War II “triple-ace” Bud Anderson, my expertise in the history of World War II air combat and knowledge of Bud’s accomplishments put me in the position of giving impromptu briefings to the French pilots on this American fighter pilot who had served in the skies over France during World War II. The payoff for me was seeing the pilots, after I explained some history, embrace Bud with love and admiration for his service and accomplishments — as we say in my world “That’s the good stuff!”

Now, as the old “buck” sergeant from long ago, I will say the real highlight of the visit for me was not so much the jet team and its incredible display on Saturday, but the interaction with the Airbus A400M support plane crew that was carrying the hardware that is making the tribute possible.

Hard working Aircrew of the A400M debriefing after their flybys.

The pilot, Guillaume Pelopidas and I became comfortable with each other to the point that our perspectives on the worries and problems of the world were shared. Sitting in his plane, we found out we have much in common, even though he lives halfway around the world. Sharing his military experience of joining up at the age of 17 and becoming an aircraft captain at 22, he wonders who will fill his shoes in a changing world in the future. In his own country, he shared the story of the World War II B-17 Bomber known as “The Pink Lady” that used to fly the air show circuits in Europe. This historic aircraft is now being relegated to the hangar, as nobody cares to fund it or support its mission anymore. “The aged people of that era are fading fast and the young see no value in the population centers of France.” Sounds all too familiar in the country I call home also, I said.

After a tour of his A400 Atlas, and meeting the crew and spending some time on the flight deck of a very cool aircraft, I felt a kinship that was unfamiliar in my life up to this point — the smiles and laughter, the handshakes and kind words, the thoughts and concerns helped to build a new relationship and understanding of the French as allies that have stood together with the United States for many years.

I believe by the crowd’s reaction and the air show attendance that their mission of honoring America was well received and appreciated, not only here in California, but also the previous stops across our country.

A400M Pilot Guillaume Pelopidas and the author, Bob Alvis.

The fallen dead from the battlefields of World War I that rest in green fields across Europe who fought in support of the French people have not been forgotten after 100 years. We salute the French military, their Air Force and the people of France that made this possible, for as long as we remember their sacrifice they will not be forgotten. And in the spirit of their visit, I share the moment when, as I was leaving the cockpit of the Atlas, I paused and looked back to the pilot’s seat and said to Guillaume, “Vive La France!” His reply to me was, “And God Bless America!” I think I shed a tear or two as I stepped down from the flight deck and remembered what this weekend was all about. Well done to everyone involved …

Till next mission, Bob out, and yes, “God Bless America and our friends across the sea!”