Interview with Captain Clément, leader of the Patrouille de France
At the 2019 Paris Air Show, we caught up with Captain Clément, leader of the prestigious Patrouille de France (PAF) aerobatic team this year. He talked to us about his career path, the mission of the PAF and his humanistic vision of the fighter pilot’s job.
The Patrouille de France has a representational role: what does this mean for you, as a person and as a military officer in relation to the public?
We join the Patrouille de France to become ambassadors: our primary role is to highlight the Air Force, its operational experience and its commitment to the security of French people. It is also about representing France abroad. We try to promote French aeronautical excellence through a flying display, but it goes far beyond that: we want to create emotion, we fly over very important landmarks invested with strong symbolism, to show how beautiful and powerful our French flag is.
We want to convey this image of excellence to the best of our ability. When we train, we try to achieve the most perfect flights possible. That’s how we work, because we feel that the image we are highlighting is bigger than us. We put all our heart and professionalism into this display!
How many flying displays do you do a year?
About fifty, between the beginning of May and mid-October, in France but also abroad. We perform at international air shows and major political events.
Was it your personal goal to become the leader or a member of the PAF?
It was a childhood dream! I am one of those people who joined the French Air Force because I had admired the Patrouille de France as a child, probably here at the Paris Air Show. This is the kind of dream that you keep deep inside you and that you think is impossible, then as you progress within the Air Force, you end up checking all the necessary boxes, until the day you dare, because it is obviously something that you have always had deep inside you. That’s how I came to apply and I was lucky enough to be accepted – and I mean lucky because there are number of factors involved.
It’s a dream come true, a great source of pride and it makes you willing to give everything, because our time within the Patrol is short (lasting two to three years). We aren’t here to take it easy, but to raise our symbol high.
What were your missions before joining the Patrouille de France? Have you been involved in international field operations?
I was specialized in air defense, as a Mirage 2000-5 pilot, in the prestigious Cigognes squadron! I really enjoyed this mission of defending French airspace, which receives less media coverage because of the nature of the current conflicts. Contrary to what people might think, just because we are in Europe, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to intervene in this airspace.
I loved this mission and I hope to do it again. There’s that moment, when you are at the end of the runway with your mechanics and your plane ready to take off. You don’t know when it will happen, but you know that in a few minutes’ time you will be at high altitude, flying at high speed to intercept an aircraft, and for a fighter pilot that’s very exciting! We must be ready and mechanized at all times, in order to intervene quickly and efficiently. I’ve had the opportunity to carry out several full-fledged intervention missions in France, in particular to do with commercial airliners that have lost radio communication. In airspace as congested as that of France, it is necessary to intervene quickly, first to make sure that there are no bad intentions, second to protect other passengers and aircraft.
I had the opportunity to carry out this mission in the Baltic airspace on three occasions, as NATO has led missions there to protect and ensure the sovereignty of this airspace. I also took part in four assignments in Djibouti. We carry out protection missions for this country, as well as other missions in the surrounding area.
What are the specific requirements of the pilot’s job, physically and psychologically? Does it require a lot of personal discipline?
I think we need to demystify the pilot profession. We are not superhumans, we are not all great athletes with a Pentium chip in our heads, we are normal people. It’s just that we are highly motivated and passionate, which enables us to do all the work required to get to that position. As you progress along this path, you become more and more psychologically resilient because you have been taught to manage stressful situations. We train to be able to react mechanically, and that’s why, when the alert sounds at the end of the runway, we don’t ask ourselves any questions. It is thanks to this reaction that we keep a cool head and are able to think when there’s a complicated situation to manage.
It’s primarily thanks to this training that we succeed in our missions in a safe and efficient way; and that’s what really characterizes Air Force pilots: work and commitment are necessary to obtain all our qualifications and successfully complete the demanding and rigorous training. This experience is what shapes us and makes us operation ready.
What advice do you give young people who want to enlist in the Air Force or the Patrouille de France?
Do it if you’re passionate about it! That’s what pushes you to give it everything you’ve got. When you do a job you love, you try harder and that’s why it all works out well. The experiences I’ve had in this institution are fabulous: it’s a technical adventure – we’re all really big kids who want to fly “fast planes” – but, even more than that, it’s a human adventure. That’s the part that stays with us when we have to move on in our careers: at a time when individualism is taking over, the human adventure in the Air Force brings us together around a noble cause that’s bigger than us.
The experiences on international field operations or exercises are extraordinary. If there’s one thing I tell them, it’s go for it with passion!
What are your plans for after the Patrouille de France?
I’d obviously like to return to a fighter squadron, because my main goal is to become a squadron leader. That’s a step towards what I’ve been aiming to do, which is move into positions of responsibility, and ultimately join the Air Force staff, so I can stay close to this fighter plane I’m extremely fond of. I’d also like to have more to do with air shows and do my part as a French Air Force ambassador, which is a powerful initiative with unbelievable potential.
Do you have a story that captures the Patrouille de France’s spirit?
One very unique moment that marked me was the famous “smoke failure” on Bastille Day last year. That kind of problem is unforgivable for us. It really shook us up. It’s true it’s “just smoke” but it’s a very big deal for us. That was when we saw how strong this group really is: we could all just have fallen apart but we stuck together in spite of it all, we all wanted to keep going, and we also wanted to make sure it never happened again.
Two days later, we flew in formation over the Champs-Elysées again, when France had won the Football World Cup, with Paris celebrating below! It felt like a rematch because we’re a strong, united team. The emotional rollercoaster over those two days is an example of the kind of human experiences you get with the Patrouille de France. Sometimes things go wrong and you have to find it in you to pull yourself back together and push on together, as a group, to come back stronger next time. That’s what France’s beautiful cohesive spirit is all about. I’ll remember that weekend for as long as I live!
High-school degree (majoring in Science) in 2003
Prep school from 2003 to 2005
Joined École de l’Air (Air Force school) in 2005
Fighter pilot license in 2009
Mirage 2000-5 pilot
2,600 flight hours