A tactical transport aircraft, it has been in almost every fight, particularly in French-speaking Africa, flying there by leaps and bounds (1,500 km) its big nose, its massive cabin and its deceptively clumsy air.
He scoured the laterite tracks, their holes, their herds of zebras, the clouds of sand in which he landed while bouncing to land personnel, equipment, refuel hunters in flight or carry out humanitarian operations.
After a final prestigious tour, the Air and Space Force paid him a final tribute at the Evreux military base, which is exceptionally open to the public. With a demonstration in the presence of its predecessor, the Noratlas, and its successor the Airbus A400M.
With conscription, “there is bound to be someone in each family who took it”, greets Colonel John, 49, 23 of whom spent in a Transall, welcoming the “mixture of civilians and soldiers” allowed by the device for half a century.
The plane ordered by the French army was created by Transport Allianz, a group formed with Nord-Aviation for France, Weser Flugzeugbau (WFB) and Hamburger Flugzeugbau (HFB) for Germany. Assembled in Bourges, Bremen and Hamburg, it carried out its first overseas operation in 1970.
40 meters long, 32.4 wide with 160 square meters of wing area, the C-160 participated in all conflicts from 1970 to 2020. Congo, Senegal, Central African Republic, Djibouti but also Sarajevo or Afghanistan where he was close to his ceiling altitude.
To say that the military are nostalgic is an understatement. “It makes everyone who has approached it fall in love. It’s a flying wheelbarrow”, explains to AFP Florent de Saint Victor, specialist in defense issues. “It makes a crazy noise, we have helmets, it screams, it smells of oil. It’s old-fashioned flying club with folding canvas seats”.
– ‘The miracle was possible’ –
But this rusticity has made the device the king of the track. “There is a hole in the cabin: we are doing a quick repair by welding a sheet metal panel. And there are no buttons flashing in all directions”. The hydraulics allow the landing gear to be manually extended in the event of a jam. And then “it’s the time when we were able to plug a raclette or a crepe maker in the hold in the depths of Africa”.
Confirmation of Commander Guillaume, 40 years old. “I will miss this feeling that we had, these thousands of hours spent together. Being in a place where we are good”.
Today, the Airbus A400M carries three times farther, three times heavier. The Transall belongs to a bygone era, at the time of the augmented soldier, the interoperability of weapons, advanced electronics. Do we lose in rusticity what we gain in modernity? Impossible to have it accepted by the active military who praise in unison the performance of the A400M.
The Transall had no anti-missile protection system, the radios had too short an elongation to call France. “But you shouldn’t have brought a team from Paris to look at the bowels of the plane,” notes Florent de Saint Victor. “We repair with a headlamp. There is grease and we wipe our hands on the overalls (…). Miracles were possible”.
Like this departure, in four minutes flat from an African track, told by Colonel John. After hours of seeing the bribes claimed gradually increase, with a thousand rebels positioned at the end of the runway, he slipped away, at night, only too happy not to be shot down.
Its export success will remain limited: the Transall was born during the Cold War, between two embarrassing brothers, the American C-130 and the Russian Antonov, in a world market divided by geopolitics.
But pilots and mechanics will not forget it. “We’re going to see each other tonight, we’ll talk about our memories. The night won’t be enough,” breathes Captain Nicolas, after 10 years on Transall and eight on the A400M.