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Hunting the Fennec in Corsica

The Fennec makes a good platform when it comes to intercepting a large range of slow flying targets...

Hunting the Fennec in Corsica slider 1 Hunting the Fennec in Corsica slider 2 Hunting the Fennec in Corsica slider 3

By Frederic Lert

For the past thirty years, the French air force has trained its marksmen in the demanding role of air to air precision shooting from the AS355 Fennec. The twin-engined helicopter makes a good platform when it comes to intercepting a large range of slow flying targets...


2000ft above the Mediterranean, three armée de l’Air’s Fennechead out to the high sea. The leader tows a target at the end of a 300m cable. Following are two other helicopters, each with a team of marksmen on board. All took off a few minutes earlier from base aérienne 126 de Solenzara, the only French air force base on the island. Ten miles off the coast, with no ships in sight, they place themselves to start firing, taking advantage of the vast empty air space reserved for gunnery training. Today’s mission is to qualify marksmen for MASA (Mesures Actives de Sureté Aérienne – Air security measures) operation. Snipers are used to counter threats coming not only from light aircraft and helicopters, but also increasingly from drones, balloons or even kites! From the Paris airshow to Head of State meetings and high profile football games, no high-level event is organized without a protective buffer zone provided by armed helicopters.

The air force marksmen come from the CPAs, Air Force parachutist commandos units. The French Air Force runs three CPAs named CPA 10, CPA 20 and CPA 30. The first one belongs to the Special Forces and remains very discreet in its activities. On the other hand, the CPA 20 and 30 are tasked with protecting air bases in France and during overseas operations. Their marksmen are also trained for the airborne work either for air to ground or air-to-air firing. "Every year the air force organizes around ten air to ground firing campaigns for the marksmen," says Dan, a long time instructor. "In flight firing campaigns are rarer since they are more difficult to organize. At the moment, there are just two: one at the beginning, and the other at the end of the year."

To renew their operational qualifications, each marksman has to complete at least an air to ground and one air to air exercise a year.

During our visit, the training was for nine team leaders and as many again marksmen. The preferred weapon is the German made Heckler & Koch HK 417 automatic rifle with an Eotech holographic sight. "With it, an average shooter riding a helicopter can easily hit a target at a distance of more than 100 meters," says Dan. "The Eotech holographic sight is ideal for this mission because it allows the gunner to keep both eyes open and maintain a clear view of the external environment, without losing sight of the target." For night missions the Eotech sight can also be used with NVGs and a laser pointer. The HK 417 is complemented with a 12 gauge FN Herstal tactical police shotgun. The latter is primarily used for firing warning shots with illuminating flares (red and green) and can also utilize nine-bullet cartridges to shoot down smaller targets such as drones, kites, and balloons. Depending on the distance, it can also hit and destroy ultralight aircraft. An 11kg electronic panel is also used to communicate visually with the intercepted aircraft, in case the radio fails. The panel can display easy to read orders such as 'turn away,' 'land now,' 'change radio frequency,' etc.


Training the marksmen requires, at least, two helicopters; one towing the target and the second has the shooters on board. Most of the time, however, three helicopters are engaged to maximize the use of the towing machine. "The firing helicopters take turns at the target," explains one of the pilots, "and when a firing team is done, the helicopter quickly returns to base and loads another team. In the meantime, the second helicopter will unload its weapon on the target." Four teams are trained during a one-hour flight.

Each training flight starts with the hooking up of the target. The operation takes place at a holding area at the end of the runway. The long towing cable is hooked to the aircraft, which hovers two meters above the ground. The pilots follow the orders of the ground team and also monitor the operation with large mirrors. Once the cable is hooked, the helicopter rises vertically to unroll the 300m cable until the target lifts off the ground. Once the target is lifted, the helicopter heads to the training area at a speed of around 100kts. Stabilized by the tetraplan, the recorder remains horizontal low and behind the helicopter, which is limited to 30° bank.

The Secapem TAC 100 target is very similar to the ones used by fast jets for air to air gunnery. The main body, a thick metallic envelope, houses a sound recorder, battery, GPS and a datalink which transmits in real-time the information collected by the sound recorder. Behind it, looking like a kite and acting as a stabilizer, an X-shaped piece of clothing is called the 'tetraplan.' The blackened section of the tetraplan is the real target for the shooters. But it is not uncommon that the main body receives some hits, damaging one or several of its hi-tech parts. The sound recorder detects the bullet and calculates the precision using the noise made by the projectiles. The recorded distance is sent in real time to the controller’s tablet computer who can immediately note the result. "Every 40 shots, we compute an average of the best 30" explains Dan. "The result must be inferior to the meter to qualify the marksman. We not only note his precision, but also his ease, and compliance with the safety regulations, etc."

The tablet computer, also known as a 'pocket,' has an embedded GPS, as does the target itself. By comparing the position given by the two GPS trackers, the firing team can accurately determine its position in relation to the target and check if it can open fire. During the firing phase, the towing helicopter flies a straight line at an altitude of between 2000 and 3000ft. The position of the firing helicopter is closely monitored; above all, it must keep clear of a virtual 30o cone centered on the target, to avoid any misfires that may break the towing cable. The danger is that the loose target may fall and crash on the firing helicopter. In any case, positioning on the 7 or 8 o'clock relative to the target is the same as would be used in a real life interception situation. The distance to the target during real life interception can vary but is usually between 50 and 200 meters. The marksman sits at the door with the team leader holding him tightly with his arms and legs and acting as a stabilizer. The firing position is said to be stable, although it could be improved in the near future with the use of the 'Strike' weapon support. This support was developed at the request of the French Special Forces for firing a heavy caliber precision weapon from the Gazelle.

All the participants agree to say that the Fennec is well suited to the exercise. In some instances, Pumas were used by MASA teams. These helicopters, of course, provided more space in the cabin for the marksmen. But the Fennec present an excellent compromise between speed, agility and cost. The helicopter is also very stable and flies with a low level of vibration, a guarantee for a good firing accuracy. "An ideal helicopter for us," concludes Dan.


Jack of all trades - with a rotor

The Fennec is the military twin-engine version of the best seller Ecureuil (or Astar in the USA), also known today as the H125. The French army operates around 15 aircraft for IFR and multi-engine training from its Le Luc en Provence flying school, in Southern France. The Air Force took delivery of some 40 helicopters between 1988 and 1994 to replace its last Alouette III. The Escadron d’Hélicoptères EH 3/67 Paris helicopter squadron based at Villacoublay, near Paris, has a dozen helicopters. The EH 5/67 Alpilles squadron, which also provides training for the Air Force Fennec pilots, operates 24 helicopters from Orange air force base, in Southern France. These helicopters carry a hoist and can be armed with a side mounted 20mm gun, as were the ALAT’s Gazelle before them. During operation Sangaris in Central African Republic, the air force deployed a couple of Fennec which were used as a jack of all trades, flying reconnaissance missions, close air support with the 20mm gun, casevac, light resupply for the benefice of French forces on the move, etc. In some circumstances, the Fennec were flying with a marksman teamed with a photo specialist. The specialist was photographing the scenes of interest, had an immediate close look at the pictures and the marksman was ready to deliver a support fire should the need arises. Turned into a low cost and flexible armed reconnaissance asset, the Fennec was very popular among the French forces.

The Fennecs are set to fly for another twenty years and squadrons are looking to make the most of their performances and retrofit them with new missions systems. "For Masa mission there is a clear need for better target detection, improved imagery and capacity for real-time images downloading," says the unit’s commander. The French air force wants quickly to adapt a modern Optronic turret with good detection capabilities for days and night missions. This turret could be combined with a mobile display unit in the cabin that could be used either by the pilots or the rear crew. As with the rotorcraft already used by the French Gendarmerie, using a datalink would also facilitate the real-time transfer of images to authorities or a command post on the ground.


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