The pride of the French air force arrived in Kansas City on Wednesday as part of a patriotic “thank you” to America on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I.
Ten jets of the Patrouille de France — including eight aerobatic pilots — touched down shortly after 1 p.m. at Wheeler Downtown Airport. They arrived from Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, where they were scoping out the venue for an air show this weekend.
The team is scheduled to do a flyby over the Liberty Memorial here Thursday at the beginning of the national observance ceremony of the U.S. entry into World War I. They are scheduled to lead off the event at 11 a.m. at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Tickets to the event have run out, but the flyby will be visible over much of downtown Kansas City.
“It’s an honor for us to be here,” Lt. Col. Gauthier Dewas said, adding that the centennial event is the highlight of the team’s six-week tour across America. “It’s very important for us to be here, and being the French part of the ceremony is, for us, very emotional. I just want to thank you for the warm welcome.”
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The Patrouille de France is known for trailing red, white and blue smoke, which are the colors of the French flag as well as the American flag.
The Patrouille de France is similar to the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. The group has not flown in the United States for 31 years and is visiting this year by invitation.
The Patrouille de France flies the Alpha Jet, a trainer and strike aircraft made jointly by France and Germany. The twin-engine jet has a 30-foot wingspan and can reach speeds of more than 600 miles per hour. The tailfins of the jets were painted with a new design for this tour.
American pilots enlisted in the French air force beginning in 1915, long before the United States officially entered World War I. They formed the Lafayette Escadrille, named after the Frenchman who served with George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
More than 250 American pilots fought under the French flag before the U.S. entered World War I, and 68 of them were killed in combat, according to the Patrouille de France. The U.S. entry into World War I in 1917 on the side of the allies, United Kingdom and France, tipped the balance of power on the ground on the Western Front, leading to Germany’s capitulation in November 1918.
Capt. Benjamin Chanat will be piloting one of the rear wing jets Thursday, trailing blue smoke.
“We’re here to highlight the brotherhood between our two countries,” Chanat said shortly after landing in Kansas City. “France is the oldest ally of the United States. We always fight together, never against.
“It is a strong message for us to say to the U.S. people here in Kansas City and all over the U.S., ‘We are here. We are still friends and partners for the future.’ ”