At play in the skies of Paris
Paris -- It’s been days, but I’m still having trouble coming back down to earth. To spend more than two hours circling above Paris in a military helicopter on France’s national day is not an experience one quickly forgets.
When I was a boy, I wanted to become a photographer in the naval air forces. I even took some steps toward it when older, but eventually became a news photographer. I’ve shot from helicopters before -- I’ve been working as a photo stringer for AFP in the western city of Nantes for more than 10 years and have photographed sailing competitions and the Mont St Michel from choppers. But I’ve never flown above a city. And certainly not above Paris during the spectacular aerial displays that the military puts on during the annual July 14 festivities. So when AFP called me up from Nantes as part of reinforcements for Bastille Day, I jumped at the chance.
At nine o’clock in the morning, an AFP motorcycle drops me off at a military airbase in Villacoublay, southwest of the capital. All of the helicopters that are to partake in the aerial display above the City of Lights are already there.
I learn that I will be flying aboard a Fennec chopper, which normally is stationed at the base to intercept any planes that may wander into the airspace above the City of Lights. And there’ll only be one other photographer on board. Unheard of luxury.
Because of security concerns, our chopper will have to remain at least a kilometer away from the tribune where French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump will be watching the festivities. We are told that if there is trouble with the craft, we will head to the Bourget airport north of the capital and if it’s something serious, we could land at a stadium.
We are reminded that we have to be careful that none of our equipment falls out of the chopper during the flight. I take two cameras, one with a wide angle lens of 24-120 and another with 200-500 telephoto. We will be taking pictures side by side, securely attached, with our feet planted on the outside of the craft.
My colleague and I watch the preparations from a cafeteria as we grab a coffee. Everyone seems to have smile on his face. The pilots are all wearing jumpsuits with RayBan sunglasses, the sun is shining. The atmosphere is relaxed “Top Gun.”
We take off at 10:15 am, well ahead of everyone else, as we’ll be taking pictures of all the festivities and not just the aerial show.
We take a recon flight above the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower. Our pilots alert us when the planes for the aerial show are on their way. And good thing they do, as the whole thing is over within what seems like seconds. First come the Patrouille de France, then the American F-16s and F-22s.
And then they're gone and the skies of the capital are all ours.
I ask the pilot if we can go here or there, he transmits the request to the control tower and we get the go-ahead almost immediately. The pilots seem to be having as much fun as we are flying over Paris like this. We keep asking to see more things and they keep taking us there. “Let’s go to the Louvre.”
“Let’s go to Sacre Coeur.”
"Now Notre Dame."
We’re like kids in a candy store.
I had thought a lot ahead of the flight about what kinds of things I wanted to show. Obviously the monuments, but also the geometry of the city, show something different, especially if the light is good.
Up above, the views are magnificent. The city appears much more dense than I thought. I manage the get a great shot of the Arc de Triomphe, thanks to the pilots who came back several times. The flight turns into a pleasure ride, both for us and for them. What freedom to just roam the skies of Paris like this. For me, it’s a childhood dream come true. I realize that I may never get a chance like this again, so I open my eyes as wide as possible and try to take advantage of this rare opportunity to the fullest. “Let’s go to the Arc de Triomphe.”
We were having so much fun that the time just flew. After more than two hours, we suddenly realized it was time to go back to base.
As odd as it may sound, one of my favorite photos of the day ended up being from the ground. It shows the pilots inspecting the chopper ahead of our flight. Because as beautiful as it is up above, you need men to make the aircraft fly. That was one of my favorite memories of the day, the camaraderie that we managed to develop with the pilots in such a short time -- when they called me “Jean-Seb” during the briefing, when we chatted after the flight.
Afterwards, back home, when I told family, friends and colleagues about what I did on the 14th of July, I got oooh and aaaahs. To tell you the truth, a part of me is still up above in that helicopter. It just doesn’t want to get back to earth.