After originally having been planned for 2020, but having been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Base Aérienne 116 (Air Base 116) or short BA116 was finally able to open their doors to the public on September 18 and 19 2021 for the first major open house on an operational air base after Covid-19 entered the world. Next to the normally already hard work, which has to be done by all involved in organizing such a major event, doing this while the pandemic is still ongoing brought a whole new set of challenges to the organization. The first being when to plan such an event while the rules on how we are dealing with the pandemic are changing constantly, and the organization was open in their communication that an event, in the scale of an open house, could be cancelled again at any given time due to the changing circumstances around the pandemic.
The organization used the preparations for the cancelled 2020 open house as a base for the work on making the event possible in 2021. With the basics covered it became clear that the challenge would be around implementing the Covid regulations in the event, with one of the most visible and biggest changes to what people who visit an open house were used to being the implementation of the scan of the health pass before being allowed to enter the base. Everybody who wanted to enter the base had to show their health pass/QR code, or other official proof of having been vaccinated or very recently tested, as was the case for all public places in France at the time of the open house. But next to this the region had implemented and maximum visitor number of 30.000 visitors per day. As where normally open houses were never really limited in the number of visitors this meant that 2 weeks before the event the organization put a website online where people, who wanted to visit, had to register for a free ticket for each day. As the French open houses on operational bases are normally free to visit the tickets were at no cost this time as well and solely to make sure the number of people entering the base on each day would not surpass the 30.000 visitor limit. People from all countries could register, and were also immediately informed about the regulations in France on Covid-19 and that they had to bring their health pass as well next to the entry ticket.
In July there was a large preparation exercise in co-operation with the region’s first responders to train in case of a major crisis, and with all boxes ticked it was just keeping fingers crossed and hope the situation around the pandemic would not worsen towards the event’s date.
On Friday the 17th of September there was a kind of rehearsal and also chance for 300 spotters to enter the base and photograph the arrivals and practice demonstrations of the visiting and local aircraft. This was also a good opportunity to have a large group enter and follow the new regulations of scanning passes and moving around a larger number of people. The same group was allowed to enter the base again on Monday the 20th as well to photograph the departure of the visiting aircraft. Both days went smoothly and without any incidents as everybody was happy to be able to enjoy this kind of an event again.
With a forecast of sun, Saturday the 18th turned out to be the busiest day with visitors. Already early morning the people were gathering to enter the base resulting in traffic congesting in the surrounding villages. Many people decided to park their car next to the roads and walk towards the base entry where lines formed for the triple entry check. Just before the first check the local health agency had parked a mobile vaccination bus and a Covid test location in a tent, to give people a chance to make their decision on these matters there and then.
The first check which had to be passed was the health pass scan and when OK people could move on to the next check, where the QR codes on the entry tickets were scanned to see if the person had registered. Third and final check was the bag check, to make sure people did not bring any unlawful or dangerous items on base. The atmosphere at all checks was quite relaxed as people, in general, just seemed to be happy that an event like this was possible again. On the Saturday 21.413 people visited, on the Sunday 13.000 as it was a day with a lot of rain and a limited flying program.
With arriving on base it became immediately clear that the organization had gone full out on the event. With more than 70 aircraft, 26 flying demonstration on the Saturday, the Sunday being somewhat less due to weather, 60 exhibitors with stands, a complete carnival with rides for the smaller children and a WW II reenactment compound there was something to do, see, eat or drink for everybody. One of the major hangars was filled with stands from the various French military branches and the history of the base, and it even included a 3D experience where people could sit in a real pilot seat and, through a 3D set, could experience the views from the cockpit of a French fighter jet.
The flying demonstration was a mix of old WWII aircraft all the way up to the French Air Force Dassault Rafale solo display and a flying demonstration of 2 brand new Pilatus PC-21 trainers. Next to this the Airbus A400 gave a spectacular demonstration on how to fly such a big aircraft and the local based Maraud Fox team, consisting of 2 Mirage 2000-5F of the BA116 based Escadron de Chasse 1/2, gave a very operational demonstration of the various duties the pilots of this Fighter Wing perform. The demonstration showed the 3 main tasks of the Wing being high speed interception of enemy aircraft, intercepting and guiding civilian aircraft encountering problems or being lost and showing the formations used in combat missions. Although not specifically put together for the BA116 open house, showing their abilities to their colleagues and neighbors made it extra special. Next to the demonstration of the French military there was a nice mix of demonstration from fellow NATO members or befriended countries including a Romanian Air Force MiG-21 solo demo, a Belgian and Danish Air Force F-16 solo demo, Royal Air Force Typhoon solo demo and a Swiss Air Force F/A-18C solo demo.
Putting all this together in a world where a lot has changed on how things are done was a major achievement of the organization especially looking at the fact all the new rules and changing circumstances had to be implemented in the scenario of the open house. That a good job had been done became clear during the days itself, where people could be seen clearly enjoying themselves being outside, seeing what they like to see and have a wide variety of things going on to make it an interesting and busy day. The whole event had a relaxed atmosphere and we can only hope that this was the start of more such events.
Phodocu would like to thank the Base Aérienne 116 Staff for their hospitality as well as HQ French Air Force.