Falcons over the sea

Flottille 24F has taken delivery of its final Falcon 50Ms, bringing its inventory to eight airframes. Henri-Pierre Grolleau reports from Lann-Bihoué

MILITARY FALCON 50

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Both the Mi and Ms variants are equipped with a dedicated mission suite that comprises an Ocean Master 100 radar and a Chlio FLIR turret. This is the first Ms aircraft, seen here flying with gear extended.
All photos Henri-Pierre Grolleau

Flottille 24F was recreated at Base de l’Aéronautique Navale (BAN, or naval air station) Lann-Bihoué, near Lorient, Brittany, in March 2000 to operate a fleet of four Falcon 50 three-engined long-range business jets. The jets – construction numbers 7, 30, 36 and 132 – were acquired on the second-hand market and upgraded to MSA (Maritime Surveillance Aircraft) standard by Dassault Aviation. This means they can carry out a wide range of roles: search and rescue (SAR), maritime surveillance, illegal traffic and immigration control, drug traffic repression, fisheries protection, environmental protection, range safety and surveillance of national borders and sensitive areas.

The upgrade involved fitting the aircraft with a dedicated sensor suite, composed of a Thales Ocean Master 100 radar in the nose, a Thales Chlio forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turret at the rear of the aircraft, and a workstation in the rear-right side of the main cabin. The four Falcon 50s were also equipped with multiple radios, large observation windows on both sides of the fuselage, and a hatch under the forward belly to drop rescue gear including life-rafts, marine colour and smoke markers, and gonio/radio buoys. The introduction of the hatch imposed a complex and costly re-routing of the engines’ power controls and the flight control actuators. The first reworked Falcon 50M MSA flew in its new guise in March 1999 and the final aircraft of that first batch was delivered to Flottille 24F in September 2001.

Upgrade programme

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The Falcon 50 was perceived by the Marine Nationale as offering the best compromise between range, equipment, cabin volume, affordability and immediate availability. Here, a Falcon Mi manoeuvres at medium altitude.

The Falcon 50M MSA immediately proved highly successful in Marine Nationale (French Navy) service: the aircraft is fast, agile, stable even at low-level, cheap to operate and, more importantly for a SAR aircraft, extremely reliable and dependable. The Falcon 50 fleet’s availability hovers at around 92%, the highest availability rate within French naval aviation. Falcon 50s routinely deploy to the other side of the world with only two mechanics for engineering support, something unheard of in the French maritime patrol community until the advent of the trijet.

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When it was introduced in March 2000, the Falcon 50M was the first Aéronavale aircraft to offer full electronic flight instrumentation system technology to its pilots, a major step ahead compared to the traditional instrumentation of the Nord 262 and of the Atlantique 2.

A number of shortcomings were identified soon after service entry, however. Accordingly, a modernisation programme was set up for the type, bringing all four airframes to a muchimproved Standard 2. One of the main issues was that the FLIR was not slaved to the radar and the operator often experienced difficulties pointing the turret manually at a distant target. On Standard 2 aircraft, this problem has been addressed and a ‘target designation’ mode now allows the FLIR to be aimed at a radar track at the flick of a switch. To enhance situational awareness, an identification friend or foe (IFF) interrogator has been added to the radar to instantly show the position of every fixedwing or rotary-wing aircraft using an IFF in the vicinity. The flight management system was updated to multi-mission management system standard. This means that the pilots can now easily call various search patterns (sector, orbit, race track, expanding square) which prove much easier to follow during a SAR mission. Standard 2 aircraft have all been fitted with the Aviasat satcom system which allows long distance phone calls to be made in order to remain in contact with the control authority at all times. To boost communication capabilities, a third V/UHF radio was added to the aircraft.

The four Flottille 24F Falcons have also been equipped with an automatic identification system/vessel monitoring system (AIS/VMS) interrogator and with the Spationav system. The AIS is used to precisely locate and identify shipping at sea or at anchor, allowing maritime authorities to accurately track and monitor shipping in international and coastal waters. The VMS offers similar capabilities for fishing boats. Via the Spationav datalink system, all Marine Nationale military maritime surveillance posts tasked with keeping an eye on all shipping in continental France, in the French Lesser Antilles and in French Guyana automatically share data, not unlike the Link 16 datalink. With Aviasat and Spationav, the modernised Falcon 50s can easily plug into this Marine Nationale surveillance and control network. All aircraft had been upgraded to Standard 2 by late 2010 and they have been equipped with the Spationav/AIS/VMS since late 2013. The four aircraft have since been fitted with the upgraded Spationav V2 system which offers expanded capabilities and a better, colour display.

Former Armée de l’Air airframes

The withdrawal of the Nord 262 fleet in 2009 had left a serious capability gap, a problem worsened by the closure of BAN Nîmes-Garons, in southern France, two years later. To fill the gap, the French Ministry of Defence decided to transfer four Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) Falcon 50B trijets of Escadron de Transport 00.060, at Villacoublay, to the Marine Nationale. These aircraft had been used in the Very, Very Important Person (VVIP) and aeromedical evacuation role, but were to be replaced by four brand-new bizjets – two Falcon 7Xs and two Falcon 2000s – to supplement the two Falcon 900s already in use.

Compared to civilian Falcon 50s, the former Armée de l’Air aircraft had not logged that many hours and the airframes were in pristine condition (the oldest, c/n 5, had been delivered in 1980). To reduce costs and complexity, it was decided not to equip the four former Armée de l’Air aircraft with the side windows, the belly hatch and the associated blast deflector. The adoption of the ‘new’ aircraft by the Marine Nationale led to a change in designations: the earlier four Falcon 50M MSAs are now known as Falcon 50Mi (for Maritime intervention) while the latest Falcon 50B variant is now called Falcon 50Ms (Maritime surveillance).

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Marine Nationale Falcon 50s are flown by a crew of five: aircraft commander, co-pilot, flight engineer, radio operator and navigator/radar operator. This is the navigator/radar operator workstation.

Remarkable performance

The Falcon 50Mi/Ms’ top speed and radius of action are often quoted as the aircraft’s main advantages, especially for maritime surveillance/SAR at very long distances. The aircraft can remain on station for 6hrs 30mins at 100nm (185km) from its base, 4hrs at 500nm (926km) from its base, or 1hr 30mins at 1,000nm (1,852km) from its base.

Thanks to the Falcon’s high transit speed, the duty SAR crew can reach the English Channel in less than 30 minutes from Lann-Bihoué. The aircraft can be south of Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast, in 1hr 15 mins or reach Dakar, in Senegal, in five hours (compared to nine hours for an Atlantique 2). Its high speed is also very handy for surprise overflights, when the aircraft dives on a ship committing an offence to leave very little time for the crew to react or (for example) for a trawler’s crew to ditch a fishing net when performing illegal poaching at sea.

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Falcon 50Ms No.78, the last to be delivered, sits on the ramp at Lann-Bihoué in late August 2016.

Nearly common standard

To facilitate aircrew training, all eight aircraft are fitted with the same Proline 4 avionics suite (with only minor differences). To minimise costs in times of budget constraints, the Ms aircraft were fitted with the same Ocean Master 100 radar already in service on the Mi, but without the IFF interrogator. The Chlio FLIR turrets were brought out of storage for integration on the Ms. They had already been used on carrier-borne Alizé maritime surveillance aircraft in the 1990s. Because of the deletion of the hatch, the Ms’ main cabin is slightly different from that of the Mi, with different seats.

Conversion began at the Dassault Aviation facility in Mérignac in 2010, but the programme moved ahead slowly. The reason was that the decision not to equip the four Falcon 50Bs with side observation windows was eventually – and wisely – reversed, leading to some industrial delays as the aircraft were modified accordingly. After its maiden flight in the new configuration, the first aircraft, No 5, was flown to Basel in September 2013 to undergo specific anti-corrosion treatment, undercarriage maintenance and Aviasat terminal installation.

In February 2014, eight flights were performed as part of an operational evaluation at Hyères, Lann-Bihoué and Villacoublay to make sure the aircraft could safely enter service and that it remained fully capable of undertaking aeromedical evacuation missions. In early April 2014, the aircraft was fitted with a temporary AIS kit pending the acceptance of the full Spationav/AIS/VMS system. Entry into service was announced on May 7, 2014. Since then, all four aircraft (Nos 5, 27, 34 and 78) have been delivered, the last in January 2016 (although the acceptance ceremony was held in May 2016).

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To reduce costs, the first four Falcon 50s were sourced on the secondhand market. This is a Mi with the belly hatch opened.

Into service

The introduction of the Falcon Ms was carefully prepared by the Marine Nationale, with a large quantity of new tooling, support equipment and documentation being ordered to allow Flottille 24F to smoothly double its inventory of aircraft. The number of five-man crews has also been progressively increased, with twelve fully trained by March 31, 2017 (up from eight initially). By September 2017, it had been further increased to 14, including two under training at any given time. Similarly, the number of budgeted flying hours per year climbed from 2,800 in 2014 to 4,500 in 2016, and 5,200 2017, after enough aircrews had been trained.

Lieutenant Commander Jean-Marc M (surname withheld on request) has been the Flottille 24F commander since September 2016. He told AIR International: “Our target is to ensure that each crew gets anything between 320 and 380 flying hours per year. Thankfully, there is only one qualification for both the Mi and the Ms, which significantly eases advanced planning and mission allocation.”

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When the programme was launched, there was a strong debate in the Marine Nationale over the drawbacks and advantages of the turbofan as it was felt by some that the turbine/propeller was better adapted to the role. Eventually, the Falcon 50M was selected.

More emphasis on maritime surveillance

Although Flottille 24F aircrews took full advantage of the Falcon 50’s speed and range to carry out patrols over the Mediterranean Sea direct from Lann- Bihoué, one aircraft (Mi or Ms) is now permanently stationed in Hyères, in the south of France, from where its time on station is longer. Another aircraft is based in Dakar, Senegal, as part of the bilateral agreement with that African state. On average, Flottille 24F Falcons spend 250 days per year in French overseas dependencies: Mayotte and Réunion islands in the Indian Ocean, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, and French Guyana in South America.

Lt Cdr Jean-Marc M said: “Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, we have altered our pattern of activity and we now concentrate more on maritime surveillance missions than on fishery protection, environment protection and traffic interdiction. This is a switch from government action at sea to a defence of the maritime approaches as part of the wider defence of the national territory. We fly further out into the Mediterranean Sea to detect potential threats earlier, exploiting to the full the Falcon’s speed, range and sensor suite.

“On average, we now perform 1.6 surveillance missions a day, 365 days a year weather permitting. That comes on top of what is done by Marine Nationale warships, Gendarmerie patrol boats and French customs aircraft and patrol boats, thus creating a very tight, multi-agency surveillance net. We also stand ready to support counterterrorism operations at sea and we obviously still maintain a quick reaction alert for SAR duties, with one of our Falcon 50Mi aircraft held at one-hour readiness during opening hours, and at twohour readiness the rest of the time.”

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The nose-mounted Ocean Master 100 radar provides 240 degrees of horizontal coverage. Typical radar detection range from high altitude is about 100nm.

Maritime Falcons

A number of countries have successfully operated Dassault Aviation Falcons in the maritime surveillance role. The largest customer was the US Coast Guard, which purchased no fewer than 41 suitably-modified Falcon 20s known as HU-25A, HU-25B, HU-25C Guardians. The Falcon 20 and Falcon 200 then attracted a lot of interest, and several operators ordered the type. Royal Norwegian Air Force Falcon 20s spend time over the sea performing electronic warfare aggressor training missions. France fields five Falcon 200 Gardians (without a ‘u’) for maritime surveillance and SAR duties in the Pacific with Flottille 25F at Tahiti-Fa’a’a in Tahiti, French Polynesia, and La Tontouta in Nouméa, New Caledonia. The Armada de Chile (Chilean Navy) purchased two Falcon 200s, one of which was displayed with Exocet missiles at the FIDAE airshow in 1990.

Several civilian organisations operate the Falcon 20 over the sea, including Cobham in the UK and AVdef in France. Although not strictly maritime aircraft, six Falcon 10MERs (Marine Entraînement Radar, or Navy Radar Training) are in service with Escadrille 57S at Landivisiau for pilot continuation training and VIP transportation. They are also occasionally used for adversary training and calibration duties. Although never officially confirmed, an Iraqi Falcon 50 is thought to have been armed with Exocet missiles to attack targets at sea during the Iran-Iraq conflict. The Japan Coast Guard (formerly Maritime Safety Agency) is so far the only customer of a naval variant of the Falcon 900 trijet. In 2015, the Japanese selected the newer Falcon 2000MSA to supplement the Falcon 900 already in service.

The Falcon 2000 is available in the MRA (Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft) variant capable of undertaking a wider range of roles, including electronic warfare, electronic/signals intelligence and even anti-surface warfare. Finally, the Falcon 900MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) is offered by Dassault with a whole array of systems and weapons, including torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, a sonobuoy dispenser and the associated electronics and displays to hunt submarines and surface targets. The Falcon 900MPA would also be fitted with a comprehensive self-defence suite to operate in a contested environment, and with a datalink to share tactical data with surface combatants and other aircraft as part of a wider network-centric warfare concept.

Bright future ahead

The Falcon 50 has proved highly successful in Marine Nationale service and it is investing in the aircraft to increase its operational efficiency so that the type can remain in service well into the 2030s. Over the next three years, the four Ms aircraft are due to be upgraded to a standard very close to that of the Mi, with the same IFF interrogator and Spationav V2 system. The outdated Chlio turret will also have to be replaced in the not-too-distant future on all eight Falcons because it is becoming increasingly difficult to support. Furthermore, it does not offer the same performance levels as the latest FLIR turret on the market today. An encrypted UHF radio will be adopted too to increase security when communicating with other military assets.

Finally, the lack of a drop hatch on the Ms variant will have to be addressed to increase the type’s versatility (even though the Nord 262 could not drop survival equipment either). The current design being envisioned is much smaller than that of the Mi to avoid the complex re-routing of the engines’ power controls and the flight control actuators. Up to eight air-droppable life-rafts can be simultaneously carried in the cabin of an Mi, each large enough to accommodate either ten or 25 persons depending on the type. However, the normal load for routine missions is one or two kits only. When assuming SAR alert, the Falcons are generally fitted with six (three for 25 people each and three for ten), enough for 105 survivors. Prior to release, the bulky life-rafts are manhandled by the flight engineer and the radio operator using a winch mounted on a rail on the cabin roof. The drop can be initiated electrically by the pilots, or manually by the flight engineer.

The SAR equipment envisioned for the Ms is significantly smaller, probably similar to the equipment already in service with French customs. It will still allow a life-raft big enough to rescue the crew of a trawler or a sailing boat to the dropped, thus reinforcing Flottille 24F’s intervention capabilities.

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Falcon 50Ms No.5 undergoes maintenance at Lann-Bihoué. Since entering service, the type has proved remarkably reliable; it has a 92% availability rate.