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Four Rafale in four years. Is the tricolor plane reliable?

Credit: EMA / French Navy

We must, in fact, begin to seriously ask ourselves the question. Because the accident that occurred on Sunday off the coast of Pakistan is not the first. In 4 years this is even the fourth accident, with no apparent external element (no engagement in combat, no shooting).

Real carnage

On December 6, 2007, a plane crashed in Neuvic, in Corrèze (France), during a training flight, at night in the rain. Results: 1 plane lost, 1 dead. We will conclude with a “ spatial disorientation » from the pilot (however very experienced). Two years later, on September 24, 2009, two Rafales from the 12F flotilla crashed at sea off the coast of Perpignan while returning to the Charles de Gaulle. Results: 2 planes lost, 1 dead. It will be concluded that a mid-air collision between the two aircraft was due to a “ human factor » according to the accident investigation office, quoted by my colleague J.Do Merchet (read here). And on November 28, 2010, a Rafale F3 version crashed at sea, not far from Charles de Gaulle where it was operating, more than 100 km from the Pakistani coast. The pilot ejected and was recovered unharmed. The causes are not yet known.

1 half billion euros in ashes

Honestly, this is starting to do a lot for a device that entered service in 2004. Either the military pilots (air force, navy...) are incompetent. Which I really, really have a hard time believing! Either we make them take the blame for “youthful errors” of a plane. If humans have difficulty getting used to the plane, it is perhaps not only the fault of humans... Certainly asking this question at a time when the French combat plane is trying, painfully, to opening up some export routes is not decorous or patriotic. But still. The Rafale is starting to cost our armies (in men) and our budgets a lot of money. Not counting the missing pilots. The 4 lost planes represent more than half a billion euros for the state budget! Ensuring that the massacre is stopped and looking into the causes would perhaps not be superfluous.

NB: the Rafale's competitor, the Eurofighter Typhoon, experienced one (only) crash recently. All planes were grounded for examination. Example to follow ?

Update (Tuesday 1 a.m.): I have received several sets of comments, of which I am publishing a few that best summarize the remarks. I understand that the situation arouses emotion. But the role of the journalist is to ask the questions, without sometimes knowing the answers. Having dissected a few air accidents (civil it is true), what seems certain is that there is rarely a human factor without a technological problem (especially in modern planes). Concerning the Eurofighter, I only count one crash, the other having occurred during testing, before entry into service. As for the human factor, I simply note that the incidents suffered by the Eurofighter have often been blamed on the aircraft, for the Rafale never...

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

6 thoughts on “Four Rafale in four years. Is the tricolor plane reliable?"

  • Midship

    A few comments :

    4 crashes since the first prototype, it may be related to other aircraft in the world, which also experience accidents sometimes. Moreover, it is also to be put into perspective with regard to the historical average of army aircraft.

    Moreover, it is appropriate in my opinion to say that no system in the world will ever completely prevent a plane from crashing: it is the principle of the apple, and a priori, gravity works even for Rafales or F22 …

    You are talking about air force pilots: it should be remembered that in the 4 crashes, one was an air force pilot, 2 from the navy and a fourth from the DGA. The two sailors got away with it, their two colleagues not having had such luck. I should point out right away that I obviously draw no conclusion from this, given the smallness of the statistical series.

    Regarding the accident this weekend, we still know very little, except that the patrol obviously had time to turn around, to approach the ship, and the pilot to abandon the aircraft in visibly optimal conditions for the recovery of the pilot. This would probably be the only Rafale loss in “non-accidental” conditions. The aircraft being rigged for combat, with a priori the carriage of bombs (we can for example think of a mix 2 Mica / 6 AASM), it cannot be excluded that the decision to crash the aircraft without considering diversion responds to the strict application of a particular procedure with an armed device. I'm not a specialist in the matter, but perhaps the plane shouldn't be stigmatized too quickly.

    The problem with multipurpose aircraft is that they are expensive. And while they can do the work of multiple planes at once, they never crash half-plane. Should we therefore regret the biplanes?

    Finally, in terms of communication, everyone must bear in mind that it is a combat-rigged aircraft catapulted into a region under high tension, off a hostile zone, within the framework of a mission decided by the President of the Republic. Communication, in quantity as well as in precision, on the part of the armies is therefore very probably apprehended in a different way from what it would be during an exercise or training, despite the thirst for response from the public and journalists.

  • For information, 2 Eurofighter planes have already been lost!

    Several F22s were also lost.

    A plane, sometimes it falls, that's how it is.
    A driver is the same, he can make mistakes, it's the human factor, FH.

    There is nothing more to say, an investigation is underway, let them work...

  • Strogoff

    Excellent midship analysis.

    Of the 4 Rafales lost, 2 were in a mid-air collision. This cannot be put on the back of the plane, but only on the dangerousness of the flight in close patrol. This is, it seems to me, the second cause of the loss of combat aircraft (The first being spatial disorientation. We have all already suffered from it while being in a train which leaves at the station: for a brief moment we do not know if it is the next train starting or ours. In a fighter plane, this kind of sensory illusions are increased tenfold).

    On the article itself, I allow myself to point out an inaccuracy. The Eurofighter is on its second crash. The first occurred during a double engine flameout during testing a few years ago. The second a few months ago (more tragic because the Saudi pilot in transformation died following a failure of his ejection seat).

  • As a European defense professional, I have great esteem for the abundant and quality work that you produce on the CSDP. Your site is for me and for many colleagues a valuable source of information and a credibility very rarely questioned.

    As a former Rafale pilot, however, I was surprised by some of your comments on this recent accident. Of course, we can only regret the loss of two pilots and four planes in four years. Without commenting on the costing, I share your assessment of the very high cost for the taxpayer and of a potentially negative effect in terms of image or even damaging to exports. On the other hand, the doubts that you express on the qualities of the plane or on the sincerity of the official reports concerning the previous accidents seem to me to be unjustified.

    Among the latest generation aircraft, the Rafale is the only one, to date and in a comparable period of time since the start of its first development flight in 1986, which has never suffered an accident for technical reasons. By comparison, the Swedish Gripen (1st development flight in 1988) experienced 5 accidents, including three losses of control linked to a design fault in the flight controls); the F-22, world pinnacle of technology (first flight of the YF-1 demonstrator in 22), experienced 1990 accidents, including at least 4 for technical reasons (loss of control of the YF-2 in 22, failure of the flight controls of an F-2002 in 22), the Eurofighter experienced a first accident in 2004 (double engine flameout of the DA2002 prototype) and, three months after a crash on takeoff in August, there is nothing to suggest an error in piloting. Not to mention two gear-up landings, including at least one following a proven failure.

    The technical assessment of the Rafale since the first flight of the Rafale A demonstrator in 1986 demonstrates great technical mastery. Unlike commercial aviation, the level of risk accepted in the operational employment of a combat aircraft is relatively high. This explains why even temporary inattention can lead to the collision in flight of two planes flying in the same portion of space or why a succession of maneuvers at night can lead to fatal disorientation. The law of the series wanted that two fatal accidents caused in two years the loss of three planes. With regard to this third accident, it is now appropriate to await the results of the commission before deciding on its causes, technical or human.

  • Over the last 50 years, naval aviation has lost one aircraft per year on average, this is the attrition of cruising reported over the long term (with slack periods and… others more difficult).
    4 bursts since 2001, that represents a quite correct rate, although concentrated on the last months for three losses.

    On the other hand, the difference with the 70s or 80s is that naval aviation is on a tightrope (whatever one may say) on a quantitative level, to the point that the slightest loss causes capacity disruptions (admittedly momentary , but very real).
    This, on the other hand, is new and it is rather worrying. When we calculate as accurately as possible, without taking sufficient account of the operational reality, we squeeze our buttocks hoping that it will pass. This type of attitude is the sign of a very serious degradation of the conditions and capabilities of naval aviation, yet a unique tool in the world (which only the USA has outside of us).

    The English will take ten years (at the very least and being nice) to rebuild their naval aviation. Abilities and knowledge are lost very quickly and are recovered only very very slowly and often in pain. We allow our means to decline by hiding behind speeches that in no way reflect reality.

  • yes it's part of the game the Swedish gripen we lost the 2nd copy !! and if we talk about the f 104 how much loss? and the f 16 how much? and the m 2000 !!

    pr against the human the weak link !! and is easier to doubt than the plane !!

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