Stephan Agostini/AFP/Getty Images
A Rafale jet takes off from the Solenzara base on the French island of Corsica for a mission in Libya on March 26.
A Rafale jet takes off from the Solenzara base on the French island of Corsica for a mission in Libya on March 26. Stephan Agostini/AFP/Getty Images
The French air force was the first to go into action over Libya. And since then, French aircraft have flown more missions enforcing the United Nations resolution than any other country except the United States.
Most of those missions have been launched from an air base on the French island of Corsica.
From a runway wedged between snowcapped mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Rafale and Mirage jets roar into the sky, one after the other, their metallic skins flashing in the morning sun.
It takes only an hour and a half to reach Libyan air space from Corsica — one reason the Solenzara air base has been a principal launchpad for French jets enforcing the no-fly zone. French planes also fly out of bases on mainland France and from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle off the coast of Libya.
Stephan Agostini/AFP/Getty Images
A French pilot gets into the cockpit of a Mirage 2000 jet at the Solenzara base.
A French pilot gets into the cockpit of a Mirage 2000 jet at the Solenzara base. Stephan Agostini/AFP/Getty Images
"We were just coming out of a joint allied training exercise for Afghanistan when the Libyan operation came up," says Col. Eric Bometon, second in command at Solenzara. "So the base was ready, and within 48 hours we were flying missions over Libya."
A Clearer Picture
Solenzara is used as a training ground for pilots going to Afghanistan because of its mountainous terrain and hot climate. Now, a pool of 50 pilots flies around 25 missions a day over Libya.
Lt. Col. Pierre Wencker, 37, is captain of a squadron of Mirage 2000 bombers.
"Flying over Libya is not so technically different from flying over Afghanistan," he says. "The mission is the same — giving air cover and protection to people on the ground. In Afghanistan, it's coalition forces. In Libya, it's civilians."
Pilots won't talk about what they have seen, what they have hit or even at what altitude they fly. But they say they have an ever-clearer picture of what's happening on the ground in Libya after gathering intelligence over the past 12 days.
The Mirages use laser and GPS to launch their precision bombs. The Rafale is a multirole combat fighter, able to carry out ground and sea attacks, engage in air combat and gather intelligence.
Flight Lt. Ian Abson puts on his flight suit prior to a mission over Libya. He's a British Royal Air Force officer on an exchange program with the French l'Armee de l'Air. He says the British and French militaries have been training together more intensively in recent months. And that's one reason the two allies have worked well together during the Libya campaign.
He also says having NATO coordinate the mission makes perfect sense.
"It makes it easier for us to follow NATO standard operation procedures because the French use them, the Brits use them, the Americans use them," he says. "So it's like having a sort of safety harness that you can rely on. You wouldn't want to go into multinational operations making it up as you go along."
There doesn't seem to be a lot of Top Gun bravado on the base. The atmosphere is very professional. The pilots talk only of their duty to carry out the mission.
But in the nearby Corsican village of Solenzara, people say they are proud of the pilots. The sound of the jets returning to base can be heard over the clattering of dinner plates in a local bistro. At least all that plane noise is serving a purpose now, says local resident Michele Aulery.
"I was very moved when I saw Libyans on TV yelling, 'Thank you, France!' and 'Thank you, Sarkozy!' They felt helped and protected," she says. "I think we're doing the right thing."
Aulery and her table mates say they are glad France is helping the Libyan people, but they fear what will happen if the mission goes on too long. And even if it ends quickly, they say, overthrowing a dictator is relatively easy. The difficult part is what will happen next.