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SOFINS 2023 Special Forces Capability Display Part 1

A French Air Special Forces Brigade (BFSA) DHC-6 300 Twin Otter lands as SF freefallers gather their canopies at Camp de Souge [© Bob Morrison]

There have been some changes since my last visit to Camp de Souge to cover a SOFINS expo and French Special Forces capability display, writes Bob Morrison.

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My last trip to the home of French Army Special Forces near Bordeaux was back in 2019, several months before what we now generally refer to as COVID-19 reared its ugly head in the Far East, and although the 2021 edition of SOFINS did go ahead I was unable to get there because just beforehand a spike in infections caused a temporary cancellation of travel between the UK and France.

F-RACV is one of two Twin Otters used primarily by 3/61 Squadron of the French Air Special Forces Brigade [©BM]

On the aviation side some key changes since my 2019 visit included: creation of the Air Special Forces Brigade (Brigade des Forces Spéciales Air or BFSA) on 01 September 2020; formation of the French Air and Space Force (Armée de l’air et de l’espace or AAE) ten days later; and retirement of the C-160 Transall transport aircraft fleet, which has been replaced by the Airbus A400M. One key component of BFSA is 3/61 ‘Poitou’ Transport Squadron (Escadron de Transport 3/61 ‘Poitou’) which, in addition to a number of C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, also operates a pair of DHC-6-300 Twin Otter light transport aircraft which can be configured for both free-fall parachute insertions and emergency casualty evacuation or casevac.

This French Special Forces operator at Camp de Souge freefall parachuted with his Military Working Dog strapped to his waist [©BM]

On Day 1 and Day 2 of SOFINS 2023 one of these Twin Otters was used for a series of free-fall parachute insertions by all three (Army and Marine Commandos as well as Air & Space Force) Special Forces teams and on Day 3 it operated in the emergency casevac role during the capability display. Operators jumped both solo and in tandem in sticks of six to eight, including with some Special Forces attendees from foreign armies, and attack dog handlers inserted with their canine partners. I plan to briefly look at the jumpers in Part 2.

The left-seater in the cockpit of F-RACV, who requested we did not show her face, is the only female Twin Otter pilot serving with the French Air and Space Force [©BM]

Unlike in 2019 there was no HALO parachuting during the main display on Day 3, possibly because of high winds and peacetime safety restrictions, and although an A400M made a low flypast to simulate air-to-air refuelling of a Special Forces helicopter neither operators nor vehicles were air-landed this year. However, as we will see in future articles, there was plenty of SF helicopter activity during the half hour or so of dynamic displays on the third day of the expo.

Carying a maximum payload of 1135kg the Twin Otter has a range of 700 nautical miles (1300km) and a cruising speed of around 180 knots or 335km/h [©BM]
In addition to being ideal for freefall parachuting, with both the US Army and US Air Force also having used the type, the Twin Otter can transport up to 20 passengers [©BM]
During SOFINS 2023 the Special Forces Twin Otter used the hard runway at Camp de Souge but the type is equally at home on a grass or hard earth airstrip [©BM]
F-RACV touching down on the Camp de Souge runway to pick up another stick of freefall jumpers [©BM]
Note the horizontally split rear cargo door with circular window ~ at least two other French Air Force Twin Otters have been configured like this for freefall parachuting [©BM]
A brace of French Special Forces operators swoop in prior to landing at Camp de Souge during SOFINS 2023 [©BM]

¤ My heartfelt thanks to those in charge for allowing me to photograph the Twin Otter, and the drop zone, from close quarters and to all Special Forces operators who appear (masked or digitally disguised, of course) in the accompanying photos, which were taken at various times over two days.

To be continued

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