Flying & Fighting in Mirage IV: Interview with French nuclear bomber pilot

Weighing in at 33 and a half tons, capable of rocket-assisted take-offs, with a top speed of Mach 2.2 — and the ability to deliver a nuclear holocaust few aircraft were as exciting as the Mirage IV strategic bomber. Combining hideous lethality with graceful lines, this Cold War warrior served France from 1964-2005. We spoke to former Mirage IV pilot Jean Copponnex to find out more.

Translated by Elodie Rougeot & Owen Dakin

During a low altitude bombing training mission on a seaside range, an engine failure on departure from Solenzara forced me to give the order to abandon the plane while we were at very low altitude over the sea and flying at 600 knots.”

Pilot of Mirage IVA 1969 -1973

What were your first impressions of the Mirage IV?

“The largest armed warplane in the French air force plane could not be more impressive! Twice the size of the Mirage III, an internal fuel capacity allowing for more than two hours of autonomy, the possibility of flying at Mach 2 for several tens of minutes, refuelling in flight. This plane was really revolutionary for a Mirage III pilot.”

Rare, unofficial confrontations with real fighters have shown that it probably would have been a proud fighter, especially with more powerful engines.”

What was the best thing about it?

“The finesse of its airframe, which allowed for amazing performance, and its aesthetics (as with most planes coming from Dassault, it must be said).
It was perfectly suited to the missions for which it was designed: high altitude and high Mach speeds, and later very low altitude, high speed as well as being able to navigate anywhere on the planet completely autonomously.

Flying was very pleasant, I would even say it was easy, with flexible and very effective flight controls.”

…and the worst?

“Not easy to find… I would say the relative low power of its jet engines, which were especially sensitive in the take-off phase at maximum load. However, in the range of its operational use, this weakness was forgotten.”

How would your rate the Mirage IV in the following categories:
A. Instantaneous turn
B. Sustained turn
C. Acceleration
D. Climb rate
E. High alpha performance

A-B-C-D-E: the type of missions assigned to the Mirage IV did not allow its performance to be assessed in this way. It was not, strictly speaking, a fighter and its capabilities in close formation were not optimised. That said, outside the strict framework of its mission, and outside the limits set by the operating instructions, it gave the feeling of having amazing possibilities considering its weight. Rare, unofficial confrontations with real fighters have shown that it probably would have been a proud fighter, especially with more powerful engines.The airframe held great promise, but it was just a strategic bomber. With regard to the high alpha performance, as with any delta wing aircraft, approaching the angle of attack limit made flying in formation tricky, but this was outside the normal range of use.

Only takeoff and heavy final approaches involved this configuration.

For very low altitude missions, speed was considered to be sufficient protection, since there was nothing else!

What was the cockpit like?

“For the pilot, the cabin was quite spacious compared to the Mirage III and also comfortable. The equipment was completely traditional with conventional flight control and engine control instruments and the same equipment as on any plane. It also had an autopilot, much appreciated on long flights. The IVA I knew had only analogue equipment, needle dials.
One regret, especially for a pilot used to the Mirage IIIE: the means of monitoring and controlling navigation were limited. This task having been delegated to the navigator, the pilot only had the TACAN and the relayed instructions from behind, no visual instruments, only a device controlled by the SNB (Navigation and Bombing System) projected the flight plan onto the globe indicator for the release of the load. On the right console, a small steering wheel allowed the pilot to steer the plane without the help of the brakes, making taxiing on the ground very easy.”

How did you feel about the prospect of carrying out a nuclear attack?

“We were in the middle of the Cold War, our mission was deterrence. This mission appeared legitimate to all members of the FAS (Strategic Air Forces) and each one, without wishing it of course, was ready to carry it out if necessary. So, no there was no hesitancy. All our energies were focused on success. If hostilities broke out, we would only have been a response to limit a potentially stronger attack. We were on permanent alert and ready for immediate engagement.”

How does it compare with other fast jets you have flown?

In terms of pure piloting, in the classic phases: take off, final approach and landing, ascent and descent, navigating at high and low altitude, this plane was particularly pleasant.

Compared to the Mirage III, the flight qualities remained fairly similar, but due to its mass we felt a certain inertia in reactions to changes in engine speed, only at high aircraft weight. The landing was smooth thanks to the down-wash effect generated by its large airfoil.

Beyond this, no comparison is possible due to the very specific mission assigned to the IVA. Out of respect for the relative fragility of the SNB electromechanical equipment, a certain restraint was required for formations, although the plane itself would have happily managed!
It was a huge difference compared to my previous planes (Mystère IVA, F-84F, Mirage IIIE) was its flight range and in-flight refuelling, which were unique in France at that time.”

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What is the biggest myth about the Mirage IV?

“Strategic bomber. Carrier of the French atomic bomb, symbol of the greatness and independence of France, what else can be said?
All surrounded by a jealously guarded secrecy. This contributed to the pride of all the members of the FAS who participated in the adventure.”

How combat effective was it? How effective was its armament?

“No fight experienced! Perfectly effective for what it was designed for, no doubt.”

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What was your most memorable flight in the Mirage IV?

“There could be several:

The first flight, as with any single-seater (even if there was in this case an “active passenger”), remains memorable, because it is the discovery that you are in a machine where no one other than yourself can be of any concrete help.

The first real refuelling, where we enter another dimension.

The first long distance mission, with two refuellings and more than 7 hours of flight.

The night flight refuelling in a dense mass of storm clouds with heavy turbulence.

Takeoff at night in snow knowing that we would not be able to return to the fold.

Finally, a flight expected to be peaceful but ending up with being tossed about by the swell of the Mediterranean in a dinghy, off the base of Solenzara, Corsica. During a low altitude bombing training mission on a seaside range, an engine failure on departure from Solenzara forced me to give the order to abandon the plane while we were at very low altitude over the sea and flying at 600 knots. Time flies very quickly during this kind of event, actions are performed almost as reflex gestures. The difficulty is to remain sufficiently lucid to attempt to remedy the fault whilst at the same time piloting the aircraft and remaining alert so as not to exceed any limits and put the crew in danger. The execution of the eject order by the navigator is crucial so that the pilot can eject under the right conditions.
This is what happened, and recovery by helicopter is a great moment!”

Tell me about the rocket- assisted take off

“I already had the opportunity to use take-off assistance rockets on the F-84F. These machines are very spectacular when seen from outside, but so is the feeling inside the aircraft. The purpose of JATOs is to ensure, in conditions where the aircraft engines do not have sufficient power, that the plane can reach its take-off speed. The 12 rockets hung under the belly of the Mirage IV required an additional thrust of more than 5 tonnes, corresponding to about 2/3 power of a single engine. The acceleration was therefore very sensitive, but limited by the progressive ignition in three overlapping bursts over a total duration of around 15 to 20 seconds.
Designed for wartime, these rockets were used only for training at maximum cleared take-off weight. If the temperature on the runway was high and the atmospheric pressure low, assisted take-off showed all its value.

At Luxeuil Air Base, located at almost 1,000 feet above sea level, and in summer, the aircraft was at the limit of the performance curves at lift-off. The study of the performance curves gave precisely the speed at which the pilot had to activate the firing of the rockets on the runway so that the airplane reached sufficient speed in flight for the engines to continue the acceleration.

When the rockets went out, there was an unpleasant sinking feeling due to the sharp decrease in thrust, but the speed and rate of climb indicators immediately reassured, the aircraft accelerating and climbing.
Later, the JATOs were used for demonstrations with light aircraft and without external loads. Lacking any operational objective in these cases, they were nevertheless very spectacular crowd-pleasers.”

What was your most memorable mission?

“Having never, during the Cold War, carried out a real operational mission, none of the training missions deserve any special classification. All were similar, within their specific scope. The only one that I will describe as memorable is the one described above, that ends … swimming!”

What was your favourite mission and why?

“Over my whole career, and without wanting to insult the Mirage IV, my favourite missions were in the Mirage IIIE. When I was on Mirage IVAs, the missions were highly standardised, there was no question of going beyond the defined framework. The importance of the FAS mission prevailed over all other considerations. Relative freedom arrived much later.
There was nothing comparable with Mirage IIIE missions for single-seat penetration fighter / bomber jets. There, the pilot had only himself to rely on in often difficult flight conditions, at low altitude, day or night and, ideally, in bad weather.
One cannot imagine, by comparing the silhouettes of the two planes, how utterly different they were. Even with comparable flight performance, piloting a military aircraft has no other purpose than the completion of a specific mission, which the pilot can appreciate more or less, according to his preferences.”

What did you feel about the prospect of facing enemy SAMs and interceptors in the Mirage? Would it have survived – and if so, how?

“We were, in my time, poorly equipped for jamming and countermeasures, there was only the internal system integrated into the aircraft.

  1. The missions at supersonic speeds and at very high altitude seemed to protect us from SAMs, which still remains to be verified …
    As regards interceptors, the risk did not seem to be vital either. Our own forces were training to intercept the Mirage IVA flying at Mach 2, without much success. The interception systems required extreme precision in both design and implementation for these missions, by the controllers intercepting on the ground and by pilots of interceptor planes. This required significant planning to obtain a good alignment with the Mirage IV’s trajectory to ensure anything more than random success.
  2. For very low altitude missions, speed was considered to be sufficient protection, since there was nothing else!
    Anyway, the concept was such that even if all the planes of a massive raid did not reach the goal, a minimum of success was sufficient to prove its effectiveness as a deterrent.”

I hope my answers will give you an insider’s insight into the secretive world of “Chasse B …” and thanks for your interest.”

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  1. phuzz

    I’d seen pictures of the Mirage III and IV, and I’d always assumed that the IV was just an upgrade of the III. I’d never seen a picture of them next to each other before, now the difference make sense!
    Also, I’ve just thought of another question you might consider asking in these interviews: “What nicknames did you give the aircraft?”. I’d love to know what the French equivalent of “tin triangle” is.

  2. AndrewZ

    Jean Copponnex refers to the “secretive world” of “Chasse B”. Did Mirage IV crews have to accept much more severe security restrictions than other military aircrew because of its key strategic role, and if so what impact did that have on their everyday life?

  3. Pingback: Wednesday NatSec Roundup - Lawyers, Guns & Money

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