NATO Tiger Meet

Monte-de-Marson (South West France) – By Peter Hampson

The NATO Tiger Association was established in 1961 with the aim of improving relationships between individual Tiger squadrons within NATO. Each of these squadrons had a Tigers head in their squadron crest.

Photo: FAF Rafale “Dark Tiger” painted for the NATO Tiger Meet (NTM) 2019 to commemorate 75th Anniversary of operation “Smoke Screen” – Normandy 6th June 1944. Peter Hampson.

Photo: FAF Rafale “Dark Tiger” painted for the NATO Tiger Meet (NTM) 2019 to commemorate 75th Anniversary of operation “Smoke Screen” – Normandy 6th June 1944. Peter Hampson.

The Tiger stands as a symbol of strength, speed and hunting prowess. The aims of the association established back in 1961 remain valid to this day:-

 ·       Improvement of solidarity between NATO members

·       The creation and maintenance of team-spirit and camaraderie between the participating members

·       The exchange of experiences and cooperation in line with the military goals of NATO

 Since 1962 Tiger Meets have evolved into first class military exercises where the participants fly combined missions encompassing the entire spectrum of military operations.  Alongside low flying, emphasis is placed on:-

·       Air to air refuelling

·       Air combat

·       The use of weapon ranges

·       Command and control

 Whenever possible Tiger Meets are incorporated into larger scale NATO exercises. During an average two week Tiger Meet not less than 800 sorties are typically flown by the Tigers.

 In recent years Helicopters have naturally joined the Tiger Squadrons as combat “Fighter aircraft” are no longer the sole attack force.  In addition, a significant variety of aircraft will be seen at a Tiger meet to provide back up and support as you would expect in any modern Military Theatre.

 It should be noted that The Tiger Meet is certainly not an “Airshow”.  However, with such a gathering of different NATO forces and aircraft types it is inevitable that the Tiger Meets generate a significant interest amongst the Worldwide aviation enthusiast community especially when it has become something of a tradition to paint some of the aircraft (and helicopters) in special “Tiger” liveries primarily for the event.

 In recent years an Open day known as a “Spotters day” has been held during the two week Tiger Meet, whereby enthusiasts can apply for tickets to be invited onto the base and observe / photograph from special viewing enclosures created to observe the arrival and departure of the aircraft on their various missions.

 The “Spotters Day” will only take place on one particular day – usually the first Friday of the meet.  Note: there is no guarantee that your application will be successful as numbers are usually limited and subject to strict security checks by the host base prior to the event and on the day.  Remember, you will be entering a live Base to observe their missions!

 If you are successful there can be a lot of waiting and no action.  Patience is required.  However, once the action starts (arrivals and departures) it can continue for some time and is without doubt it’s very special – especially if you like seeing military aircraft from different countries in special liveries being put through their paces.

How do you apply for tickets?

An official announcement will be made via the NATO Tigers Website and Facebook page if a “Spotters Day” will be taking place and what the application arrangements are. The 2020 Tiger Meet is expected to take place at Beja, Portugal.

 Is there a charge?

Yes, there is.  The fee will vary pending the host base – probably between £15 to £30.  In recent years the fee includes a sandwich lunch pack, drink, cake and a souvenir from the event eg. NATO Tiger patch commemorating the specific Tiger Meet and most important of all… your official Spotters Pass.  Depending on your interest I found this very good value and photographic access to a live military base during such an exercise is almost priceless!

 What facilities are provided?

Again this will vary dependant upon the base.  There will be temporary toilets established within the Spotting enclosure, but probably little in terms of seating and cover.  A small number of stands selling Squadron souvenirs will also be present. There is no commentary although each ticket holder is given a briefing document in advance of the event detailing the timings and basic instructions for the day eg. Car Parking arrangements, Security requirements etc.

 Recommendations:-

It really is a privilege to be invited onto an active base as a guest.  Please respect that and adhere to any instructions given, in particular the application process and security on the base.  

 Be prepared to queue for access, security checks and take it in your stride.  Go well prepared with snacks, drink, suntan lotion and rain cover… just in case.  It is unlikely that transport will be provided from the car parking area to the spotting enclosure.  It’s not a Civil Airport built for the facilitation of passengers; the base staff are there for other reasons.  Having said that they normally rise to the challenge of the occasion and join in the fun, helping whenever and wherever they can.  

 My own experience of attending the official “Spotters Days” is nothing but excellent.  Very well organised and full credit to everyone involved.  But remember – it’s not an airshow and you are an invited guest.  A lot of work obviously goes into organising the event and I guess they don’t have to do it – but I for one am very grateful they do… Once a Tiger – Always a Tiger!

Photo: Portuguese Air Force F16A MLU of ESQ 301 “The Jaguars” and hosts of the 2020 meet at their Beja Air Base, Portugal. Peter Hampson.

Photo: Portuguese Air Force F16A MLU of ESQ 301 “The Jaguars” and hosts of the 2020 meet at their Beja Air Base, Portugal. Peter Hampson.

2019 – Tiger Meet – No.55

13th -  24th May 2019 - Mont-de-Marson Air Base No 116 S.W. France

It has been some years since I last attended a NATO Tiger meet and I have to say it was right up there near the top of my “Bucket List” to do another one having had a great passion for fast jet photography for some time.

 Fortunately, the TAS Hon Secretary (Debbie Riley) didn’t require too much persuasion to accompany me and be a trusty “bag carrier” in my hour of need (I’m in trouble now!)… “do you really need all these bloody lenses?” she was heard to say on more than one occasion!!

 With huge relief we received confirmation that our application for Spotters Passes had been approved and pinged through on the E mail just a few weeks prior to departure.

 To secure flights and a hotel at a reasonable price the gamble to book had to be made 7 months ago.  This could have been expensive if things had not gone to plan and we were unlucky with the application.  However, we had completed the application process (The most difficult question being – “Are you an EU Resident?”) and paid our monies in advance in accordance with all the prescribed timelines.  In addition, indications were that all the stops were being pulled out this year by the hosts to try and accommodate everyone who wanted to be a Tiger for a day.

As it happened 2000 enthusiasts were to be lucky.

We had planned to go outbound from Manchester with Ryanair via Bordeaux, hire a car stay in Monte de Marson town centre for 3 days and return via Tarbes and Toulouse (for a bit of civil spotting) prior to flying back from TLS to MAN with Flybe.  Why 3 days at the NTM when the Spotters pass and access was only valid for one day?  I guess this was to reduce the risk of bad weather on Friday (Spotters day) and to attempt some photography from outside the base – Arrival and Departure shots if the French Police would allow?

So, on our MAN departure day there were still a lot of unknowns and quite a bit of money had already been spent in the hope that the event would not only be blessed with good weather, but also a fair number of aircraft from different NATO countries would be participating… not for the fainthearted perhaps with the Risk calculator still swinging from one side to the other and we were boarding a plane – no turning back now?

 As it happened, the weather was glorious on the Wednesday and Thursday – beautiful blue skies.  The French police and local Gendarmerie had been well briefed and directed “Les Spotteurs” to a hill near the base where excellent arrival shots could be had without problem.  There was certainly an air of anticipation amongst the gathering united nations. As for the participants in the Tiger Meet… they had been arriving for days, with more (observers) changing daily.  The website was already listing approx. 100 aircraft from almost 20 nations and this excluded any non participating on the base.

It was quite amusing as the local population didn’t know what had hit them.  In fact most were sure that the people on the hill were part of the “yellow vest” movement and beeped their car horns in support as they drove past!  This was understood as the Police were keeping a careful eye on things circulating with the enthusiasts (chatting where pos…”aah Bonjour!”) whilst at the same time ensuring that the traffic kept flowing on nearby roads.

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After a 3 hour wait the first aircraft – FAF Alpha jets arrived overhead before turning in on base leg and short final. The Nikons and Canons sprung into action and rattled away at high shutter speeds. As soon as one wave of aircraft turned final the next wave passed overhead. A pattern which was to continue for the next hour. Not knowing what was arriving next certainly heightened the excitement. “German Tonkas at 3 o’clock, Portuguese F16’’s at 5, Austrian Saab two ship overhead, and Spanish Hornets at 9” came the shouts with plenty of oohs and aahs in between the rattling clicks from the cameras.

Photo: Austrian A F Saab 105. Peter Hampson.

Photo: Austrian A F Saab 105. Peter Hampson.

Photo:  A six ship of FAF Rafale’s over head the base. Peter Hampson

Photo: A six ship of FAF Rafale’s over head the base. Peter Hampson

The sky was indeed full of high performance fighters, screeching as they flew low level over the base – many, to our delight, in their special Tiger schemes.

Make no mistake, this was hard work – no time to change lenses, full memory cards or empty batteries!  You’ve just had 3 hours to prepare for this!  Ultimate concentration, eyes in the back of your head and a bit of luck was required if you were to obtain the shots you desired of the hallowed Tiger.

 The last in.  The Command and Control platform, a NATO E3A Sentry of course… and time to rest… That was probably the most photos I’d ever taken in an hour!!  As per the motto of the NATO Tigers – “It’s hard to be humble”

 

Photo: NATO E3A Sentry LX-N 90448 returns to MDM. Peter Hampson.

Photo: NATO E3A Sentry LX-N 90448 returns to MDM. Peter Hampson.

The small town of Monte de Marson was a busy place in the evenings with the talk of Tigers being the only language spoken!  Participants mingled with enthusiasts... The towns Irish bar (Yes, in South West France) had been decked out with the flags of participating nations and Tiger Squadrons.  

 Unfortunately, the forecast for the Spotters day was absolutely atrocious – heavy rain in the morning and showers the rest of the day.  What? no sun at all?  Would the event be cancelled?  We better prepare for getting wet.  No choice but to go with the flow.  A check on Facebook and the NTM website had no mention of cancellation. It takes a lot more than a spot or two of rain to stop a Tiger in it’s tracks.

 Friday morning broke and the sound of very heavy rain hitting the hotel windows was not a good omen.  Undeterred, when you’re out chasing Tigers the show simply must go on! As we approached the base we hit the traffic queues to get in – it was open for the Spotteurs at 0700hrs – about 3 and a half hours before the first departure wave was planned.  Following a comprehensive name and passport check at the base entrance we were handed the famous Spotteur Passes.  It felt like being given your medal having ran a marathon?  We wore them with Pride.

 The event was on and we were in!  Plenty of Base staff were on hand, (already looking absolutely soaked) to direct us to the allotted parking space.  Then came the walk and more queuing in the rain to gradually get to the security check point where your pass was once again checked, bags emptied and the normal airport style security checks take place… 2000 camera bags each containing expensive cameras and a variety of lenses, water bottles, butties, pens, notebooks, mobile phones etc. all takes time to process.  By the time we set foot onto the base we were wet, very wet, and it was only 8am.   Did someone say this was a holiday?

 There were however, several great photo opportunities before we had even got airside. Some of the base vehicles had been painted in “Tiger” schemes including a Jaguar (think about that one), fuel bowser and a beautiful Citroen 2 CV. French Air Force staff wore Tiger scarves and hats and despite the wet weather were truly getting into the spirit of things.

Photo: Peter H and his new car? Debbie Riley.

Photo: Peter H and his new car? Debbie Riley.

Next job was to stake out your pitch at the crowd line… “How did all these folk get in before us” I asked Debs?  “They probably got up earlier than you!”  Came the typical response…Never mind there was room for everyone and the photo opportunities were there to be had despite the rain.  Crowd lines had been marked out – just right for 50mm shots of taxiing aircraft, 150-300mm for arriving or departing on the Runway – everything was perfect… OK, apart perhaps from the weather?

 No commentary or PA.  Aircraft were starting up just after 10.15 and true to form wave after wave taxied out from the “staff only” Air Base shelters.

 We (Debbie and I) mutually agreed our own plan of action for the photography as it was impossible to be in two different places at the same time.  Debs agreed to click at the fast moving queue for departures on the taxiway and I would go to work on the runway activity.

 The next hour and a half was nonstop action.  If the truth be told the rain actually added to the drama enabling some pretty spectacular shots.  The combination of reheat coming from the back end of a supersonic jet fighter and a wet runway was perhaps a perfect marriage for the photographer?

 “Take care of the cameras folks, try and keep those lenses dry” could be heard being said in several languages – if not quite fully understood, word for word, the actions that followed certainly could.  Get the hanky out, wipe the camera, adjust the settings, click, click, click, wipe the camera, back in the bag.  Once again this was hard work.  But goodness, well worth it! The Tigers were certainly on good form and roaring away…. as the pictures told the story.

Photo: Spanish Air Force F-18 Hornets depart MDM in tandem. Peter Hampson

Photo: Spanish Air Force F-18 Hornets depart MDM in tandem. Peter Hampson

Photo: Italian Air Force Typhoon serial MM55902 taxiing out at a very wet MDM. Debbie Riley

Photo: Italian Air Force Typhoon serial MM55902 taxiing out at a very wet MDM. Debbie Riley

Then, all of a sudden there was silence around the base.  The roar of the Tigers was no more.  Time for quick peeks at the results of your hard work.  We were cold, we were wet, we were content.

 Vans then arrived like clockwork and started distributing goody bags to the masses.  Another queue but there was no hassle – lunch had arrived and the rain still came down.  Wellies and brollies were not on our “to pack list” for the South of France.  The baggage allowance on low cost air travel has a lot to answer for…

 With lunch duly scoffed the action started one again – as someone once said “I counted them all out and I counted them all back” with missions completed the Tigers started to return.  The Chase Lear jet was first in.  No doubt for debriefing and the crew hot lunches having completed the morning mission.

 With the fast jets all safely back on La Piste, many people started to leave (including ourselves) feeling very satisfied, but on this occasion deciding to put ones health and very wet feet before the great attraction of more Tigers.

 For those that stayed they were treated to a display by the Patroulle de France no less and a few more surprises laid on just for “Les Spotteurs”, and of course the departure and arrival of the afternoon missions.  In my younger days I would not have hesitated in remaining with them.  But the thought of a nice hot bath back at the hotel was too much to resist… aaah relax!

 Yes, it was a great pity that the rain had chosen to arrive and persist for almost all of Spotters Day.  However, that did not deter 2000 invited guests making the very worthwhile trip to Monte-de-Marson for a glimpse of the 2019 NATO Tiger Meet.

Photo: German Air Force Tornado serial 4325 of TaktLwg 51 “I”. Peter Hampson.

Photo: German Air Force Tornado serial 4325 of TaktLwg 51 “I”. Peter Hampson.

To Conclude :-

Congratulations and a huge thanks to the Organisers of NTM  2019 “Spotters Day”.  I couldn’t fault the organisation and friendliness of all the staff we came across.  As I know only too well, these things don’t just happen.  The behind the scenes work must have been immense… “Merci beaucoup” you did it to perfection and made a lot of people very happy.  Looking forward to the next one… TIGER, TIGER, TIGER!!!.

Photo: Italian Air Force 12th Gruppo Typhoon serial MM7322/ 36 40. Peter Hampson.

Photo: Italian Air Force 12th Gruppo Typhoon serial MM7322/ 36 40. Peter Hampson.