Gänsweiler, France | Never before has the French air force deactivated a plane as an adversary aircraft. Never before has such a highly mobile and incalculable weapon been confined to a single combat zone, kept in silos like an ancient artifact from a civil war. And never before has it been refused a mission because the aviators are sick with influenza.
This is an extreme example of France’s ever-evolving methods of avoiding the most frequent threats to its aviation. Until two weeks ago, aviators were being isolated away from the cockpit as a safety precaution in their flight suits. But it has been no consolation to French pilots that they must stay away from their work when they are actually fighting the conflict.
When French aircraft strikes in Syria, or Libya, they must wait until after setting up an intercept zone, then evacuate the aircraft after takeoff. Then they must await recertification by commanders, a process that can take a month or two. French pilots suspected of having the flu — a combination of mild flu, cold and fatigue — are unrecertified from flight duty.
Their mission is to defend French planes and the aircraft over which they are flying. So the French are not supposed to combat anyone, even when they are sick. Once the virus has run its course, the aircraft can be reaccredited, and the pilots sent back to work.
With U.S. pilots appearing to be washing their hands more quickly than in previous seasons, French authorities see this challenge as one of vigilance. To speed up the recertification process, the French have begun to keep the flight suits while the aviators are recertified.
This process is expected to delay flights while the pilots are recertified, either at the base where they are serving or by commercial airliners at Charles de Gaulle or Toulouse airports.
This highly controlled policy poses other problems, such as the risk of the virus escaping from a flight into the air. Not only is the infection contagious, but the U.S. Navy still plans to use the Avro Arrow from the late 1950s to intercept Russian airplanes in the event of hostilities. If the nuclear-armed aircraft were to accidentally malfunction — or even if they were to make an unexpected emergency landing in the course of an anti-aircraft shootout — the aircraft could be contaminated with the H1N1 virus.
Making matters worse, the H1N1 virus found its way into the flying program from its origins as an enterovirus. Now that doctors have isolated the virus from swine, officials are considering whether to move to track it in birds. This would be especially damaging for French pilots who are exposed to both avian and swine viruses in their training.
There is little that can be done to shorten the recertification time. The French can pay a fine to have the aircraft recertified, but the effort costs about 5 million euros ($5.7 million).
There is no international agreement, for example, to require that the recertified planes be publicly accessible, so the French can’t simply advertise the reassurance. France also requires the officers at the flight control stations to wear a mask. But what can the French actually do, other than rely on human hygiene — and especially the protection of the pilots and their families?
“This is the nightmare scenario,” said Pieter Bruun, the president of the Association of French Pilots (AFP), one of several groups negotiating an agreement with the French government. “The French military will be forced to interfere with the war effort by flying only part of the missions. If there is a crash, the aircraft will be exposed for a long time.”
As a first step, the AFF has held meetings with the government about the difficulties of keeping a flight safely empty while the pilots are recertified. The French have recognized the problem, and the pilots will soon discuss how to solve it.
Bruun wants to set up a hotline so the recertified crew members can contact the lead flight control officers during flight. Even then, France has ruled out allowing pilots to fight the battle from within an occupied country.
But the pilots are not the only ones worried. Staff at a French military hospital, awaiting a request from the defense ministry to test the virus, are fearing for the well-being of the aviators, even though they are vaccinated. “It would be a very serious situation for the plane,” said Pierre Mollina, the head of the military hospital, explaining that if the officers at the control stations were to get the virus, they could infect others who would work on the battle plan.
If they were to infect a passenger, the airplane could get hypoxia and be crippled, Mollina