Cold War Era

US Navy F-8 Pilot Says the French Aéronavale Retired the Legendary Crusader in Proper Style

French Aéronavale F-8 Crusader

The Vought F-8 Crusader was known as a “fighter pilot’s fighter.” It was challenging to fly, especially during carrier landings, but Crusader pilots loved their jet. The F-8 completed service in US Navy fighter squadrons in 1976, while the RF-8 (photo-reconnaissance version) served until 1987.

The French also flew the Crusader, but they do things differently and in the case of retiring the legendary fighter, I think they did it better.

During combined operations with the US Navy, an Aéronavale F-8E(FN) lands on the USS Eisenhower in 1983. The French fighter is painted light gray and carries a Matra “Magic” missile. (US Navy photo)

The F-8E(FN)

The French Crusader story begins in the early 1960s, when, seeking a fighter for the new carriers Clemenceau and Foch (commissioned 1961 and 1963, respectively), the Aéronavale (French Naval Aviation) selected a slightly modified version of the F-8E that is often designated F-8E(FN). The aircraft commenced operations in 1964. Known by French pilots as “Le Crouze,” they participated in routine deployments and combat operations for 35 years. Modifications and refurbishments maintained their effectiveness until they could be replaced by the Rafale.

Aéronavale leaders waited until the end of the century, December 1999, for the retirement. The last squadron did not expect a crowd to come to a small base in western France in December. They were wrong. They received so many acknowledgments that they asked the American Crusader Association for help. I was the secretary of the association, so that meant me. Making arrangements for sixty senior citizens to get to Landivisiau, France, was an interesting, fun challenge. Thanks to Bruce Boland we even threw in a dinner in Paris sponsored by the American Embassy (Bruce was a former F-8 pilot in VF-13 with me in the 1960s and retired as a 2-star).

Beautiful profile artwork of the VF-13 F-8D that bore Durbin’s name in 1967. (Artwork by Mads Bangsø; you can purchase his art at www.artstation.com/aircraftprofiles).

French Aéronavale F-8 Crusader retirement

At the big event, the French put on a small air show for the guests with four F-8s. Remember, this is December: it’s cold and windy. Standing outside the chain link fence by the taxiway are about sixty old, cold Americans waiting to see relics fly again. I looked at the group and I was so very proud to have been part of this scene. I hadn’t seen a Crusader fly in more than thirty years. For some in the group, it had been even longer. Then we heard a distinctive whine as four J57 engines started up. They went through their procedures and four wings were raised (The F-8 had that novel “variable incidence” feature to reduce speed on approach to landing). Soon they started to taxi from our left, across in front of us, and on to the runway. I turned around to shoot a few pictures of the group, and looked again: grown men were in tears. Tough, seasoned fighter pilots were unabashedly allowing tears to come out of their eagle eyes. All I could think of was, “I have done a very good thing.”

In later years, French Crusaders wore a dark gray-blue that looked great on the sleek airframe. (Stéphane Nicolau via Peter Mersky)

The last American to raise the wing

Towards the end of the festivities the squadron skipper, Antoine Guillot, asked me to come to the ready room. He then asked me to get into full flight gear. As we walked out to a waiting Crusader, he said the government did not allow any money for a gift for my efforts. Instead, he wanted me to start an F-8 and go through the full startup procedure. That would involve raising the wing. He continued, “I want you to be the last American to raise the wing.” No expensive gift would have meant more to me.

I proudly display this photo on a wall of my library, with an appropriate label.
Larry Durbin

Larry Durbin spent 7 years as a US Navy fighter pilot and then 33 years with United Airlines. He also ran successful real estate businesses. He is retired and lives in Florida, and will share more flying stories with The Aviation Geek Club in the months ahead.

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