On Wednesday, July 7, 1999, the first production Dassault Aviation Rafale M for the French Naval Aviation (Aeronavale) made its maiden flight from the Dassault assembly plant in Bordeaux-Merignac, in the south-west of France. This flight, part of a comprehensive acceptance programme, was carried out by Dassault’s Chief Test Pilot in Merignac, Philippe Deleume, a graduate of the prestigious Empire Test Pilot School at Boscombe Down. The sortie lasted 1 hr 20 min and included a supersonic phase at a maximum speed of Mach 1.2, a climb to a maximum altitude of 50,000ft (15,240m) and manoeuvres at -3/+7.5 G. Low-speed characteristics were also examined and the fighter flew at 100 knots and 26° angle-of-attack. The aircraft, serial number Ml, is fully instrumented and will be delivered to the Centre d’Essais en Vol (Flight Test Centre) at Istres, in the south-east of France, to participate in the development of the follow-on air-to-ground attack variants. The previous day, the first landings by a fixed-wing aircraft on the new nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier Charles de Gaulle had been carried out by Eric Girard of Dassault, flying a Super Etendard, followed by Dassault Chief Test Pilot Yves ‘Bill’ Kerherve flying Rafale prototype M02. The Rafale was catapulted from the vessel for the first time on July 7. A total of about 15 landings and take off at different weights (between 12 and 18 tons) will be performed by the Rafale during this first campaign.
The Rafale Marine is very close to the singleseat Armee de I’Air variant. Changes have been kept to a minimum in an effort to reduce costs. The main consequence is that the multi-spar wing cannot be folded. This reduces complexity and weight but means that storage above or below decks will be less easy, and so the number of aircraft carried on the Charles de Gaulle will be smaller. The most obvious modification introduced on the Rafale M is the massive, longer and stronger nosewheel gear which gives the aircraft its noticeable nose-up attitude. To increase interoperability with US Navy aircraft-carriers, the nosewheel incorporates a catapult hook. Other changes include a reinforced main undercarriage, a strengthened airframe, a tail hook and a carrier-based microwave landing system. A power-operated built-in ladder improves cockpit accessibility and reduces the support equipment needed. Finally, a new fin-top Telemir system has been introduced, which allows the aircraft’s Inertial Navigation System (INS) to talk to the carrier navigation suite and exchange navigation data. In Aeronavale service, the Rafale M will replace no less than three types of aircraft: the now totally outdated Vought F-8P Crusaders, the Dassault Etendard IVPM reconnaissance aircraft and, ultimately, the Dassault Super Etendard
Modernist attack fighters.
The first ten naval fighters will be delivered in the so-called FI standard for air-to-air combat and air-defence missions. The FI variant will be armed with Mica EM radar-guided missiles and the long-serving Magic II short-range AAMs and its RBE2 (Radar a Balayage Electronique 2 plans) electronically scanned radar will have no air-to-ground modes. The Rafale M standard FIs will enter service in 2001 to replace the F-8P Crusaders, which will be withdrawn from service in December 1999. The first unit to be equipped will be Flottille 12F at Landivisiau, in Brittany. The subsequent 15 Rafale Ms will beof the improved F2 standard which will allow air-to-ground attacks to be performed. New attack weapons such as the Apache/Scalp cruise missile (of the same family as the Storm Shadow selected by the RAF) and the soon-to-be-selected AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire, modular air-to-ground armament) will be introduced in the F2 variant. The OSF (Optronique Secteur Frontal, front sector optronics), a Link 16 MIDS and new air-to-ground modes for the RBE2 radar will also be adopted in F2 Rafales. Finally, the Mica IR will supplant the Magic II. Standard 2 aircraft are due to enter service in 2004 and the first squadron, Flottille 11F, will be fully operational at Landivisiau in 2006. The final 35 aircraft will be delivered from 2007 onwards in the multirole F3 standard that will be able to carry out other specialised tasks. These will comprise reconnaissance missions with a special pod, inflight refuelling with a buddy-buddy tanking pod and anti-shipping — with the ANF (Anti-Navire Futur) future anti-shipping supersonic missile which will supersede the proven AM39 Exocet.
The first production Rafale, two-seater B301, was delivered to the French Ministry of
Defence in December 1998. The second production two-seater, B302, was nearing completion at the time of AFM’s visit to Bordeaux and it should make its first flight this summer. The production of the Rafale is split between four main factories: Argenteuil, where the fuselage is built, Martignas (wings) and Biarritz (fin), with the final assembly conducted at Bordeaux-Merignac.
The acceptance programme of a Rafale is very similar to the one of a Mirage 2000. The process first starts with ground runs, five of which were carried out for Rafale Ml although only one will be performed for the subsequent aircraft. Contrary to the Mirage 2000, only two flights are performed for the Rafale (three for the older design). The first sortie is called a Domaine (flight envelope) flight during which the aerodynamic performance and behaviour of the fighter will be thoroughly checked. The second mission starts with further Domaine checks but also includes Systemes testing, during which the combat capabilities of the fighter will be fully tested, including the different modes of the RBE2 radar and the efficiency of the Spectra EW suite. During this phase of the acceptance programme, the Rafale will be pitted against another Dassault fighter (either a Mirage FI or a Mirage 2000) that will act as an exercise target to help check the performance of the radar and of the EW suite. Furthermore, targets of opportunity -generally Armee de I’Air fighters operating out of Cazaux — will also be acquired to test the Track While Scan mode. On completion of all these tests, the aircraft will be ready to be delivered to the CEV for further acceptance testing by Ministry of Defence personnel.