A bird's eye view on Bastille Day

PARIS (Reuters) - Reuters photographer Philippe Wojazer flew in an Alpha jet taking part in a military air parade for France’s Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on Thursday. Below is his account of the experience.

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Flying in an Alpha jet is not comfortable but soaring high above the ground in the small, narrow plane with its transparent top gives a glimpse of what it must be to fly like a bird.

The planes were among dozens of aircraft taking part in the annual Bastille Day military parade on Paris’s Champs-Elysees on Thursday.

In past years I have photographed marching soldiers and army vehicles but this time I was speeding though the skies above the French capital taking part in the fly-past.

The air parade begins with jets trailing France’s national colors of blue, white and red. They are followed by groupings of different planes. Mine featured four Mirage 2000C and two Alpha jets. It took us some 40 seconds to complete our part of the parade.

Like many other planes participating, we had set off from a military base in Evreux, a one-hour train ride from Paris. After a speedy but relatively smooth take-off, it took us just over eight minutes to cover the same distance in the Alpha jet.

Outside Paris, different groups circled the skies in their “hold” areas, awaiting their turn to fly over the capital.

My pilot Benoit and I waited some 20 minutes. When the radio instruction came through, the Mirage and Alpha jets took their places -- just 15 meters apart -- like dancers ready to perform.

We entered Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the distance and I managed to take pictures before we zipped down the Champs-Elysees. Then, with the show finished, the Mirages went one way and the Alpha Jets the other.

I had never flown in such an aircraft before this week and it is truly an extraordinary experience. But it is not for the faint-hearted.

I had to undergo basic medical tests and have my legs measured to make sure I would fit inside the jet before undergoing training at a military base near Bordeaux, southwest France, learning the cockpit security basics.

While there, I was given equipment including a helmet, safety vest and inflatable trousers -- used so that blood does not rush to the feet.

Benoit and I first took to the skies on Wednesday, heading to Evreux. We flew at a speed of 850kph some 10 km (6 miles) above ground.

The jet is steady while in flight but makes disconcertingly sharp turns when preparing to land -- I was told slow, deep breaths were key to avoid fainting.

Photographing the parade from a helicopter last year, I could make out the crowds below but this time, I saw very little. It felt as though we were shooting through the skies and were engulfed by the clouds -- the fulfillment of a lifetime ambition for a speed fan like me.

Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Catherine Evans