Mirage IIIO

The French Lady

During its twenty five years of RAAF service the Dassault Mirage IIIO was known as the French Lady. This was a very apt description. She was certainly good looking with all the right curves in the right places and moved with a certain dignity and poise. The French Lady, however, also shared some less celebrated traits with her Gaelic counterparts, being occasionally unpredictable or illogical, sometimes moody, often spiteful and always expensive to maintain. But, in her more intimate moments, she left no doubt as to her ability or usefulness. Despite her faults she was admired by all who met her.

She came into service in December 1963. The fleet was built to a total of 100 Single seat IIIOs and 16 dual seat IIIDs. Over the next twenty four years 43 aircraft were lost and 14 pilots were killed. Despite these rather sombre figures, the French Lady was very popular with her pilots, with many achieving over 2000 hours on type, and seven more than 3000 hours. The aircraft, in a clean configuration, had a sparkling performance despite a relatively modest thrust/weight ratio, with an exhilarating acceleration and rate of climb in full afterburner. Very few aircraft could match its amazing roll rate. All this, coupled with the best feeling flight controls of any contemporary aircraft, made it a sheer delight to fly.

Several RAAF fighter aircraft types established themselves as worthy of their own special niche in RAAF history. The Mirage IIIO is one of those select few. Despite never being used in combat, in its long service as our frontline fighter the Mirage served the RAAF very well. It was pilot's aircraft and a superb example of the aerodynamicist's art.

It must be remembered, however, that the Mirage was designed as a medium to high level interceptor to counter the nuclear bomber threat in the European theatre. The Matra missile was the primary weapon backed up by a 30mm gun pack. In this configuration the aircraft performed very well

Mirage IIIO

However, when Australian operations required the addition of two supersonic external fuel tanks and two Sidewinder missiles, plus the Matra, a lack of available power was apparent. As a result, the RAAF Mirage IIIO was underpowered in the configuration required for our conditions. This would have been a definite handicap if offensive air interceptions had been required.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the aircraft could not be air re-fuelled. With the Mirage, the tanks are refuelled individually using mechanical valves. The system worked well for a short range interceptor and no thought was given to the single point refuelling needed for inflight refuelling. This significantly handicapped the aircraft's capability and radius of action as external tanks were required for all longer range operations.

Chosen to replace the F-86 Sabre, the Dassault IIIO Mirage was selected ahead of the Lockheed F104 Starfighter. Both were designed for the pure interceptor role and later adapted for limited air to ground attack work. The selection was controversial. Many considered the F104 would have been a better choice, not least of all because it was an American aircraft and the RAAF had a long history of successful cooperation with the USAF in aircraft production.

It is certainly true that coping with a French design resulted in many shortcomings for the Mirage programme. Also, French influence prevented the Mirage from being employed in Vietnam, and as a result two generations of RAAF fighter pilots never saw a shot fired in anger. However, in view of the appalling F104 loss rate in Vietnam, perhaps these same fighter pilots have reason to be grateful that they had a beautiful aircraft to fly if not to fight with.

Jim Flemming AVM Retd

This Page Last Updated: 20 Feb 24