The Rhône: A Close Encounter in Vallabregues

A Canadair firefighting plane working the

While we were moored in Aramon we saw a pair of French Canadair firefighting planes working downriver in the distance pulling water from Rhône. We learned later that the planes were fighting a fire near Nîmes, about 30 kilometers away. At the time we thought it would be interesting to see the aircraft at work from close-up. In Aramon were about 6 or 7 kilometers from Vallabregues. It was too far away to get a good view.

A few days later we learned through a news report that one of the planes we were watching clipped a dock at Vallabregues’s river port. Though there was significant damage to the plane, it managed to fly back to its base. The report included an up close video taken by boater at the port. Maybe it was a good that we weren’t close to the action after all.

A fire fighting plane picking up water during Wanderlust’s first stop in Aramon

Three weeks later, having forgotten about the whole incident, Wanderlust was on the way back up the Rhône from Port Napoleon. As we neared Vallabregues’s port we heard the buzz of a plane. Scanning the sky we saw a single Canadair plane directly to the stern descending to the river to pick-up water. The Nîmes fire was still ongoing; the remaining undamaged plane was still in action.

We kept Wanderlust to the right side of the wide river channel and continued to cruise a straight course up river waiting to see the plane pick up water.

The plane continued its descent. After a few moments it became apparent that the plane was coming up directly towards Wanderlust. For a moment it seemed that the plane would fly directly over us. Then we realized we were wrong. The plane’s glide angle was putting it on a collision course with Wanderlust. By the time we realized what was happening it was too late for us to make any sort of meaningful maneuver. Wanderlust does not move, stop, or turn quickly enough to get out of the way of a fast-moving plane.

Loading water on the plane’s second pass after aborting the first run

The planes skim the water for a considerable distance.

Fortunately at the last moment the pilot aborted its approach and pulled out of his descent. The plane buzzed by within a hundred feet before climbing away. Apparently the pilot had seen Wanderlust at the last moment and decided she would not fit in the plane’s water hold.

The near miss would have made for a great picture, if I had my camera in hand….

After climbing away from the river the pilot circled back and descended again. This time, though we were still close, the Canadair plane was comfortably far enough away from Wanderlust. (In the intervening time Wanderlust had moved further up the wide river.) A few moments later the pilot reached the river and picked up his load of water in a spray of mist. It was a good show as he climbed away from the river.

A Rhône cruise ship comes to a mooring in Aramon.

Close encounters with aircraft are not the only mishaps on the river….

In the end we got our wish to see the plane pick up water up close, but not too close.


The close encounter occurred on September 6 2017.

A map of Vallabrègues.

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