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Published on 06 May 2021

Interview with Michel Soutiran, Founder of the company Sparflex and at the helm of a fleet of three L39 Albatros

Michel Soutiran has spent over forty years as the head of his company Sparflex, which specialises in the manufacture of caps and wirehoods for champagne bottles. Following a successful exit from his company, Mr Soutiran now entirely devotes himself to his passion: aviation. He was the first pilot to fly an L39 Albatros Aero Vodochody in France and is now at the helm of a fleet of three L39 Albatros known as "Fly & Fun" (for James Bond fans, it's the plane that featured in "Tomorrow Never Dies”!)

We are honoured to have Mr. Soutiran as one of our prestigious French clients and we would be delighted to be part of the "Fly & Fun" team as enthusiasts ourselves.

How did you come up with the idea of creating the "Sparflex" aircraft patrol, recently renamed "Fly & Fun"?
The idea never came to me. Arising opportunities and events made it happen.
I have been a pilot from an early age but I was not qualified on this type of aircraft at all. When I was young, I was an instructor and soon used the aircraft for travel. I had a very nice Beechcraft King Air F90 which I flew single pilot but it was not fast enough for me. I also used that as an excuse to move on (laughs). I came across an advertisement for an L39 Albatros, a more powerful aircraft that would allow me to go faster.
Then I met Jacques Bothelin at an airshow and that's when it all started. Jacques Bothelin is a very experienced pilot in the aerial world who has spent his professional life in airshows. He is also the founder of Apache Aviation, a company based in Dijon. He came up to me and asked, "Can we try your machine?"
I had always used my planes for my travel until then, that's when I got into aerobatics with people who know how to do it. Philippe Laloix in particular, former pilot of the “Patrouille de France”. In this world, which is made up of former military men, we always fly in twos or threes, and I started training in aerobatics in a tight aircraft patrol. It was a time when I was regularly in Dijon. When Jacques Bothelin's Breitling aircraft patrol left for a tour of Asia, I thought I had to have a second plane.
So I bought a second L39 and with a former fighter pilot, we started training together. The aim was to get trained and to do some airshows. Two years later I bought the third one. It is really a world of enthusiasts and I am delighted to have Aymeric de Valence, a former Rafale pilot in the naval aviation and leader of our aircraft patrol, as well as Renan Joyeux, a former fighter on the Mirage F1 in the air force, in the aircraft patrol.

Is there another aircraft patrol like yours in France?
There was the Breitling aircraft patrol in Dijon, which I believe is now looking for a new sponsor.

Why did you choose L39 Albatros?
We had a historic opportunity because of the Warsaw Pact Alphabet. In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, all these economies were in agony and we saw all the Eastern European countries selling planes. Private American pilots were buying this type of machines, so I said to myself that there was a reason and that it should be accessible to us. We are talking about 3,800 aircraft and there will probably be no equivalent to replace an aircraft like this for private use. The economic conditions under which we were able to make this acquisition were unique. It offers excellent value for money and performance although it was never intended to be operated by civilians.

How many years apart did you buy your L39 Albatros?
I bought the first one twenty years ago and then the second one ten to twelve years later. Finally, I bought the third one two years after the second one.

Where can we see you fly?
Wherever there are airshows. Otherwise, we are based in Reims. It's a very beautiful region, you have to come and fly with us to discover the Champagne region from above! (

Can you tell us more about your association "Fly & Fun"?
The association's vocation is to maintain the "flame", to keep these aircraft in flying condition and to allow the general public to discover flying in this type of machine. We can travel for companies or private operations in all regions of France or Europe. We were able to offer very beautiful flights in the Swiss Alps for example...
(Fly & Fun - Jet experience with Team Sparflex | Facebook)

What are your next projects for the patrol?
There will normally be an airshow at Saint Yan on June 11th & 12th, 2021 if current circumstances allow. The format will be reduced in terms of audience. This gives us a goal for further training.

Where does your passion for aviation come from?
I spent my youth in Champagne at a time when there were a lot of planes in the air, vultures and then F1 mirages, etc. In my home village, there was a special relationship with the "Lorraine" squadron of the 112 Air Force Base. This led me to take a closer look at all this.
By chance and by misfortune, I had a problem of myopia in my left eye at the age of 16, which prevented me from being a fighter pilot at the time, but which led me on a trajectory that still allows me to fly today, whereas the fighter pilots of my generation have already retired decades ago...
Flying was a hobby for me, a discovery that became a passion rather than a profession, and it turned out to be a real facilitator for the development of my business... It really helped me to develop the company. We used to run several Sparflex operations every year, flying around 150 people each year. This forged real relationships with customers and allowed us to convey the values of the company, in total synergy with the aviation values.

What is your background? Have you always been in your current line of work or have you changed during your career?
I am originally from Champagne and I started my career thanks to aviation. At the end of my studies, I joined the company of an industrialist who had his own plane and whom I had met thanks to this common passion. He specialised in caps for champagne bottles. I did not know the world of packaging before and that's how I discovered it.
Four years later, we started Sparflex together and then developed the company in France, Spain, the United States, Australia, etc. I ended up spending forty years in the packaging business!

Do you have a particular memory/anecdote that you will always remember?
Yes, in the aeronautical field! Shortly after the purchase of the first L39, we took off from Marignane with my wife in the back seat. She was talking to me, giving me news, when suddenly the plane made a sharp 90-degree turn to the left of its own accord. At that moment she told me that she had lost her canopy! I reduced my power, noted with relief that the controls were once again responding to my requests and I noticed that the canopy was blocked on the leading edge of the left wing of the aircraft!
Back to Marignane with my wife in the back seat of the convertible who nevertheless continued to comment on what she saw in her cockpit and on her instruments while she could not hear any of my answers...

How could this happen?
It happened during the acceleration phase of take-off. There was an undetectable locking fault. The canopy was incorrectly locked on one side only and rotated around the axis on which it was securely locked before tearing off. It wedged itself on the wing at the Pitot antenna, it stayed there until landing! My wife was remarkably cool as it was very impressive.
It happened on a Saturday and on Monday we were listing our company on the Paris stock exchange!

What do you like best about your work?
Now that I'm retired, my favourite thing to do with the L39s is to organise flights for individuals or companies. It's very interesting for companies in the context of team building!

Do you have any other passions?
I am also a helicopter instructor, and I have a family with five grandchildren, so that keeps me busy too (laughs).

What is the best book you have read recently and why?
Lately it's been a bit technical, finance-oriented. This is a book about the story of a trader, “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator" by Edwin Lefèvre (1923)... A classic in the world of finance, a biography that is still relevant today.

Do you listen to music when you work or do you prefer silence?
I listen to music, but I don't hear it (laughs). I actually miss it if I don't have it. Any kind of music, I just need a background music.

What is your favourite season and why?
By far spring which represents the return to life! At that time, you experience the first pleasant flights over the exploding countryside, with its fabulous lights.

If you could teleport yourself anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose?
Viveros Island in the Las Perlas archipelago in Panama. It is a magical place where there is an incredible life underwater (hence the name) ... I have friends there and if I could teleport, I would gladly join them to spend the weekend or even a bit more.

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