ORLEANS, France — Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly on Monday underscored a political close tie between France and the U.S. as she welcomed the first C-130J Super Hercules airlifter to join the French Air Force transport fleet.

The C-130J, designed, developed and built by Lockheed Martin, landed here Dec. 22, part of a four-strong fleet to fill a capability gap for airlift and refuelling of helicopters in the Barkhane mission in the sub-Saharan Sahel region.

On the runway, the new aircraft was flanked on both sides by C-130Hs, with the tailplane of one painted with the slogan “30 years,” marking the long service of a weary French fleet of Hercules cargo planes.

“Madame ambassador, your presence here reminds us that the C-130J first saw the light of day in a hanger in America,” she said at Orleans airbase, south of the capital. The U.S. ambassador, Jamie McCourt, was among the guests at a formal military ceremony which took place under a gray sky and icy wind sweeping the runway.

“Today, it bears our roundel but it symbolizes our union, our strong and historical’ alliance. Our countries share a thirst for excellence, a readiness for action and an unquenchable thirst for freedom; these C-130J are a sign of that.”

The arrival of the C-130J was a “breath of fresh air” to relieve the pressure from an aging aircraft fleet until the park of Airbus A400Ms came to full strength, she said. That fleet of Super Hercules was a key asset for the special forces and would meet critical needs of the services, particularly aerial refueling of helicopters.

The latter capability is key for the combat search and rescue mission of Air Force Caracal helicopters.

Air chief of staff Gen. André Lanata attended the event, along with a senior German official.

As part of a pursuit of European defense, France and Germany will base their C-130J fleets at the Evreux airbase, northern France, in 2021, and pool their training of pilots, loadmasters and technicians. Training simulators will be installed.

France will maintain its planned order of 50 A400M, Parly told journalists after she went on board the C-130J for a visit. Thirteen have been delivered so far out of the 15 expected by 2019.

The French Air Force will spend the next three months testing the C-130J and then receive the second aircraft in the second quarter. The full operational capability of its four-strong fleet is expected in 2021, equipped with self-defense kit to protect the planes from surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles.

The U.S. authorities have approved the sale of self-protection systems, including radar and missile warning, and chaff and flare dispensers, for the French C-130Js, Tony Frese, Lockheed vice president of business development for air mobility and maritime missions, told Defense News. It is common practice to spend the first few months “to bed down” a new aircraft, as services check “all major elements are in place.”

France expects to receive in 2019 the third and fourth aircraft in the KC-130J version, capable of helicopter refueling. The first two units are the C-130J-30 long version. The 2/61 transport squadron, based here, will fly the Super Hercules fleet, which is equipped with a glass cockpit, head-up display and more powerful engines.

The service trained eight pilots and four loadmasters last year ( effectively four crews) over 10 months. Some 30 personnel for non-flight duties were trained, and there are studies for training to add a third member of the cockpit crew for intense “tactical missions.”

A further eight pilots and four loadmasters will be trained this year in the U.S. to prepare for delivery of the KC-130J versions.

There were four Airbus A400M parked at the air base alongside C-160 Transall planes. France ordered the four C-130J in January 2016 in the response to delays in the delivery of the A400M and a lack of tactical capability.

Parly flew back to Paris in the C-130J, sitting with the cockpit crew who landed the plane at Villacoublay air base, just outside the capital.

“Today, with the arrival of the Super Hercules, we are opening a new chapter in military transport aircraft,” Parly said. “A page marked by its rise in power, its access to more abundant and more modern equipment.”