The Breguet-Dassault-Dornier TA501 was declared the winner of the competition on 23 July 1970, with full development approved in February 1972. Two prototypes were to be built by Dassault in France (that company having bought out Breguet in the meantime) and two were to be built by Dornier in Germany. The first French prototype performed its first flight at Istres on 26 October 1973, with the first German prototype following from Oberpfaffenhofen on 9 January 1974. The remaining two prototypes were in the air before the end of 1974.
The French Air Force decided to use the Alpha Jet primarily as a trainer, and the first production Alpha Jet for the French made its first flight on 4 November 1977. The French variant was known as the Alpha Jet E (the "E" standing for Ecole, French for "School") or Alpha Jet Advanced Trainer/Light Attack aircraft. Initial deliveries to France for service trials were in 1978, leading to introduction to line service in May 1979, replacing the Canadair T-33 and Fouga Magister in jet training and the Dassault Mystère IVA in weapons training. The Patrouille de France, air demonstration team of the French Air Force, fly the Alpha Jet. A total of 176 production Alpha Jet E machines were delivered up to 1985, not the 200 that had been planned. While an excellent aircraft, French air force commanders of combat units did have one complaint against the Alpha Jet, in that it was a very forgiving aircraft to fly, resulting in a lengthier and steeper learning curve when assigned to fly combat aircraft which were not so forgiving.
The Luftwaffe decided to use the Alpha Jet mainly in the light strike role, preferring to continue flight training in the southwestern United States on American trainer types instead of performing training in Germany, although Germany also used Alpha Jets based at Beja, Portugal for weapons training. The first production German Alpha Jet performed its maiden flight on 12 April 1978, with deliveries beginning in March 1979. It was designated the Alpha Jet A (the "A" standing for Appui Tactique or "Tactical Strike") or Alpha Jet Close Support variant. The Luftwaffe obtained 175 machines up to 1983, with the type replacing the Fiat G91R/3. Manufacture of Alpha Jet sub-assemblies was divided between France and Germany, with plants in each country performing final assembly and checkout. The four prototypes remained in service as testbeds, for example evaluating a composite graphite-epoxy wing and improved Larzac engine variants.
The different avionics fit makes French and German Alpha Jets easy to tell apart, with French planes featuring a rounded-off nose and German ones featuring a sharp, pointed nose.
Foreign service and improved variants
Considerable foreign sales were expected for the Alpha Jet, with the type becoming available before its main rival, the United Kingdom's BAe Hawk. The Hawk ended up winning on sales, but as it was commented:
The first major foreign customers were Belgium and Egypt, each performing final assembly of French-configuration Alpha Jet E machines. Belgium ordered 33 aircraft under the designation Alpha Jet 1B, with assembly by SABCA of Belgium and deliveries in 1978–1980.
The Belgian aircraft have been updated by SABCA to Alpha Jet 1B+ configuration, featuring a laser-gyro inertial navigation system with a GPS receiver, a HUD in the front cockpit and a HUD repeater in the rear, a video recorder and other small improvements. The initial 1B+ was redelivered in 2000 and the Alpha Jets are expected to remain in Belgian service until at least 2015.
Egypt ordered 30 aircraft designated Alpha Jet MS1 in the early 1980s. Four complete aircraft were supplied by Dassault, with the other 26 assembled in Egypt from knockdown kits by AOI.
Several other nations also obtained the Alpha Jet E, including the Ivory Coast (seven aircraft), Morocco (24), Nigeria (24), Qatar (six) and Togo (five). All of these machines were from French production except for the 24 Nigerian aircraft, which were from German production. Pictures of Qatari Alpha Jet E machines show them painted in neat brown-and-sand ripple desert camouflage on top and light blue on the bottom, and also featuring an unusual long spine running from the tail fin up to about mid-wing. The spine may house additional avionics.
The Luftwaffe began to phase out their Alpha Jet A machines in 1992, reserving 45 for lead-in fighter training. A total of 50 were passed on to Portugal in 1993, replacing the Northrop T-38 Talon and Fiat G.91, with five of these used for spares. The rest of the Luftwaffe's Alpha Jets were gradually phased out, with the last leaving service in 1998. In 1999, 25 more were sold to Thailand to replace North American OV-10 Broncos in the border patrol role, while the British Defence Evaluation and Research Agency obtained 12 as chase aircraft and flight test platforms. Both the Thais and the British used five of their aircraft for spares.
The Alpha Jets were sold cheaply since they were soaking up funds simply sitting in mothballs, though Fairchild-Dornier received a contract worth US$43 million to refurbish the machines and provide support to the end users. Apparently 32 more, including two spares hulks, were sold to the United Arab Emirates, though details are unclear, and three went to private owners, to be used by the "Flying Bulls" flight demonstration team, which operates out of Austria and flies a range of classic aircraft.
In 1980, work began on an "Alternate Close Support" version of the Alpha Jet, featuring a SAGEM ULISS 81 INS, a Thomson-CSF VE-110 HUD, a TMV630 laser rangefinder in a modified nose and a TRT AHV 9 radio altimeter, with all avionics linked through a digital databus. Initial flight was on 9 April 1982. Cameroon obtained seven (some sources claim 6) and Egypt obtained 15. As with the original Egyptian order for MS1 machines, Dassault provided four such machines under the designation of MS2 and AOI of Egypt assembled the other eleven from knockdown kits.
Abbatare Inc. of Arlington, Washington, under the name of "Alpha Jets USA", has begun to import Alpha Jets into the United States and sell them in the civilian market.
H211, a private company which manages the planes owned and leased by Google execs Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt, operates an Alpha Jet for them, based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.