Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history
This year’s Salon International de l’Aéronautique — and more recently also ‘de l’Espace’ — at Le Bourget was the 52nd in a series that started in 1909, initially as an outgrowth of the Paris motor show. As mentioned in the May issue, I first visited in 1967, when I was but a lad, and have been back intermittently for 50 years since. How did Le Bourget 2017, the largest trade airshow in the world, stack up against the competition?
Paris still attracts the largest number of exhibitors, even if manufacturers — and particularly American manufacturers — quietly but fervently wish it would go away. They reason that nobody actually goes to an airshow and decides, on the spur of the moment, to place a massive aircraft order without previously having negotiated it for months, if not years. Events such as Paris are today more about announcing than generating orders. These totalled $150 billion this year, but it is increasingly difficult to prove that attending a show creates new business. In 2003, much of its aerospace industry and the US military boycotted Paris, but commercial pressures, and the fear of missing out, soon brought them back.
Le Bourget is a great show site with public transport connections that put Farnborough to shame and a €14 (£12.50; less than the airshow price of three Wall’s Magnums) public entry price that encourages the next generation. The organisers have the recurrent problem of keeping ‘big-name’ aircraft at the show once the first trade days have passed. This year, two noteworthy newcomers in the shape of Brazil’s KC-390 and the stretched A350-1000 had left by mid-week, no doubt to continue test programmes or to undertake sales tours. British participation was decidedly low-key. In the weekend flying display, the UK was represented only by a Hawker Hurricane — and a Frenchregistered one at that, Jan Roozen’s MkI P3351. The Le Bourget crowds are openly enthusiastic, applauding displays that they especially appreciate. That tends to mean French participants (Chauvin, remember, was a Frenchman) such as the Patrouille de France, which was allocated the top-of-thebill 15.00hrs display slot, and the solo Armée de l’Air Rafale, although the F-35A’s routine with its ‘square loops’ also drew genuine and spontaneous applause.
As at Farnborough, there is much enjoyment in seeking out the wacky newcomers. The Mini Bee-Plane is one such project. A two- or four-seat VTOL ‘personal aircraft’, it features electric propulsion driving eight fans — four fixed and four tilting. This French project, still some way from flying, is promoted with the slogan ‘Drive your Aircraft!’ Another futuristic design, albeit one that had at least reached the hardware stage to be on show, was the SureFly, an eight-rotor, electric-powered two-person helicopter with a 70-mile range. First impressions were of a drone re-engineered as a manned aircraft. Which, in fact, is pretty much what it is.
“The plaque marking where Lindbergh touched down is as significant as that on the deck of HMS Victory announcing ‘Here Nelson Fell’”
The Salon is not just about all that is new, however. The Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace is open without charge throughout, for visitors to walk through and enjoy its unrivalled display of (mainly French) aircraft. And other historical artefacts are there if you look for them. On what is now the concrete apron at Le Bourget can be found an engraved stone plaque that commemorates the spot where Charles Lindbergh touched down on 21 May 1927 after his epic, pioneering, trans-Atlantic flight. Now well-worn by the passage of time and feet, this is in every way as significant as the raised brass plaque, known to all British schoolboys, on the deck of HMS Victory that announces, ‘Here Nelson Fell’.