The Blog

The Paris Air Show,
Twenty Years On

A lot has changed, but it's still the biggest air show of them all.

12:00 AM, Jun 18, 2007 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Paris, France

The City of Lights is several times more expensive than it was back in the late eighties, it is even more overrun with pickpockets, but a 12-year reign by one of the more contrarian European heads of state has come to an end. Everyone asks now if France can restore its former glory, patch up its relations with Washington, and address the social dislocations that cause increasing strains with its Muslim population.

But most of these developments pale in comparison to how much the Le Bourget air show has changed since I first saw it twenty years ago. Called simply "the Paris Air Show" by most of those who attend it, the biennial aerospace extravaganza (officially, the Salon international de l'aéronautique et de l'espace de Paris-Le Bourget) symbolizes the long, distinguished history of aviation in France by being held at the same Le Bourget aerodrome where Charles Lindbergh landed after his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis.

(There is a small brass plaque set flush with the surface of the tarmac that is inlaid on the far end of the huge aerodrome--marking the spot where Lindbergh first stepped out of his aircraft and onto French soil. Good luck finding it. France has always considered itself to be the birthplace of modern aviation and they have never recovered from the multiple embarrassments that the first man to fly a dirigible from the Parc Saint Cloud and circle around the Eiffel tower in less than 30 minutes in 1901 was a Brazilian--Alberto Santos-Dumont--and that the first aeroplane flight and the first solo flight across the Atlantic were accomplished by Americans--the Wright Brothers and Lindbergh. So this plaque is not properly sign-posted as a landmark. You practically have to stumble across it.)

The contrasts with Le Bourget of the late 1980s are startling. In 1989, the then-Soviet Union was opening up to the West. For only the second time since the 1930s a Soviet fighter aircraft appeared at an international air show. It was the debut appearance abroad for the Sukhoi Su-27. The crowd was expecting something out of this world, and they were not disappointed.

su-27-34p04.jpg The Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker.

Sukhoi test pilot Viktor Pugachev put the aircraft through a series of acrobatic twists and turns that seemed to defy gravity. Flight routines like his famous "Cobra Maneuver" and the "Tail Slide" that then-Mikoyan test pilot Anatoliy Kvochur made famous in the MiG-29 have become almost blasé in the present day. Watch this year's flight by the MiG-29OVT thrust vectoring testbed aircraft and you can see the difference.

Kvochur also became well-known in a way that he would rather not have at the 1989 show by crashing his MiG-29 fighter following the low-speed, high angle-of-attack portion of his flight routine. It was the first crash of a Soviet aircraft at Paris since the Tupolev Tu-144 "Concordski" went down at the 1973 show. That year the Soviets indignantly packed up and went home, but in 1989 they stayed to the end and tried to put a positive spin on the reasons for the crash. They knew there was also a crash of their own way of life coming, and they couldn't just walk away from either one of them and pretend that they did not exist.

Which is one of the major changes of the past 20 years. The Russians in 1989 were secretive, still afraid to have contact with Westerners, still under the Soviet regime, and still not sure how they would survive as the USSR's economic and political system crumbled. They also did not seem to grasp how they were about to become competitors in the marketplace with the West instead of enemies facing each other across the fields of Central Europe. But they could see the changes coming.