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No Country for Modern Men

Mud on the ground, Raptor in the sky at the UK's Farnborough air show.

12:00 AM, Jul 23, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Farnborough, UK

THE FARNBOROUGH INTERNATIONAL AIR SHOW is the even-numbered year counterpart to the odd-numbered years' Le Bourget exposition in Paris. While both shows are touted as the biggest and most important events of their year in the calendar of international defense and aerospace exhibitions, Farnborough continues to slip a bit behind its French cousin because of its rather underwhelming and far from modern-looking venue.

The UK has never been a nation known for spending lavishly on infrastructure. In 2000 Australian Rod Eddington was lured away from his job at QANTAS when British Airways needed a quick and reassuring (to the shareholders) replacement for the hapless Robert Ayling. The Perth-born airline exec was returning to the UK after a 20-year absence and soon declared himself appalled at the state of the country's infrastructure. "I look around and wonder what's been going on since I left. All I can see is the M25, which is constantly clogged, and the Jubilee line extension on the London underground," he said. "That's a very bad advertisement for a country which claims to have the fourth largest economy in the world."

This year's Farnborough featured no break with this tradition. The Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) that normally takes place the weekend prior was cancelled due to unusually heavy rains. Rainfall had no impact on the flying displays, but neither have the RIAT show organizers at Fairford or the Farnborough show ever opted to spend the funds to construct and pave proper parking lots. Unlike other major aerospace expos at Le Bourget, Changi in Singapore, and the FIDAE show in Santiago, Chile--parking at Farnborough is almost all on grass, which the downpours turned into a quagmire. That's a very bad advertisement for a country that claims to have the second largest international aerospace exhibition in the world.

Once out of the mud field, one could see that the military side of the business at Farnborough boasted some significant good news and new contract signings. Lockheed-Martin had recently made a major sale of its Sniper targeting pod to the Republic of Singapore Air Force, despite the island nation's air force having in the past purchased almost all of its military subsystems from Israeli industry. Sweden's Saab Aerospace is competing head-to-head against the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in Norway and has very good prospects of winning competitions in India, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. France is on the verge of the first export sale of its Rafale fighter to the United Arab Emirates.

The military aircraft sector, despite the increased emphasis on trying to put money and resources into ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, is very active. This is mostly due to the fact that a number of nations have aging fleets that either much be upgraded or replaced, and there are nations on or near the border with Russia that are concerned with the increasingly bellicose and somewhat skittish conduct of Moscow's foreign policy.

One of the headliners for the Farnborough show was the F-22 Raptor, which flew only on the first day of the show. Russian senior designers, accustomed over the last 20 years to seeing their Sukhoi and Mikoyan fighters steal the show at flight display time, reportedly had long faces after the show put on by the stealthy U.S. aircraft, which at times seems to defy the laws of gravity.

"The F-22 has such remarkable aerodynamic performance--and you could see it here on Monday--that the pilots are still learning all that it can do," said a U.S. industry representative close to the program. "It is such a several orders of magnitude change in capability that it will take our pilots some time to fully recognize the potential of the aircraft. It is not unlike the experience the USAF had when they transitioned from F-4 Phantoms to the first F-15 models."

The flashy and fast-moving military sector stands in contrast to the commercial aerospace business, which is on uneasy footing in the present climate of runaway oil prices. All of the major commercial aircraft producers have been working on "eco-friendly" and "green" PR campaigns, which run the gamut from Brazil's Embraer, which has put serious thought and effort into their carbon-reduction and ecologically conscious programs, to larger firms playing catch-up with cosmetic efforts.

However, who has a better and smarter "green plan" now seems a distant second to the more pressing issue of how commercial aerospace can survive in an era of crushing fuel costs. Fuel has grown from 10-13 per cent of an airline's operating costs to 35-40 per cent. For some low-price carriers where services are at a minimum, aviation fuel accounts for as much as 66 percent of their total costs.