I was reminded of the wonderfulness of the Paris Air Show on my last day at Le Bourget Airport on June 20. My job at most shows that we cover is tied up with producing AIN’s daily issues, and for two or three days before the show until the night before our last issue is printed I’m head-down in the constant struggle to stay ahead of the relentless deadlines involved in producing a daily print magazine.
But after we’re done with the final issue, we have a day to enjoy the show and usually no pressing writing issues to worry about or deadlines looming. After many, many shows from NBAA’s annual extravaganza and Heli-Expo to EBACE, ABACE, Singapore, Dubai, Farnborough and Paris, I’ve learned the best way to make the most of the final day at the show.
I used to make a list and schedule appointments, but at the end of the day I’d be wiped out, feet hurting, bag full of brochures, an endless list of stories that I felt compelled to write and maybe not so much fun, after all.
The better way, I finally discovered, is to let the show’s natural serendipity take over. The last day at Paris was a great example of a wonderful day at a show, where I just let the flow take hold and carry me to wherever. I usually start by walking through the halls to see what piques my interest. Of course, every single exhibitor has a compelling story, but I’m sorry, it’s simply impossible to talk to everyone or to stop at every booth that I pass.
What I’ve found is that something interesting will find me and pull me in. At Paris, I was meandering around during a heavy rainstorm, a good time to be inside, and I ended up in a big section of German companies then at the booth of the German Aerospace Center. What captured me there was a display on alternative fuels, so I started talking to a fellow about his research. As we were talking, another display in the same booth kept vying for my attention; it was a large-screen TV with what looked like a curved instrument approach being flown by a simulated airplane.
After I finished learning about the alternative fuels research, I stepped to the back of the stand and met Helge Lenz, who assists test pilots at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Flight Guidance. I asked Helge what the display showed, and he walked me through the institute’s work, which involves test flights of curved, parallel approaches flown by two airplanes simultaneously and that can be accomplished even in poor visibility. These approaches are what’s coming in NextGen-type developments.
One of the airplanes that the institute flies is an Airbus A320 equipped with a special display to show the pilot what the airplane is doing on the curved approach. When Helge told me about the other airplane that the institute flew for many years, I was like a cartoon character with my eyes bugging out. It turns out that the institute operated the world’s very last flying VFW 614, a Fokker design of unusual configuration. The VFW 614 is, as far as I know, the only other airplane design with an over-the-wing engine mounting scheme. The other design, of course, is Honda Aircraft’s HondaJet. The institute retired the VFW 614 in 2011, and the final flight took place on Dec. 7, 2012. The VFW 614’s last flight took it from Braunschweig Airport to the Deutsches Museum in Munich (which I now must visit).
This just illustrates what is magical about airshows in general but Paris in particular. It was still raining after I met Helge, so I ducked inside the fantastic Musée de l’Air + de l’Espace, which is conveniently near the middle of the airshow aircraft display area. Unlike many aviation museums, the Musée has an amazing collection of very early flying and never-capable-of-flying machines. I was struck during this visit when viewing airplanes like the elegant Junkers F.13, which has a cockpit with uncovered windows, why the pilot had to fly without a windshield. What on earth was the designer of this airplane thinking, leaving off a windshield when the structure could easily have allowed the pilot to be protected from the elements (not to mention added a few knots of airspeed)?
The restored art deco “Salle des huit colonnes” (Hall of the eight columns) in the Musée was also well worth visiting.
Something new at Paris added a wonderful flavor—literally. While the food at the airshow was generally excellent, there were always long lines at the many restaurants and food stalls. But the organizers brilliantly welcomed food trucks onto the airshow ramps. I found a wonderful meal at the appropriately named “Potato Mobile” just as a fresh downpour inundated the show, yet again. But luckily, instead of having to run for cover, one of the show navettes (mini trains) came by and I jumped on and enjoyed my meal and a tour of the show while staying dry.
And not long afterwards, the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the parade of fantastic flying machines resumed their stately dances over the appreciative crowds.