Paris Air Show

100 years: Biennial Paris Air Show marks 100th anniversary

 - June 9, 2009, 4:54 AM

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the world famous Paris Air Show. The event has come a long way since it was first staged at the Grand Palais in the center of the French capital in 1909, and has long since established itself as a truly global gathering of the aerospace and defense industries. French journalist Gil Roy explains how the event got off the ground while aviation itself was still very much in its infancy. The story continues in tomorrow’s edition of AIN.

Did the first Paris Air Show take place in 1909 or in 1908? Patrick Guérin, communications director for French aerospace industry association GIFAS, is in no doubt. “The first show entirely dedicated to aerospace was held in 1909,” he insisted, meaning that the 2009 event most definitely marks its centenary. This is a point of some significance to GIFAS, which doubtless would have found it inconvenient to mark the 100th anniversary of the Paris show during an even-numbered year that is traditionally given over to its friendly airshow rival at Farnborough in the UK.

That’s also the opinion of Jean Molveau, author of a new book about aircraft prior to 19141. “The show that we know today had its origins in 1909, but the world’s first exhibition of aircraft actually took place in December 1908 in the Grand Palais [in the center of Paris],” he explained.

So it’s a fair question and if there is any remaining doubt it is because in 1908, between December 24 and 30, Parisians were indeed able to see and admire four balloons and 16 aircraft under the glass roof of the Grand Palais. The aircraft were brought together in a wing of this magnificent building by the organizers of the French capital’s annual car show. For them it was a way of rejuvenating an event that had begun to run out of steam, and visitors were looking for some novelty. So the automobile industry set out to position itself alongside an aerospace industry that was taking its first steps.

So this was how Parisians discovered Clément Ader’s Avion III aircraft, as well as the Wright brothers’ biplane, Delagrange’s Voisin aircraft and, above all, that of Henri Farman, the pilot who was the first to fly a complete circuit of one kilometer, which he did earlier that year on January 13.

In the first years of the 20th century, the exploits of these pioneers fascinated the French people and were often featured in newspapers. So when the French had the chance to get close to these extraordinary flying machines for the first time they flocked to the Grand Palais in large numbers.

This early preview of what was to become the Paris Air Show was a huge success, as described in an article by journalist L. Baudry de Saunier in the Jan. 2, 1909 edition of the prestigious French magazine L’Illustration. “The mechanical motion through the air, with its mysterious problems and new revolutions, cannot fail to reawaken the enthusiasm of the masses. Police officers had to contain the sea of visitors around the wood and fabric under which Wright played at being a bird.”

Strengthened by this popularity, the new Chambre syndicale des industries aéronautique–predecessor to GIFAS, which organizes the Le Bourget shows today–decided to set up its own exhibition for “mechanical motion through the air.” The first staging of this event was held at the Grand Palais in 1909 from September 25 to October 17, and it was opened by the French President.

The major international gathering that was to become the Le Bourget show was born. The 1909 exhibition put on a very strong showing, with the Blériot XI taking the place of honor right in front of the entrance and surrounded by flower pots. It was in this aircraft that Louis Blériot made the first flight across the Channel to England, on July 25 that year.  

All the flying machines that made the 1909 event particularly memorable were represented at the Grand Palais. Among these was the Antoinette, the monoplane in which, just a few weeks earlier, Hubert Latham had set an altitude record for flying at 155 meters (508 feet). That event occurred during the first week-long aviation gathering, which attracted more than a million people and was held in the northern French city of Reims between August 22 and 29.

At the world’s first airshow in Paris, visitors were not only able to admire the early flying machines but they could also buy them. “A Wright [aircraft] cost 30,000 Francs, an Antoinette 25,000, a Farman biplane 23,000, a Voisin biplane 12,000 and a Blériot like that which had crossed the Channel cost just 10,000,” according to Edmond Petit in his aviation history2.

“Until 1914, each of the first five airshows presented a window onto the pinnacle of aviation knowledge at the time, just as the Le Bourget show does today. Before the war [World War I] there were more than a hundred aircraft manufacturers in France and the country was then the world leader in aviation,” wrote Molveau.

From one year to the next the technological evolution was spectacular. “The lighter-than-air models progressively gave way to aircraft,” explained historian Pierre Gaillard, who is currently working on a major new history of the Paris show. “New materials were used for building the aircraft. The flying machines became lighter and stronger at the same time. The metal parts were still too heavy by comparison with wood and fabric.”

There was also excitement when it came to engines. Professional engineers and amateur inventors alike were fast multiplying the array of available powerplants, among them names such as: Anazani, Chenu, Cléement-Bayard, Clerget, de Dion-Bouton, Levavasseur, Nieuport, Panhard-Levassor, Esanult-Pelterie and Salmson.

“Numerous improvements focused on reduction in engine weight compared to power, improvements in output, lubrication, cooling, fuel consumption, and, above all, the quality of materials with the arrival of so-called carbon steels before the so-called special steels and with the addition of nickel, cobalt, magnesium and molybdenum,” said Gaillard. “These new materials allowed both the power of engines and their service life to be increased. However, despite the progress achieved the maximum power did not exceed 200 horsepower in 1913.”

In Gaillard’s view, the 1911 Paris show marked a turning point in that it saw the first appearance of military aircraft. Of the 77 aircraft shown at this fourth show, no fewer than 27 were presented by France’s war ministry–a total that rose to 37 by 1913. The 1913 show saw the first appearance of the Déperdussin monoplane, the first aircraft to attain a speed of 220 km/h (119 knots), as well as the arrival of new aircraft manufacturers such as Caudron, Breguet, Nieuport and Morane-Saulnier.

The 1914 edition was being prepared when war broke out at the end of the summer, which put the Paris show on hold temporarily.    

1–Les aéroplanes des pionniers en images by Jean Molveau and Francis Bedei; Editions Marines (2009).
2–Nouvelle histoire mondiale de l’aviation by Edmond Petit; Editions Albin Michel (1997).