Paris Air Show

The drama of the flying display gives crowds thrills and chills

 - June 9, 2009, 9:52 AM

The Paris Air Show, marking its 100th anniversary, has come a long way since it was first staged at the Grand Palais in the center of the French capital back 1909. It has long been a truly global gathering of the aerospace and defense industries. Here French journalist Gil Roy continues his reflections on the greatest moments from the salon du Bourget’s illustrious history with a look at how flying displays became an integral part of the event. In tomorrow’s edition of AIN he will conclude the series.

While the 18th edition of the international airshow was being held at the Grand Palais just off the Champs-Elyées in the center of Paris, on May 14, 1949, 27 aircraft were taking part in flying displays out at Orly Airport. It was a first. It was also a great popular success which convinced organizers that a static exhibition alone would no longer be sufficient. It would be necessary to show flying machines in action.

The flight displays for the ensuing shows would be held at Le Bourget to which the public flocked in large numbers. During the 40th Paris show, those spectators witnessed the final evolution of the first jet airliner: the de Havilland Comet. But the most important aerial spectacle was the appearance of the American Skylazers flight display team with its F-84s.

In 1953, of the 23 different types of aircraft flying at the show, 19 were prototypes. It was also the year when, for the first time, the sound barrier was broken in public, not once but six times and by six different aircraft: an American Sabre, a trio of British jets–the Avro 707A, a Hunter and a Swift–as well as France’s Vautour and a Dassault Mystère IVA.

The spectators had everything they could wish for thanks to pilots who made every effort to impress. In particular, Dassault chief test pilot Kostia Rozanoff and official show announcer Jacques Noetinger decided to really put on a show involving breaking the sound barrier in the Dassault fighter. The two men ran through the act the night before. “On the eve of the display Rozanoff came to see me to put the finishing touches on the production of his supersonic dive for which we were in radio contact, which was relayed to the crowd via loud-speakers,” Noetinger reminisced in the publication Revue Icare No. 208 (mars 2009), “Les très riches heures du Bourget.”

Rozanoff made the most of it. For the climb he shot through the flight levels while imitating breathing difficulties at altitude–the public had overlooked the fact that he had an oxygen mask. “I could tell that the crowd was really focused. They were wrapped up in the atmosphere. That’s when Rozanoff came onto the stage. ‘I am at 7,000 meters. Plateau. Banking to the left. I’ve set my Flettner [trim tab]. Watch out, I’m starting the dive. On your marks: Mach 0.87… 0.90… 0.95… 0.98… 0.99… Mach 1.’ The crowd didn’t breathe, a stunning silence reigned suddenly. Then two loud explosions erupted like canon fire. The public erupted in applause.” Noetinger left his microphone on so the pilot could savor his moment of glory.

This performance had the crowds quivering but it was also fraught with danger. In fact, the early Le Bourget shows were plunged into mourning on several occasions by tragic accidents. The first came about in 1961 and involved a Convair B-58 Hustler, which several days earlier was flown into Le Bourget, having established a new world speed record for crossing the North Atlantic in three hours 30 minutes at an average speed of 959 knots. On June 3 when another three-man crew was at the controls of that aircraft, the delta-wing, four-engine jet disappeared into the clouds just as it was entering a roll. The pilot went into a dive and didn’t have time to pull up. The supersonic bomber plunged to the ground and exploded, killing all three crewmembers.

Four years later another B-58 crashed on arrival at Le Bourget. And that same year, 1965, there was yet another accident to dash spirits. A Fiat G91 finished its display too low and crashed into the middle of one of the parking lots. Eight spectators were killed along with the Italian pilot.

But in the entire history of the French airshow, the most traumatic accident was that of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic jet on June 3, 1973. The aircraft took off to the east, and made a tight turn to get quickly into position for a low-level flypast at reduced speed. The pilot, Mikhail Kozlov, lit the afterburner. Noetinger was again the commentator on the display. “I witnessed the terrible disintegration of the airframe. The structure couldn’t support itself and the right wing detached, starting a fuel leak,” he reported. The Tupolev crashed in flames in the town of Goussainville, north of Le Bourget. The human cost was heavy: 14 dead (including eight on the ground) and 28 injured.

Following this drama, the flying displays came under more and more control, particularly because of the potential implications for the people living around Le Bourget Airport. The organizers decided to restrict the displays to taking place directly above the airfield; no more flying over neighboring towns. And military display teams were immediately barred from appearing at Le Bourget.

The first turn of the screw occurred in 1969 with the creation of the BPV (bureau de presentations en vol) as a dedicated department in charge of the flying displays. This followed an accident at the 1967 show, when a Fouga Magister of the Patrouille de France French military display team crashed a few yards from the official viewing platform and in front of 350,000 spectators. The lower altitude limit for flying displays was raised and the focal point was moved farther away from the crowd.

These precautions saved the lives of flight crew at least twice and, without doubt, also avoided fatalities among the spectators. The first of these occasions was in 1989 when a MiG-29 lost all power during a turn. At the safer altitude, the pilot was able to eject from the aircraft before it hit the ground. Ten years later, in 1999, the crew of a Sukhoi Su-30 also ejected before the fighter hit the ground after it dove too low and ran out of airspace in which to climb. The twinjet exploded in full view of the crowd, but at a sufficient distance to avoid anyone getting hurt.

While these days pilots must have their proposed flying displays approved many months in advance and demonstrate their performances just before the airshow opens, for many years pilots were left with full control over their actions. They didn’t hesitate to take risks to impress the crowds. Their displays weren’t perfected in flight simulators–their sole aim was to put on a show.