Paris Air Show

Summer of aviation love

 - June 9, 2009, 11:05 AM

The 28th salon aéronautique et spatial in 1969, promised something special. And it kept its promises.

Over the course of 10 days, more than 1.35 million visitors assembled at Le Bourget, 660,000 of whom were there for the final two days to witness the flying display. This was the biggest attendance since the very first show 60 years previously, in 1909. That total number was far greater than the 770,000 visitors who came through the gates two years ago in 2007 (although it should be noted that the event was shortened to just seven days).

The 1969 show was built on a particularly rich vein of aerospace news, and on the eve of its opening it was boosted by an extraordinary publicity coup–an event that has yet to be replicated.

On Thursday, May 29, a little before 10 a.m., the French prototype of the Concorde arrived from Toulouse. Before touching down at Le Bourget, the supersonic jetliner made a low pass along the Champs-Elysées in the heart of Paris. Drivers got out of their cars to enjoy the incredible spectacle and Paris was paralyzed by the mother of all gridlocks.

Parisians were “dumbfounded,” as the headline of a daily newspaper put it the next day. “It was enough to have lived that moment, or the arrival at Le Bourget just a few moments later, to understand what the Concorde really meant for France, all technical and economical considerations aside. All the grandeur of France, all the hopes of a nation in search of a new direction, the whole will of Europe in a state of gestation, all that seemed to be encapsulated that morning in the shape of the West’s first supersonic airliner,” wrote journalist Pierre Sparaco at the time. (His history of the iconic aircraft is recorded in “Concorde, la véritable histoire,” published by Editions Larivière.)

No one was untouched by the enthusiasm and the euphoria, and none more so than the high-profile journalists whom the French officials largely had in mind when they authorized this incredible parade. It was effectively the first time the Concorde had left Toulouse, where it had been undergoing tests. The trip to Le Bourget was only its 14th flight–not much time in the air for such a complex aircraft–and yet the supersonic jet was allowed to fly over the heart of the French capital at 1,500 feet.

Also, so that the public would not overlook the fact that the Concorde was a French-UK program, France’s Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation presented an aerial duo that has lived on in memory. Official show announcer Jacques Noetinger reminisced: “On Saturday, June 7, Jean Franchi and his crew made the first official display of [Concorde] 001 at the Paris show, while from Fairford [in the UK] Aircraft 002, under the control of Brian Trubshaw, joined his twin in the skies above Le Bourget. The British aircraft hadn’t had its first flight until April 9 at Bristol’s Filton Airport.” (The event was recounted in the publication Revue Icare No. 208, “Les très riches heures du Bourget T2.”)

That year, 1969, more than ever, the static display was a reflection of the diverging views that the aerospace industry had about the about the future of air transport. In the face of the Franco-British supersonic project, the Americans played the heavy-lifter card. Lockheed presented its C-5A Galaxy, a giant capable of carrying 260,000 pounds up to 5,400 nm. It outclassed the giant Antonov An-22 which had made such a sensation just two years earlier. But the main event came from Boeing, which presented its 747 widebody–the complete antithesis of the Concorde.

The largest airliner yet built made its first flight on February 9 of that year, one month before the Concorde. The prototype arrived at Le Bourget on June 3. It had made a direct flight from Seattle in nine hours eight minutes. The so-called Jumbo Jet launched a new era that saw the democratization of air transport. While Europe had invested all its pride in giving birth to the Concorde, it had no intention of leaving the field free to the U.S. in the emerging market for transport aircraft.

On May 29, 1969, before the official inauguration of the Paris Air Show by the French government minister responsible for the army, French and German companies had just signed a cooperation agreement for an aircraft program called the A300B. The Airbus project was becoming concrete. The official ceremony for this agreement took place in the mockup of the future twinjet on display at Le Bourget.

It is quite clear that this event had much less media impact than the Concorde’s flight over the Champs Elysées or the launch of the Jumbo Jet. But it would have much longer consequences that 40 years later would result in Europe’s aerospace industry being able to compete with Boeing on an equal footing.

If 1969 was a big year for news, it was also a time for acknowledging what had come before. The organizers decided to mark two anniversaries. The first was the 60th anniversary of Louis Blériot’s flight across the Channel. A replica of the Blériot XI aircraft, piloted by Jean Salis, took a bow in the skies of Le Bourget. The second anniversary marked 60 years since John Alcock and Arthur Brown crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1919. A replica of their twin-engine Vickers Vimy appeared in the flying display. Both aircraft provided quite a contrast to the Concorde.

In the long history of the Paris Air Show, the 1969 show will always remain one of the most distinguished events in the annals of aviation. The only cloud on the horizon was an accident involving a Fairchild-Hiller FH 1100 that cost the life of its pilot. The aircraft broke up in flight in what was considered to be an audacious maneuver.

Several days after the show closed, as the 143 chalets were still being dismantled, Apollo 11 took off from Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) in Florida. On July 21, Neil Armstrong landed his lunar module in the Sea of Tranquility and a few hours later he became the first man to walk on the moon. Buzz Aldrin joined Armstrong 15 minutes later. During the intervening time, Michael Collins orbited the moon. Since then, the three men have been involved in numerous commemorations of these historic events staged by the Paris Air Show, including the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in June 1989.