Paris Air Show

Three decades of the cold war

 - June 9, 2009, 10:39 AM

On this 100th anniversary of the Paris Air Show French journalist Gil Roy continues his reflections on the greatest moments from the salon du Bourget’s illustrious history with a look at the show became a focal point–thankfully a peaceful one–for the Cold War. The first Paris Air Show, staged at the Grand Palais in the center of the French capital in 1909, has for a long time been a true global gathering of the aerospace and defense industries. Roy’s series of reminiscences about the show’s evolution concludes on page 36.

For more than 30 years, the Paris Air Show was one of the rare places where the U.S. and the Soviet Union could show off their air power face-to-face without dragging the whole world into danger. The event had not yet become the mainly professional meeting that it is today and the public was passionate about the conquest of air and space.

The power of nations was measured then in terms of their capacity for technical innovation in up-and-coming fields such as aviation and space. Ideological conflict and national prestige descended on Le Bourget where, from one show to another, the public was able to form its own opinions about which of the two countries was making the most progress and to what degree one might be gaining ascendancy over another. From the early 1950s, the salon du Bourget was a contest between the U.S. and Soviet Union, with the Europeans playing the role of judges.

While American fliers had taken part in the Paris show very early–even before World War I–it took until 1957 for the first Soviet displays to occur. That year, the Soviet Union presented the massive Tupolev Tu-104 twinjet–a civil version of the Tu-16 bomber. Two years later, the Americans deployed an impressive military arsenal, for the first time displaying missiles. The Soviets didn’t respond directly, choosing instead to take to Paris several large civil airliners and open their doors to the public. Their charm-offensive succeeded.

Confronted by the positive response that the Soviets had enjoyed with the public and the media, the Americans, who had opted not to show their new-generation, four-engine transports (the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8), were obliged to improvise. Instead they opened the doors to the VC-137 presidential aircraft. The Soviets outbid them by bringing the Tu-114, a gigantic four-engine airliner equipped with counter-rotating propellers which was to be the star of the show.

This raising of the stakes between the two superpowers went on at Paris throughout the Cold War and took on a special intensity in 1965. That was when the Americans chose to push their military aviation contingent to the fore. For the flying display, they served up the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom and the Grumman Intruder. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels display team was there with their Grumman Tigers and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds with the F-100 Super Sabre were on the program as well.

Unfortunately, a B-58A Hustler could not deploy its landing gear and could get enough power for a go-around. The four-engine bomber crashed on the runway and caught fire. The accident, which resulted in the death of one of the crew, was a heavy blow. The U.S. felt it had lost face at a time when the Soviet’s stature in this sector continued to grow and when it was showing a remarkable capacity for innovation.

That same year, the Soviet Union arrived at Le Bourget with four new aircraft, each one impressive in its own way. This was particularly true of the Ilyushin Il-62 and the 500,000-pound An-22 freighter. The most extraordinary of all was the giant Mil Mi-10 helicopter. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was also present, showing off his Vostok spacecraft for the first time.

The U.S. could not let the Soviets take all the glory without reacting. On June 18, the Americans seized the initiative when Air Force One arrived at Le Bourget. The surprise worked. Onboard the 707 was the U.S. vice president Hubert Humphrey and astronauts Edward White and James McDivitt, who barely two weeks before had become the first people to walk in space when they stepped out of the Gemini 4 capsule 175 miles above the earth’s surface.

Space was a true public passion in those days. The two superpowers were on an uncertain trajectory. In 1967 as the Americans showed the Apollo module at Le Bourget, the Soviets were showing their Vostok launcher with its 32 engines. The Soviet Union appeared to have a slight advantage. Two years later, it would be an American who first stepped onto the surface of the moon.

This historic event did not put an end to the competition. Very quickly the goal became to establish a permanent presence in space, and this prompted both the Americans and the Soviets to launch orbital space stations. In 1971, the first of these to be displayed at Le Bourget was a mockup of the Skylab laboratory and then the spacecraft used for the Soviet Soyuz 4 and 5 missions.

Also in 1971 the Soviet Union caused a stir by unveiling a new giant helicopter. This time, it was the Mil Mi-12 with a max takeoff weight of 220,000 pounds. It was equipped with two sets of rotors and four turboshaft engines each generating 6,500 shp. The rotorcraft was capable of lifting a payload of 88,000 pounds. And this was the same year that the Tu-144 supersonic airliner made its first public appearance.

During the Cold War, the Paris show offered a unique opportunity for Western experts to measure their progress against that of the Soviet aerospace industry. At the time, very little information was filtering out of the Soviet Union and its programs were shrouded in secrecy. Over the course of the decades, the Soviets mainly pushed forward their airliners and helicopters, which had become a specialty.

It took until the end of the 1980s and Perestroika for the first Russian military aircraft to be unveiled. But that didn’t happen at Le Bourget, rather at the Farnborough show where, in 1988, the MiG-29 fighter made its first public appearance in the West. And it was a year later, in 1989, that the West was able to discover Pougatchev’s Cobra routine. The Russian pilot pulled up the 88,000 pounds of his Sukhoi Su-27 fighter to an angle of 100 degrees before tumbling forward dramatically. The Soviets certainly had a sense of drama–even in adversity. They showed their style by bringing another awesome model to Le Bourget, the MiG-31 fighter. For three decades, Le Bourget became more than just an airshow for just the U.S. and Soviet Union.