Le Bourget, France
A sonic boom echoes as a sleek F-16 swoops overhead. On the ground, wide-eyed Westerners gape at a Soviet Antonov-124, the world's largest airplane. And at the far end of the field, fast-talking salesmen tout the advantages of flimsy-looking, pedal-powered aircraft.
The Paris Air Show buzzes with all this and more. Held every other June, the 10-day event is the world's oldest (the first was in 1908) and biggest air spectacle. By the time the show ends June 9, it will have drawn some 100,000 aeronautics professionals and an estimated 400,000 spectators to the historic Le Bourget airfield, just north of Paris.
By this year, the event had become so large that terrorists threatened to attack it, and more than 2,000 French police have been deployed. For safety reasons, too, the flying shows have been toned down.
The European Space Agency is showing its Hermes shuttle, but only in a mockup version that is 10 to 15 years away from operation. Grumman Corporation of the United States is also exhibiting a mockup of its AMX fighter plane, which has swept-forward wings. Several ``commuter'' planes and the Soviet novelty were the only ready-to-fly new machines being unveiled.
After a long recession, the aerospace industry is readying for a takeoff. American companies which stayed away in 1983 to save costs, have returned. The Soviets, who withdrew in 1983, have also returned.
``Who needs the spectacular?'' asked show director Claude Steleskot. ``We have more planes (200), more exhibitors (1,100), and more countries (34) here than ever.''
The numbers alone make for great commercial theater. Companies often announce big deals at the air show, using the press spotlight to garner publicity. Since many of these deals were previously negotiated, most of the business here consists of ``making contacts.''
While the civilian market remains plagued by overcapacity and business downturns, East-West instability and regional conflicts make the military market ``fast-growing, profitable, and stable,'' a Lockheed official explained.
In some ways, the show promotes peace, not war. Paris is the only show to bring together East and West.
``The Russians will not attend any air show in the United States and the Americans won't attend anything in the Soviet Union,'' Aerospatiale's Compard explained. ``France is neutral ground.''
Both sides enjoy the opportunity to view each other's products. Russians eagerly eye US products, and Americans eagerly troop aboard Russian planes. On the giant Antonov, they were met by Antonov Boulanenko, who proudly wore a small US flag pin on his lapel.
``It's beautiful,'' he said in halting English. ``Peace gift from American friends.''