|By Gulshan Luthra and Shweta Sehgal|
Paris. There was that great 1965 comedy film about Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, set in 1910 with the winner reaching Paris from London in 25 hours and 11 minutes. Victory wasn’t easy and competitors also attempted to sabotage one another’s beautiful machines made of wood and canvas.
The beauty, colours and fashions of Paris were as vibrant those days as now, and the enthusiasm of the French for technology has stayed unmatched ever since. The difference is the transition from the early days of aviation and piston aircraft to jet setting, supersonic travel, fighter aircraft, helicopters and space probes and connectivity. The charm of the city’s famed fashion street Champs Elysees, Eiffel Tower built in 1889 and the Paris Air Show, which began in 1909, still attracts thousands from worldwide.
The show, officially designated Salon International de l’aeronautique et de l’espace in French, was a festival of aircraft, their roar, the fantastic manoeuvres of helicopters, busy businessmen and charming women all around. It was in style, as anything Parisienne should be, and there was the new President of France who flew in an Airbus Military A400M aircraft.
There was global participation. There were aircraft and component manufacturers, sellers and middlemen, representatives of governments, airlines. Armed forces, companies involved in support services and anything remotely connected with aviation and space.
Two aircraft companies, Boeing, and then Airbus, have dominated the Paris Air Show in the recent years. They did so again reporting commitments for some 900 aircraft for around $150 billion.
In fact every time, it is about which of these two has possibly sold how many aircraft, and both the groups come up with “better” projections than the other’s. By and large, they are evenly matched although figures available here indicated a slight edge for Boeing in the overall positioning of civil and military aircraft.
While Boeing and Airbus (spread across Europe) dominate the big jets market, an assortment of aircraft and helicopters are made in many countries from Russia, Japan, Brazil, Sweden, Poland, India and China to Indonesia and so on. Some of these were displayed here.
A new entrant this time was Saudi Arabia, which announced its decision to build Russian-designed but US-powered An-132 transport aircraft for civil and military use. The aircraft, under tests, was displayed here and it was stated that its production in the Gulf Kingdom should start in 2020.
Saudi Arabia has formidable experience in servicing and maintaining civil and military jets with technology acquired under offsets deals, and now, Taqnia (a local company) will build this new generation Antonov series of aircraft. It will be powered by two Pratt & Whitney propeller engines, Honeywell avionics, and Ukrainian fuel and hydraulics systems.
Incidentally, Antonov was a big aircraft manufacturer in the days of the Soviet Union, spread across some of its constituents particularly Ukraine. The Indian Air Force (IAF) used the An-12, more than 100 of which were acquired in the 1960s. In fact this transport aircraft was used for bombing heavy concentrations of Pakistani troops who were attempting to cut Kashmir from the rest of India during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
There was a lot of history at the show venue, the old Le Bourget airport, where an aviation and space museum is also located.
For India, the Paris Air Show always has had significance.
France was the first country from the 1960s to give assistance to initiate India in its space programme and train Indian engineers in astronautics. The first passenger jet aircraft to fly in India was Caravelle for the erstwhile Indian Airlines. Then, the IAF acquired from France fighter jets including Ouragon, Mystere, Anglo-French Deep Strike Penetration Aircraft (DPSA) Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and finally, the most modern Rafale whose delivery is scheduled from 2019.
The French also sold the carrier-borne Alize turboprop for the Indian Navy, and now are in discussions to sell the Rafale for India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant which is likely to be commissioned in 2020. The Indian Navy is considering either the Rafale or Boeing F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet, both twin engine and both designed ab initio for naval use. Sweden though has also offered its single engine SeaGripen, which is under development.
IAF and Indian Navy officers were at the show but the Chief of Air Staff, who is generally there, did not come as he had a bilateral visit due in July anyway to follow up the deal for 36 Rafales, agreed to at the highest level during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in April 2015.
Nonetheless, IAF was represented by Air Marshal Harpal Singh, Director General Inspection and Flight Safety.
Then there was HAL as usual, whose enthusiastic Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) T Suvarna Raju is working to turn the state-run company into an integrator by involving the private sector and then exporting its aircraft. HAL plays a major role in India’s space programme also, and Mr Raju is keen to induct 3-D manufacturing technologies to design and produce components for aerospace applications.
There were major announcements concerning India during the show: French Rafale and Thales tying up with Mr Anil Ambani’s Reliance Aerospace to produce the Rafale for India if selected by either the Indian Navy or IAF (for more aircraft), Lockheed Martin tying up with the Tata group to make F-16 Block 70 in India if selected by IAF for its single engine requirement, and Boeing stating it was hopeful of selling more civilian jetliners like the 737 and 787 variants to India.
Boeing is in competition with Rafale to offer the Super Hornet to the Indian Navy, but as yet, the company has not announced any tie-up with any Indian company in this regard. The Tata group is however collaborating with Boeing in producing floor beams for the 787 airlines, and recently, it began delivery of Tail Cones and Crowns of CH-47 Chinook Helicopters under offsets arrangements for India buying these flying machines.
Boeing was also confident of selling the latest 787-10 to Jet Airways, indicating there were talks in this regard. At present, Air India has been a major customer of this beautiful new generation machine which is much quieter than other aircraft and is also more fuel efficient than some others.
The US Air Force displayed its newest acquisition, Lockeheed Martin’s F-35 Lightening, and although India has not expressed any interest yet in this 5th generation machine, it was a star attraction at the show.