The Champs d'Aviation

photo: rafale jet at concorde
The new French fighter Rafale blasting off over Concorde.

The Aéro Club's 100th Birthday Party Idea

Paris:- Thursday, 10. September 1998:- I was minding my own business in Spain last month when I chanced to notice a small announcement in the International Herald Tribune about the 'Champs d'Aviation' exhibition on the Champs-Elysées.

Being a bit sunstroked, I read the thing all wrong and imagined it was planned to take place on the part of the avenue where all the people and traffic are.

This seemed like such an unlikely idea that I wrote a note about it by hand and mailed it by regular post; to be included as a coming event in one of the summer's 'Café' columns.

Since then I have learned several things. The reason for the event is the celebration of the Aéro Club de France's 100th anniversary.

This might seem to be a ho-hum reason for parking a lot of aircraft on the Champs-Elysées - betweenphoto: fokker 3-wing the place de la Concorde and the Rond-Point, where there's room for them - but the fact is, aviation was invented in France.

Fokker's slightly wierd but effective WWI fighter. 'Hang On, Snoopy!'

That's right. Just over two hundred years ago, before the Révolution, several people in different places decided it was time for man to fly.

One evening, Etienne Mongolfière was idly watching the smoke from his fire going up the chimney, when it occurred to him that the smoke was rising - which meant it was lighter than air. This may seem to be an obvious conclusion to you, but it was a revelation at the time.

The next step was for Mongolfière to get the idea that if the smoke could be captured in some kind of container, the container might be able to lift something. Mongolfière tried this out and it worked.

The steps taken from there to deep space probes and giant jet aircraft hauling hundreds of people to Paris from the other side of the earth have been quite a few. Today we tend to take flying for granted, but it is not so long ago that it was a tremendous novelty.

When the Aéro Club de France was formed in 1898, no winged airplanes had flown; only balloons. The founders of the Aéro Club were pure dreamers, because it was also the world's first aero club.

Imagine, if you will, reading a newspaper in Pago-Pago in 1898, about the formation of France's Aéro Club. It must have seemed like a tremendous joke. But to Parisians at the time, it probably seemed sensible; because every city, town and village had its tinkererphoto: storch who was building something mysterious with wood and bicycle wheels and wire and paper or fabric.

To match the US Army's Piper, the Fleseler Storch. It could almost fly backwards and it could land on a pfennig.

When man finally took off for good, 11 years after the founding of the club, the club issued the world's first pilot's licenses to Orville and Wilbur Wright, Louis Blériot, and Alberto Santos-Dumont.

In America, the Wright brothers got the first fixed-wing, powered aircraft off the ground on Thursday, 17. December 1903.

In Europe, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who had been flying around Paris a lot with his own balloons, had the first airplane. For a prize of 3000 francs, he flew about 125 metres at Bagatelle on 23. October 1906. Two weeks later he flew 450 metres to win the Aéro Club's prize for a flight of more than 100 metres.

While Europe was electrified, almost no one was aware of the Wright's flight in Ohio. In France, Blériot made five short flights in 1907 before having a crash landing. Meanwhile, the Wrights were getting competition from Glenn Curtiss, who flew his 'June Bug' in public for more than a mile on 4. July 1908.

On 8. August 1908, Wilbur Wright gave a demonstration flight in France that outshone anything seen until then. Blériotphoto: tintin's rocket conceded that the Wright machine was obviously superior - although he was already planning his own monoplane.

At 04:35 on Sunday, 25. July 1909, Louis Blériot pointed his model XI plane at the channel and flew to England without a compass in 37 minutes, to land near Dover Castle. There, officials performed a customs inspection, but 120,000 people later flocked to see the airplane in London.

The Aéro Club has a sense of humor, as shown here with 'Tin Tin's' famous rocket.

In those days, flight produced a tremendous 'wow' effect and drew huge crowds to all sorts of aeronautical shows and demonstrations. One sad note is the fact that so many historical aircraft have completely disappeared - no examples of the pre-WWII 'flying clippers' are left today.

Picking the Champs-Elysées in the centre of Paris for an airplane show is an idea about a farfetched as man's flying itself, but here it is.

Coming out of the métro at Clemenceau, on the right there is a replica of Orly's tower and behind it a nose of an Airbus A320, while to the left there is a whimsical wreck of an 'Aeropostal Argentina' biplane and straight across the avenue there are a pair of WWII fighters; a Navy F4U Corsair and a Yak 11 with a very bright red star on its side.

Museum pieces are the 1867 Albatros of Jean-Marie Le Bris, the 1907 'Demoiselle' of Santos-Dumont and an Bléirot XI, the oldest plane capable of flight in the world.

Most of these are exposed, under temporary roofs, but with only a guard-rail between them and the public. Many look too well-painted and oil-free to be as old as they are.

A fair number of the exhibits are military aircraft and do not have the historical value of the older models. Many of the helicopters tend to look like they've emerged from science-fiction movies, but the new Rafale at the place de la Concorde is a pretty elegant looking airplane, even without a propeller.

As all of the 50 exhibits are out in the open air, there is no entryphoto: f4u corsair charge. A fair number of people were looking things over last Tuesday before the opening and today most of the no-passage tapes are gone, so it is possible to see and photograph the aircraft from most angles.

This Corsair has a motor blanket, so I guess its engine is ready to go.

The exhibition's catalogue costs 45 francs and it contains photos of most of the aircraft displayed. A drawing is substituted for the very real Catalina flying boat, also at Concorde, on loan from the 'Canadian Air Legend' company.

Also near Concorde, there is a tent with video displays in one part and an aircraft restoration atelier at the further end.

I find it a bit strange to see all the ordinary people here, including moms with babies in strollers. I can't tell whether it is because it is a free show or because toddlers are fond of old flying machines.

For air fans, I regret not being able to run more photos. Most of the aircraft shown with this article, and elsewhere in this issue, are on year-round display in the Paris area - and this applies as well to all of the aircraft not pictured here.

For hard-core air fans, next weekend there will be a flying show at the airfield at Pontoise-Cormeilles, billed as 'Avions de Légende.' Flights will be every 20 minutes and these will include a Spitfire, a Corsair, a P51 Mustang, a B17 and a Yak 11 - which is supposed to be 'built like a tank.'

Entry at the site is 90 francs for adults and 35 francs for those under 12. Helicopter rides are offered for 195 francs. The show is open from 9:00 to 19:00 each day. Info. Tel.: 01 47 05 47 05.

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