Jumpseat: Paris Air Show vs. Oshkosh

Finally a Paris layover worthwhile?

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** Getting up close and personal with the
airplanes was a challenge — quite different
from AirVenture — with perimeter fences and
disorganized crowd flow.**
Les Abend

I intended for this month's column to be a summary of my experience at the world's most highly acclaimed airshow, but circumstances dictated another perspective. Much to my disappointment, the circumstances weren't what I anticipated.

After all my Paris layovers, I would finally be in town for the Paris Air Show. Instead of wearing my check airman hat, the month of June had me wearing the hat of a regular line pilot. It was a pleasant change. No instructing. No scrutinizing. No IOE (Initial Operating Experience) trips. Unfortunately, on the leg from Miami I had to pay for the privilege.

A minor computer glitch had surfaced. At some point in time, neither FMC (Flight Management Computer) was calculating the ETAs for our required reporting points over the North Atlantic. We scratched our heads but couldn't determine the reason for such computer inconsideration. My only remaining solution was to enact a time-honored solution. I blamed my copilot. Unfortunately, it didn't solve the problem.

For the first time in 25 years of employment with the airline, the E6B needed to be pulled from the depths of my flight bag. I groaned and took a deep breath. I stared at the circular Rubik's Cube.

OK, I know the ground speed and the distance. Let's see … that means I have to rotate the cursor over the … Yikes! I dug back into my flight bag and slid out the instruction manual.

By the time the navigation system locked on to VOR signals in Europe and began automatic updating, the FMCs resumed normal operation. But not before I had rescued us from a crisis by mastering the E6B. Well, maybe just the speed, distance and time calculation stuff.

We had all but forgotten the computer trauma by the time we reached the layover hotel. Craig, Chris and I agreed to showers, and then we would head for the Metro station and Le Bourget Airport without the standard nap. I wondered if Charles Lindbergh had been given the required crew rest after his arrival in 1927. Perhaps Lindbergh hadn't arrived on a Saturday. That may have been our mistake. The airshow was open to the general public on the weekend. As I would discover later, that fact wouldn't have made a difference in our treatment.

With a smile and some questionable French language skills, I managed to charm the three of us away from general admission and over to the special services building. My press credentials were available, but the young man behind the counter needed further verification of my identity. An airline ID was not sufficient. I was asked to produce a business card. The business card did the trick.

I've never had issues in such matters with EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. Volunteer personnel bend over backwards for us media types. At Oshkosh, the only form of ID check is the ability to pronounce my own name.

Unfortunately, my efforts to afford Craig and Chris the opportunity of a complimentary pass failed. They were directed to grovel at another desk.

After receiving a lecture from an early-20something woman for not wearing their uniforms, my two copilots were begrudgingly given a day pass. The attitude didn't quite seem appropriate considering the fact that airline pilots are the direct recipients of the products represented at the show. Besides, their uniforms would have been adhering to their skin after more than eight hours of duty across the North Atlantic. That seemed contrary to good taste. In addition, the event would not have been uniform-sanctioned by our airline.

The French must enjoy crowds. It seemed that the flow was designed to funnel as many people as possible through narrow thoroughfares. And, of course to help matters, the thoroughfares were few in number. However, if you cared to visit the numerous display booths of aircraft components and supplies in the perimeter buildings, the world was your oyster. A bowling ball could have been rolled down the aisles without causing injury.

Oshkosh's Wittman Field may have less history than Le Bourget, but its traffic flow for both people and autos is well-engineered. And my unofficial observation is that the hangar displays have as much activity as the outside displays. A bowling ball would never make it into the hangars, let alone down an aisle.

Craig, Chris and I proceeded toward the static displays. We looked forward to an interesting array of airplanes and equipment. Once again, we were disappointed.

Although a variety of unique sights caught our eye, a perimeter fence surrounded every item of interest. And within the fence, a security team seemed poised to tackle any member of the public who dared to be drawn closer than allowed. Ironically enough, the one area that had a more relaxed atmosphere was the French military section. Pilots were smiling, shaking hands and offering supervised tours of Mirage cockpits. If you cared to endure a line that neared infinity, you could actually put a fingerprint on an airplane. (I found it interesting that the A380 at Oshkosh had a similar line. Are the French trying to tell us something?)

Thinking that my press credentials and airline ID would afford the three of us an opportunity to tour the A380, I was wrong. A team of unmarked men with very tight ties and handheld radios blocked the entrance to the boarding building. Appointment only. Fa-get-a-bout-it. Come back in two years. I made the same attempt with the Breitling Super Connie. A gentleman with a large forehead and a torso that didn't seem to fit his suit jacket grunted a 'No.' He folded his arms across his chest and muttered something in French that didn't sound as though he wanted to chat any further.

I later consulted with an airline acquaintance who is the editor of an Internet aviation magazine. During the week, he had visited Boeing's section of the show. He attempted to take a picture. He was thwarted by a French representative. An American representative took interest and invited him for a tour of PPG's push-button shading on the 787 cabin windows. Apparently, the camera was not an issue with Boeing. The editor's iPhone had numerous photos of his tour.

The rain that doused the airport began as a trickle and then became a brief deluge. I was fortunate enough to have brought a jacket, but my copilots hadn't done the same. At Oshkosh, we would have sought refuge under the nearest display tent and made new friends while waiting out the weather. At Le Bourget there were neither tents nor friends.

Even though both men were willing to endure the soaking, I suggested a visit to the press building. If my entrance could have been considered guarded scrutiny, then Chris and Craig were greeted with open hostility. Their airline IDs were of no consequence. I had to beg the security desk to allow them safe passage. I wasn't leaving men behind. The fact that children were afforded unrestricted access to the building only added insult to injury. On a positive note, at least the French were encouraging aviation interest for future generations.

Once inside, we climbed the stairs to the outside terrace. Fortunately, the vantage point was well worth the struggle. A rock concert-size monitor directly in front of our view offered a detailed picture of each airplane operation. Once the rain ended, a portion of the airshow began. It was an eclectic assortment of aviation.

A new Mirage, the A380, a B-17, a C-130, a DC-3 and various helicopters were just some examples. One aspect was missing however. Absent was the palatable excitement. The fly-bys and aerial demonstrations seemed subdued in comparison with the thunderous activity of Oshkosh.

When fatigue began to take its toll, we trotted toward the exit. Craig expressed an interest in purchasing a trinket for his son as we passed the string of small outdoor souvenir shops. A baseball cap with Le Bourget and the Paris Air Show logo seemed to suit the purpose. At $30 U.S., Craig canceled the idea.

I described the booths at EAA AirVenture to Craig. Most merchants and vendors are pleased to hand out all types of useless stuff that advertise their products. The stuff is perfect for kids. Craig vowed to visit Oshkosh.

It's no secret that the Paris Air Show is just not. It should be more aptly named the Paris Trade Show. Where EAA AirVenture is the X-treme version of promoting aviation to the public, the Paris Air Show promotes only a guarded glimpse.

Will you see me at Oshkosh in 2010? Probably. Will you see me at the Paris Air Show in 2011? Probably not — unless I can touch a real airplane.