Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour

The Paris Air Show - Opening Day 1997

In French and then again in English, the loudspeaker welcomes us to the 42nd Paris Air Show.

This show has been held every two years for more than the last 84 years (a couple were missed due to WWII), since the very earliest days of aviation. I have heard that there is some dispute between the French and the Americans about which country achieved the first flight by man, but for today at least, we seem to have arrived at a peaceful coexistence.

LeBourget airfield, the site of the Paris Air Show, is the place where Charles Lindbergh touched down on his historic first solo flight across the Atlantic. They gave him a warm reception, and I have heard that the French are very friendly to American pilots, so I am hoping they like my biplane. I was soon to find out that they (almost) liked it too much.

We set up shop early, before the crowds are let in, and do finishing touches to the Waco, wiping off minute specs of dust, so that it is in perfect shape for display. We are not even set up yet when it seems there is a crowd around the plane, looking in and under and all around it. And then the gates open!

Soon we have people everywhere around it, and there is just no way we can deal with them all. There is a fence in front of our display, to keep the people back, but somehow they are getting in from the sides and the back. In addition, some are invited to take a closer look because they seem legitimate. But it is soon madness.

Kids and dogs and ladies with baby carriages, pilots and journalists and photographers are all jockeying for position. And they all find it impossible NOT to touch it, to run a hand over the beautiful natural wood prop, or to push a finger into the wing fabric to test its strength, or to rap a knuckle on the cowling, to kick a tire, pinch the leather, climb up on the wing, to lift the aileron or elevator, to push on the rudder, test a trim tab, or lean on the side of the plane while looking in the cockpit..... "STOP" I yell at last when I see an exuberant father holding his young son up to look in the cockpit, unconscious to the fact that the son is kicking away at the fabric on the fuselage. It is just too unbearable to watch the desecration of my lovely flying machine. I freaked!

Within minutes we had jury-rigged a makeshift barrier out of tie-down ropes, and this kept people from standing too near the fuselage to get a look inside the cockpit. Next we had signs made up, in French and English, with the very stern "DO NOT TOUCH" (no please, no thank you) and hung on the wings. And we had someone stationed at the back and front and sides to be sure that people heeded the signs.

It was as if by magic, but almost immediately the crowds were keeping their distance and treating the plane with the respect it deserves. Now I could relax and enjoy the people watching while the people enjoyed the Waco watching.

Most people didn't believe it was NOT restored. They could not comprehend why someone would go to the trouble to build a 62 year old biplane from scratch and then try to sell it new.

The Waco factory was represented in force here today. Don Kettles, the world's greatest (albeit only) Waco salesman, with his incredible good energy and patience tried his best to sell in English to people who spoke something else. Of course the world's greatest Waco biplane pilot, Carl Dye, who speaks very little English (because he speaks very little, period), was here to deal with technical issues. And the new guy on the block, Mitch, they new owner of the company, came by the display right after arriving from a long flight from the US. But best of all we had Antoine, our secret French weapon to deal with the legitimate prospects. Antoine is the son of Bernard Chabbert, our friend in France who helped us with our problems with customs. Antoine is the only one among us who can speak French, so he was very busy. If it were not for him, we would have looked like 4 American monkeys (See- Hear- Speak- and Understand-no-French). Here's a photo of the team, along with an unusually pretty French lady who was interested in buying a Waco (or was it just their imagination?):

Would you buy a Waco from these people?

Some of the older visitors to our display would stop and smile and quietly remember good times long past when these were the planes of their day. The language barrier prohibits much talk so there are few long conversations about the planes they flew in their youth. But it doesn't matter. I have heard these stories before at other shows in the US. The spirit of flying is the same in any language. The gleam in their eyes says it all.

The Waco is positioned immediately next to a Russian MIG-AT trainer to the right, and opposite a Romanian Air force MIG-21, upgraded with the latest systems. Nearby, the very latest "Eurofighter", and all around are a variety of attack and rescue helicopters and two enormous space rockets, an amphibious kit plane, unmanned drones and a paramotor (fan and parachute), the Airbus 319, and the entire Dassault line of military and civilian aircraft. All this in the immediate outdoor area. There are several HUGE exhibition halls and many, many, many more aircraft on display further down the line. There is much more here to see than anyone could cover in a week.

At 1PM the air displays start with an aerobatic routine by a vintage biplane (of course!), a Belgian designed Stampe from the Breitling aerobatic team. Next comes an attack helicopter doing loops(!), followed by demonstrations by the Airbus 319 and 340 commercial airliners showing their stuff in steep climbs and turns and slow flight. Then the big guns: The Mirage 2000-5 Single Engine fighter jet, the current inventory of the French air forces, followed by the Dassault Rafale twin engine jet fighter, due to be in service in another 5 years. There were two displays by the Rafale, one fully loaded with bombs and rockets and fuel tanks, and another one stripped and flying for fun. Then there were corporate jets whisper quiet displays to give your ears a break from the thunder of the fighters, but soon there were more of the crowd pleasers: a MIG-29, a MIG-21, the Americans displayed the F-18 and F-16 (the Stealth fighter wasn't there!).

The sounds of these big fighters interrupts all conversation. It is more than deafening, it is a heavy physical force that beats against your entire body, not just your ears.

In the midst of all this eye candy, in this smorgasbord of visual treats, I would have to boast that my lovely little biplane was unquestionably one of the most photographed airplanes at the show. People would pose their children, or girlfriends in front of it, with the big wood prop and round engine creating a nostalgic background. With billions upon billions of dollars worth of high tech mass transportation and spying and killing machines all around, it seems as if people can still appreciate the inherent "rightness" in a plane built solely for fun.

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