The first Paris Air Show was held just six years after the Wright Brothers achieved the first manned, powered, sustained and controlled flight by a heavier-than-air craft. The Wright Flyer, which performed the first pioneering flight, was tucked away in a corner of the 1909 event.

The show attracted 380 exhibitors and included the sum total of man’s knowledge of balloons, aircraft and engines. A further four shows were held before the First World War. During this period, the show was primarily a stage for the latest French technology.

After the Great War, civilian aircraft began to appear – by 1930 they outnumbered military aircraft for the first time – with many emphasising advances in passenger comfort. In 1924, the show became a biennial event and for the first time foreign exhibitors, mainly German and British, began to take interest in the show.

The event ceased during the Second World War, restarting in 1946. During the inter-war years, the show increasingly became a commercial showcase for makers to market practical aircraft – contrary to the early years of the show, when eccentric designs by maverick individuals had dominated proceedings.

“The early Paris Air Shows were primarily a stage for the latest French technology.”

The move to Le Bourget

In 1951, the show moved to Le Bourget. It had previously been held indoors at the Grand Palais, with flying demonstrations taking place at nearby Le Bourget. In the late 1950s, American aerospace makers began to dominate the show (US firms being largely absent during the inter-war years), while from the early 1960s, the show began to acquire a truly global dimension (and to rival the UK’s Farnborough Air Show) with prototypes from all around the world showcasing at Paris.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the US and Soviet republics in particular used the show to highlight their latest technology as a means of gaining a psychological advantage during the Cold War and attracting potential buyers from countries around the world to help spread their influence. Competition was sometimes pushed too far resulting in accidents and deaths.

The most famous example being the crash of a Tupolev Tu-144 Charger (a Soviet version of Concorde) at the 1973 Paris Air Show, resulting in the deaths of its six crew and eight people on the ground. Some say the pilot attempted an overly ambitious manoeuvre, while others allege that a French Mirage blocked the Soviet airliner’s attempt to land, forcing it to turn violently, or jammed its avionics.

Following the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, the rivalry between Boeing’s civil aircraft division and Airbus, the civil aerospace division of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), became a central feature of the Paris Air Show. The two manufacturers compete to announce the most aircraft orders from airlines, although this year, there are likely to be few new orders.

“In the late 1950s, American aerospace makers began to dominate the Paris Air Show.”

In 1969, when 14 countries were present at the show, Concorde and the 747 were the star exhibits.

By 1979, 26 countries were exhibiting at the show. By 1989, the number had increased to 34.

In 1999, a record 60 foreign exhibitors signed up for the show while at the time of the last event in 2007, the organisers claimed that the show attracted more visitors than any other air show in the world.

Since its foundation, the show has been organised by the French aerospace industry body, which since 1975 has been known as the Groupement des Industries Françaises Aéronautiques et Spatiales (GIFAS). The main purpose of the show is to demonstrate French military and civilian aircraft to potential customers, although clearly it has long been a stage on which makers from all around the world demonstrate their wares.

Recession takes its toll on this year’s show

The 2009 air show will be markedly different from its predecessors in a number of ways. Firstly, the show is taking place at a time when the global aviation industry is at one of its lowest ebbs. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently revealed that airlines could face losses of up to $9bn this year. The global recession, and in particular a collapse in global cargo traffic, a glut of new aircraft, difficulty in raising credit to buy aircraft and high oil prices have combined to hammer the industry.

The business jet sector is suffering in particular. Neither of the two major US companies in the sector, Gulfstream and Cessna, are taking part this year. Embraer, the world’s fourth-largest plane maker, which laid off 20% of its workforce in late February, will have a ‘minimal presence’ at the show to curb costs. Certainly, there are likely to be few orders announced during this show, in marked contrast to 2007 when Boeing and Airbus announced orders for hundreds of new aircraft between them.

However, cutbacks among the major players in the aviation industry in general have been offset by a record number of participating small and medium-sized companies. Furthermore, the organisers expect about 300,000 visitors this year, half of them professionals, about the same as the last show in 2007. On display will be more than 2,000 exhibitors from 48 countries.

“A dedicated area of the show features green technology and a series of presentations.”

Green concerns will also have prominence that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago. Indeed, the American manufacturers exhibiting in the US International Pavilion have adopted the theme ‘going green’, with several innovations stressing the compatibility of aviation and environmental sustainability.

A dedicated exhibition area features green technology and a series of presentations throughout the week will highlight environmentally friendly innovations.

But in many ways the show has changed little over the years. Suppliers from the giant aerospace companies to small niche players use the air show to highlight new products and woo the press and potential customers. It is true that many of the deals announced at the show have been prearranged but completely new orders are also unveiled as sales staff exploit a unique opportunity to meet a wide array of customers on a face-to-face basis.