18 March 2011

Le Bourget Air & Space Museum

The Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace (French Museum of Air and Space) at Le Bourget in north-eastern Paris was one of the focuses of my recent trip to the City of Lights. I was keen to take the opportunity to visit another major aviation museum, and was intrigued by the possibility of examining a French collection, given France's pioneering role in early aviation history.

Le Bourget was Paris' airfield from the immediate postwar days of 1919 until the completion of Orly in 1932. During this period it became famous as the location of American aviator Charles Lindbergh's victorious touchdown on 21 May 1927, when a crowd of over 100,000 thronged the airfield to celebrate the first solo non-stop flight from the Americas to Europe. Lindbergh became an instant global celebrity and was hoisted aloft the shoulders of the jubilant crowd until he was eventually 'rescued' - after 33 hours without sleep he must have been utterly exhausted. (The heaving masses can be seen from 0:50 in this silent newsreel footage; it must've been one hell of a night).

Le Bourget declined in importance in the following decades as newer airports like Paris-Charles de Gaulle took larger amounts of traffic, and since the departure of the last scheduled flight in 1980 the airport has only served business jets. Now the main reason for visiting is the air museum, which also hosts the biannual Paris Air Show.

Getting to the museum on public transport requires a couple of journeys. The website suggests a variety of routes, and the one I chose involved travelling on the Metro 7 line to the terminus at La Courneuve, then taking bus 152 (exit the station using Exit 4, from memory) for about 10 minutes until I reached the museum's bus-stop. Le Bourget is outside the inner-city Zones 1-2, so I bought a Carte Mobilis Zones 1-3.  

Le Bourget is one of the oldest aviation museums, and so features a fair amount of old-fashioned lino and a few elderly papier-mache dioramas. The main exhibition hall is also designed in an unusual way - the long, thin display area has aircraft exhibits both at ground level and hung from the ceiling, and a series of aerial walkways enable closer viewing of the elevated machines.  This is an interesting idea, but it also spoils some of the sight-lines through the hall due to the many pillars and stairways required to reach the gantries.

The early flight collection is perhaps the most historically significant of the museum's catalogue. The aircraft on display from the first, faltering years of flying after the Wright Brothers' ground-breaking December 1903 debut are undoubtedly impressive. There's a flimsy dragonfly-like Wright Flyer from 1909 sitting on the upturned ski landing gear that early pilots used to land on poorly-prepared landing fields. An Antoinette VII flyer from the same year looks as if its wooden fuselage is taken from a rowing boat, which is perhaps accurate because it was designed to cross the English Channel.  Louis Bleriot, who made the famous first channel crossing on the day of the Antoinette VII's first flight, 25 July 1909, is represented by a Bleriot XI - not the one that made the flight though; that's displayed at another Paris museum.
Astra-Wright type BB (1909)
Antoinette VII (1909)

Aircraft from World War I form another impressive part of the collection. A Voisin LAS with a pusher propeller (i.e. located at the rear of the fuselage instead of the front) reminds visitors of the first aircraft to achieve an aerial combat victory. The earlier Voisin L model was primarily a reconnaissance flyer, with a spare seat for a forward observer, but on 5 October 1914 a Voisin attacked and destroyed a rival German aircraft with its machine-gun, thereby changing the nature of aerial warfare in a single stroke. Stephen Budiansky, in his 2004 book Air Power, wrote:

[At the outset of the war] the popular aviation press expressed surprise that there had been so little aerial fighting. Army commanders expressed amazement that there had been any, and probably with more justification. Neither tactics nor equipment had anticipated air-to-air fighting. The general view was that trying to hit one airplane in flight with a bullet fired from another airplane in flight was an almost absurd proposition [...]

That most of the improvised air-to-air fighting in the first months of the war was done with carbines rather than machine-guns only made it more miraculous to actually score a hit. The French captured a German order issued on October 2 [1914] that instructed pilots to avoid wasting time with aerial fighting at all; while it was true that French pilots sometimes "amused themselves" by taking potshots at German planes, the order noted, "there was nothing to worry about". Three days later, nonetheless, a French pilot, Joseph Frantz, and his mechanic-observer by the name of [Louis] Quenault, shot down a German two-seater from their machine-gun-equipped Voisin pusher.

Voisin LAS (1915)

WWI fighters

The rapid development of aerial combat is clearly shown in the wide range of fighter aircraft on display, including a SPAD VII, a de Havilland DH9, a Breuguet BR.XIV A2 bomber, and a brawling fighter masterpiece, a Sopwith 1 A2. There's also the rare treat of being able to inspect the interior of a military zeppelin gondola.

Sopwith 1 A2 (1917)

German zeppelin gondola interior

With the WWII aircraft selection being by necessity rather sparse (although there's a nice Spitfire in there), the next highlights are the selection of post-war jet prototypes and fighters that served in the French air force. The Dan Dare-like stylings of the 1947 Leduc 010 ramjet prototype showed that France was still capable of innovative aircraft designs, and the large floor space enables the museum to arrange plenty of examples of the gleaming silver fighters that patrolled the skies of the Cold War age.

Leduc 010 ramjet prototype (1947)

In the exterior hangars there's also a pair of elegant Concordes, looking impossibly fast even when they're standing still. There's one production-line model that served with Air France from 1978 to 2003 (F-BTSD) and an early pre-production prototype that was the first Concorde built (F-WTSS), which made its maiden flight on 2 March 1969 and joined the museum's collection in 1973.

Air France Concorde F-BTSD

Prototype Concorde F-WTSS

The museum has a strong collection relating to the history of space exploration. France has a long history in space, having formed its own national space agency in 1961, launched its first satellite, Asterix (yes, really!) in 1965, and developed a programme of satellite launches from its French Guiana base since 1969. The museum covers French exploits in space, but it has Cold War propaganda budgets to thank for the majority of its exhibits, because the space exploration programme of the former Soviet Union is strongly represented by full-scale models gifted to the museum.  Highlights for me were replicas of Soviet space probes like Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1 manned orbiter module from 1961, and the Venera 7 descent capsule that penetrated the acidic Venusian atmosphere and transmitted data back to Earth for a short time in 1970.

Vostok 1 replica

Venera 7 replica

Finally, outside on the tarmac is arrayed a selection of larger aircraft, including a few airliners like the museum's 747 and a Aerospatiale Caravel, once the mainstay of French jet travel.  And towering above them all are the 1:1 scale replicas of the doyennes of the French and ESA space programmes, the Ariane 1 and 5 heavy lift rockets, designed to launch satellite payloads into Earth orbit.

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