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Paris Air Show offers aviation fanatics an eclectic collection

NEARLY hidden among the ranks of giant airliners, military airlifters and sleek warplanes on display at this year's centenary Paris Air Show, an eclectic collection of historic aircraft has been drawing large crowds of curious onlookers.

Its centerpiece is the Bleriot XI, a rickety monoplane that was also featured in the inaugural Paris air show in 1909, after its French constructor Louis Bleriot had used it for the first flight across the English Channel.

Drawing even more attention at the show -- which ends today -- was the PBY5A Catalina, a beautiful US World War II-era flying boat, stuck between a massive Air France Cargo Boeing 777 and a brand new Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role fighter-bomber.

The high-winged twin-piston engine Catalina performed a variety of vital but unglamorous duties such as long-range reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrols and air-sea rescue of downed airmen or sailors from sunken ships. It even maintained the only long range aerial link with Australia while that nation was cut off by the Japanese Pacific fleet.

In the type's most famous combat action, a British Catalina located the Nazi super-battleship Bismarck in the north Atlantic in May 1941. The allies responding by sending a fleet in pursuit, and the pride of Hitler's navy was attacked and sunk.

"This is one of the unsung heroes of World War II and the reason to keep it flying is to preserve the memory of this historic workhorse," said Rod Brooking, a retired British Airways pilot who now flies for the Catalina Society, a British group of enthusiasts who maintain the 66-year-old amphibian.

Another aircraft attracting interest was the twin-engine MD 315 Flamant, an otherwise unremarkable model that happened to be the first plane to carry the Dassault designation -- which has since become synonymous with top-of-the-range French warplanes and business jets. The Flamant was the first dedicated business plane in the world.

"These planes represent an important part of modern aviation history," said Gerard David, a former pilot. "The Flamant, for instance, is the forefather of today's business jets."


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