Alan Peaford recalls his first visit to a Farnborough Airshow more than 60 years ago, and why he is as excited now as he was then as the “national treasure” takes off again.

There are many air shows in the world but very few can be truly considered a world show. Just Farnborough and Paris claim that title and without an event since Le Bourget 2019 there is a huge weight of expectation resting on the shoulders of Farnborough International when the show opens on Monday, 18 July. The event really is a national treasure.

I remember being taken there for the first time in 1960 by my former RAF pilot uncle and witnessing the marvel of the first British VTOL fixed wing aircraft, the Short SC1, carrying out the first transition before a huge crowd.
It was of course superseded in years to come by the Harrier and now the F-35, all making an impact in the corner of Hampshire that is the historical home of British aviation.

Although the show began as a showcase for British technology and innovation in the aviation sector, it became a focal point for global interest generating more international exhibitors than any other event.

And this year will be no different. Some 70 per cent of exhibitors come from overseas and represent the industry in more than 100 countries. And they bring with them amazing examples of future thinking.

Embraer’s latest eVTOL design

Remembering the excitement of my first VTOL sighting, it is fitting that the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer will be at Farnborough showing the latest eVTOL design, Eve for the global urban mobility market..

With more than three years since a global aerospace show it is unsurprising perhaps, that the signs are that this year’s Farnborough will be an enormous pull for aerospace leaders across the world to come together.

Gareth Rogers is the CEO of Farnborough International, the organisation that manages the show. “This is such an important occasion for industry,” he told me recently. “Yes, there have been other shows like Singapore and Dubai, but this is the first opportunity for the whole world to get together. With the pandemic, the aerospace industry was hit so badly from all angles in the past two years. And this is almost as much a celebration as it is a trade show.”

It is more than that too. The industry is emerging out of the gloom of the recent pandemic but suffering from some side effects. Human capital is one big issue. Staff shortages have hampered the recovery and the UK’s domestic aviation is in disarray, unable to cope with the demand from the public.

Sustainability challenge

There are many other issues too. The world’s need to resolve the threat of global warming has seen an enormous focus on aviation. How the industry can reduce emissions and have a sustainable future is the question that has to be answered.

The Farnborough organisers see a role in helping to create thought leadership to address these issues ahead of the ICAO summit later this year and bring the best brains in the business together.

It is no longer about watching aircraft in action and the first Aerospace Global Forum (AGF) is an indicator of how seriously the issue is being taken.

“Farnborough has always had tremendous convening power and brought the whole industry together to do business, and we’ll continue to do business,” Rogers told me. “But actually, what it hasn’t necessarily looked at in the past, is how can it take on change? How can it utilise that convening power for the better of industry? How can we create thought leadership? There are continuing existential threats that face the aerospace industry as a whole. One of my observations, is that industry has been very good about talking to itself and promoting itself to itself. Actually, this is about how does industry make meaningful change for the better of the industry, and for the better of the world as a whole?“

Packed programme

It is an ambitious move – but a packed programme on stages throughout the showground from FINN theatres and the main AGF stage, suggest the topics are there and representatives from industry and government are prepared to explore them.

But when all is said and done, the power comes from collaboration. Seeing ideas and working together in partnerships to develop them into new platforms.

With new generations of aircraft being planned and developed for the new fuels and power systems, there may not be a mass of mega-orders – but nonetheless there is a pent-up demand and the manufacturers are there in force.

So look out for visible signs of cooperation. Defence programmes actively looking to create an environment to encourage collaboration for innovation are on the cards.

But for all that, I know I shall look to the skies to watch the Boeing 777-X perform, marvel at the speed and sound of the Typhoons and F-35s and look at the faces of young people – the pioneers of tomorrow – as a Spitfire roars past and wonder how many of them feel that spark that I did 62 years ago as it grows into a passion for aviation.

Farnborough, you have a lot to live up to and a lot to be thanked for.

*The Farnborough International Airshow opens on Monday July 18 to Friday July 22.