PARIS — Outside the American pavilion at Le Bourget Airport here, a pair of U.S. soldiers in desert fatigues stood proudly in front of their Patriot missile battery and answered questions from admiring and curious onlookers.
"We painted it up to make it look pretty," said Sgt. Anthony Bates, 21, of Kingsland, Ga., pointing to the boxy camouflaged launcher--the same one he had manned in Israel during the Gulf War. "I reckon it did its job in the war."
On a nearby runway Tarmac, French television crews were eagerly lining up to interview combat pilots of the Lockheed F-117 Stealth fighter aircraft, billed here as the "Star of the Gulf War." The Air Force had taken the trouble to find two officers, both veterans of the Gulf conflict, who spoke French--to the point of employing the French name avion furtif to describe their craft.
One of the pilots, Capt. Mark Lindstrom, 32, of Eureka, was even featured Thursday as the "Baby-Faced American Ace Who Loves France" on the front-page of the popular evening newspaper France Soir.
The Paris Air Show may be a French institution. It is the world's oldest, largest aviation-aerospace marketplace, dating to 1908 when it was first held in the center of Paris at the Grand Palais.
But the show's 39th version, which opened Thursday at Le Bourget, is an American-dominated event, fueled by recent demonstrations of U.S. air superiority in the Gulf War.
And just to ensure that no one forgot who won and which weapons worked best, U.S. military specialists and Commerce Department representatives were present in unprecedented numbers to bring the point home to the anticipated 500,000 visitors.
"We don't want to strut. We don't want to appear arrogant," said Air Force Lt. Col. John T. Kirkwood, officer in charge of military public relations at the show. "But we do want to come here and show that we are proud of what we have done. These are just good, solid, American kids who have come to Paris to represent their country."
For the first time ever, uniformed U.S. military personnel--about 200 in all, according to Kirkwood--participated in the air show. Except for the Pentagon's public relations specialists, all the military men and women served in the Gulf, including the soldiers guarding the planes.
Although the temperatures on opening day dropped low enough that sleet fell in some areas of Paris, the soldiers were asked to wear their lightweight "chocolate chip" desert fatigues, instead of the heavier green garb that is the standard uniform in Europe.
In keeping with what Kirkwood called the "Desert Storm theme," a collection of U.S. military aircraft from the Gulf conflict was flown in. The planes' crews were told to stand by their craft and encouraged to answer questions. Some clearly enjoyed themselves.
"If you want to have fun, then the best airplane you can fly is an F-16," Lt. Col. Ralph Getchell, squadron commander for the F-117 fighters in the Gulf, animatedly told an audience of rapt onlookers. "That's the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
"But if you ask me which plane I would rather fly in a war, then it's this one," he said, pointing to the sleek black Stealth fighter. "Once you have been stealthy, you never want to be anything else."
The Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines all had information booths staffed.
"We are here to support industry," explained Fred Beer, a civilian working in the Navy booth. "We operated their equipment in Desert Storm. We are happy with it and we want to tell people about it."
The push for the unprecedented, high-profile, U.S. presence at the Paris show came from Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher. In a letter to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Mosbacher asked for help promoting American industry by freeing military personnel to give testimonials to potential buyers.
The shopping phase of the 10-day aviation convention begins next week. Monday, for example, representatives of the governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, accompanied by a U.S. Embassy official from Riyadh, will get a special tour.
Two weeks later, representatives of the United States, France, Britain, China and the Soviet Union will meet in Paris to discuss proposals to limit arms sales to the Middle East.
Before the war, struggling under defense cutbacks and a sagging economy, many U.S. firms decided to cut back their air show delegations. Some key companies that normally attend--including Patriot manufacturer Raytheon and McDonnell Douglas--are still absent.
Other companies switched strategies and decided to appear in hope of picking up business in the wake of the world's first televised air war.
At the last minute, for example, a group of 15 subcontractors on the Lockheed Stealth project decided to buy a display booth to stress the fighter's Gulf performance.
Calabasas-based Lockheed brought in two senior executives from the fabled Skunk Works in Burbank, where the Stealth fighter was developed in secrecy.
"We were 'black' so long that I still cringe when I see these things mentioned openly," said Jack S. Gordon, executive vice president of the Skunk Works. The Paris Air Show is the first time the fighter has been publicly displayed on foreign soil.
To the great disappointment of the show's French sponsors, neither the Stealth fighter nor any other U.S. military aircraft will take part in flight demonstrations, partly because of an ongoing flap between U.S. aerospace firms and the government over responsibility for insuring the craft.
Previously, the companies paid for it. This year, amid defense cutbacks, they said no. The Americans seem unconcerned, though, preferring to let the war speak for itself.
"The best way to demonstrate an airplane is in a war, not in an air show," Kirkwood said. "We demonstrated our airplanes in the war in the Gulf."