Air shows as propaganda during the Cold War.

During the Cold War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries much of the rivalry was fought on the political arena. Propaganda was a major weapon with each rival ideology trying to prove its superiority to the other. This was clearly seen during sporting events such as the Olympics during the Cold War years but also with the space race and earlier the drive to break the sound barrier and build faster and faster jet aircraft. Another interesting arena where the rivalry can be seen was at military air shows, where each power would try to show off their latest designs and in the case of some trade shows try to attract potential buyers from countries around the world to help spread their influence.

In the UK the first International Air Tattoo was held in 1971. This now has aircraft from all over the world and is the Royal International Air Tattoo. It holds the world record for the largest military air show with 535 aircraft attending in 2003.

Such air shows were clearly propaganda events but what was on display was not always what it first appeared to be. Two good British examples of bluff and polish are the Tornado F-2 fighter and the Early Euro-fighter displays. The Tornado F2 interceptor was heralded as a major advance in UK air defence but what few realised was that the aircraft had no radar. Despite having a large nose cone which was believed by many to contain a large and powerful radar set, the F2 just had a concrete block in this area loaded by a special forklift truck developed by Polymatic engineering. Only in later versions did the aircraft have radar. Another example of this was the early air show appearance of the Euro-fighter - what looked like a real aircraft was seen on the display stands but in fact it was a hollow fibre glass mock up.

The need for secrecy in the Cold War was balanced against this propaganda war with new aircraft designs appearing at the military air shows. Competition could be pushed too far resulting in accidents and deaths. In 1973 at the Paris air show the Tupolev Tu-144 Charger (a Soviet version of the Concorde) was competing directly with the Anglo-French Concorde. A crowd of 200,000 saw Concorde make a flyby and circuit of the field. It was then followed by the Tu-144, whose pilot Mikhail Kozlov worked hard to out-perform the Anglo French aircraft. Many feel he pushed the aircraft too far and during a low pass and sharp climb the left canard broke off,  ripping open a fuel tank on the wing as it fell past. The aircraft then nose dived and exploded.

Soviet explanations differ suggesting the pilot made an error in the runway he was due to land on and found himself on a collision course with a French mirage. An attempted recovery proved too sudden for the aircraft. Other more sinister suggestions have been that the French mirage was deliberately in the way and some have even gone as far as to suggest that a jamming pod on the French mirage was turned on deliberately to affect the Soviet aircrafts avionics. The truth may never be known. Certainly in many ways the Soviet aircraft was superior to the Concorde and has recently been chosen to be used as a test bed by NASA to help conduct research in passenger and cabin temperatures.

Other embarrassing collisions have also taken place. On 24th July 1993 at the International Air Tattoo two MiG-29 Fulcrums collided in mid air during a display, destroying both aircraft. Luckily both pilots ejected unhurt, one walking nonchalantly across the tarmac smoking a cigarette as his aircraft burned in the background, not far from some caravans at the edge of the air field. Hardly a good advert for this new Russian Fighter at a time when the Russians were desperate for foreign sales.

The world’s worst military air show accident was also Russian. On 28th July 2002 near the city of Lviv in the Western Ukraine a Su-27 ‘Flanker’ aircraft hit the ground and sheared through the crowd killing 81 people and injuring 115 others, although the two crew members ejected safely. Engine failure was blamed for the accident, although a similar aircraft (an Su-30) had also crashed at the Paris air show three years earlier but luckily no one was hurt in that incident. The previous most disastrous air show accident was at Ramstein US airbase in Germany in 1988 when two Italian display jets collided and hit the crowd killing 70 and seriously injuring 346 spectators. Many of the photographs that can be seen on this web site were taken at UK air shows during the Cold War and just after and show the range of military hardware which was on display.  Military air shows continue to be very popular and still serve the function of being shop windows in some ways, but with the end of the Cold War levels of arms sales have dropped and the intense rivalry between the super powers has declined.

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How to cite this article: Duglale-Pointon, T. (24 March 2007), Air shows as propaganda during the Cold War., http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_airshows_propaganda.html

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