LE BOURGET, France -- The world's largest air show opened on an ominous note Saturday when a prototype of Russia's most advanced fighter jet crashed during a flight demonstration.
The blue and white Sukhoi-30 MK had just finished fluttering like a leaf in a controlled descent when it appeared to lose power coming out of a dive at the 43rd Paris Air Show. The plane plunged to the ground, appeared to lightly touch it, then soared back into the air with its tail aflame.Then the two pilots ejected from the jet and the plane crashed. Two muffled blasts were heard and black smoke billowed from the crash site on the airfield, far from spectators. The pilots weren't injured, the air show's organizers said.
"For the moment we don't know if it's a mechanical incident or if he flew too low," said Patrick Guerin, an air show spokesman.
The twin engine jet crashed hours after French President Jacques Chirac inaugurated the eight-day event on a day reserved for the news media.
More than 1,800 aerospace companies from 40 countries are participating in the show, which is held every other year at Le Bourget Airport north of Paris. Producers of military aircraft, cruise missiles and other state-of-the-art weaponry are exhibiting their goods alongside makers of civilian airliners and business jets.
All are vying to sell in a market made increasingly competitive by cutbacks in defense spending by cash-strapped governments and a weakening demand for passenger planes.
As part of a concerted sales pitch, F-16 and Eurofighter jets looped and corkscrewed through the overcast skies above the airfield. Spectators felt their chests shake when pilots gunned the engines.
Lockheed Martin's C-130J, a ponderous four-engine military transport, arced steeply over the tarmac before landing to let the Sukhoi take its turn in the air.
The show's leisurely mood suddenly grew anxious three minutes later when the Russian jet crashed.
"When he tried to recover, he couldn't," said Edmond Marchegay, the show's general manager.
The last plane to crash at the air show was also Russian -- a MiG-29 that went down in 1991.
"Certainly, when you crash in such a way, you are not helping your sales and marketing campaign," said Oreste Fabbro, a marketing manager for the Eurofighter, which is built by a consortium of German, Spanish, British and Italian firms.
However, Bengt Adamsson, a sales executive with Saab AB of Sweden, a maker of the delta-wing Gripen fighter, said that accidents during test flights are not unusual. The crash of the Sukhoi probably would not hurt its sales, he said.
"Perspective customers have an awareness of these kinds of things," he said.
The air show is expected to generate millions of dollars in sales, and orders have already started rolling in.
Rolls-Royce said Saturday it had received an order worth up to $88 million to supply the engines for Brazil-made Embraer RG-145 jets ordered by an Italian airline, Al Italia Express.