The recent Paris air show provided yet again, for its supporters, the disappointment of not seeing the Eurofighter displayed in its element - in the air. Eurofighter the organisation remains cool to the idea that the continued non-displaying of the aircraft is in any way harmful to its prospects. In the short term, that is probably the case, but in the longer term it is harmful both to Eurofighter and to the industry on which it depends.

The successful completion of a dashing air-show display will not advance the testing and development of the Eurofighter at all. In fact, the reverse may well be the case. An air-show appearance is not merely five minutes' worth of display time a day, nor is it even just the number of days on which that display takes place. Any display - especially the sophisticated, adventurous displays of the type perfected in recent years by Eurofighter's rivals - takes weeks of practice to work up.

Even then, an air-show routine may be completely irrelevant to the ultimate purpose of the aircraft. Boeing does not think that its commercial purpose is advanced at all, by indulging in high-alpha air-show fly off 's between its products and those of Airbus, so it does not partake.

Legitimately, therefore, Eurofighter can argue that those weeks could be better spent concentrating on the development of the aircraft. Legitimately, maybe, but perhaps not correctly.

The Eurofighter project is of major significance to the principal contractors, and to the prospective customers which are funding its development. It is probably of far greater importance, however, to two other groups.

One is the tax-payers of those customer countries - they have seen enormous sums expended on the development of an apparently world-beating fighter, but they can see no evidence of its world-beating qualities. When government budgets around the world are being squeezed ever tighter, a taxpayer who sees no visible benefit from sustained high defence expenditure is a taxpayer who is likely to oppose further such expenditure.

The other group is the horde of suppliers and subcontractors to whom this project is not just important, but crucial to the survival of their businesses. Many of those suppliers were exhibitors at the recent Paris air show, using their limited budgets to try to attract other contracts for the future. So were their competitors from France and the USA. There was one big difference, however. Those French and US competitors had flying billboards called "Rafale" and "F-16" (and even "X-31"): the Eurofighter suppliers had a two-year-old static mock-up and an ephemeral (non-display) appearance of the real thing.

Eurofighter has shown itself very adept at producing sideshows (like the "dome" it used at the 1994 Farnborough show) to display the promise of the project to the public. The Eurofighter beats all of its rivals bar the Lockheed Martin F-22 in these simulations, but so far only in these simulations. In the eyes of many an air-show visitor and exhibitor, that supremacy has not been demonstrated, even though the aircraft itself is capable of flying to an air show, and therefore the supremacy might as well not exist.

To that small-supplier exhibitor, there is no opportunity given to take a prospective customer outside the exhibition hall and say: "Look, there's my contribution," or even: "Look, there's my contribution flying." Boeing might not indulge in flying displays with its 777, but has been scrupulous in helping its suppliers to demonstrate - either in static appearances or on proving flights - the value of their contributions. Eurofighter has not delivered that for its suppliers.

No one yet knows what the next European combat-aircraft programme will be, or which major manufacturers will be involved in it. What is certain is that it will not reach fruition without the thousands of little companies on which all such major manufacturers depend. It would reflect badly on today's Eurofighter management, if some of the best of those are not around when they are needed next, for want of a simple gesture now.

Source: Flight International