Paris may be the political capital of France, but the country's aviation capital is the southwestern city of Toulouse. This is where the Concorde took its first flight, other great French planes were born and Airbus has its headquarters. It's also where Airbus completes final assembly of its A380 and A350 airliners.
All of that makes Toulouse the natural home one of France's best aviation temples, the Aeroscopia Aeronautical Museum, (Musée Aeroscopia Aéronautique). Opened in 2015 and located near Airbus's A380 factory and Toulouse's airport, Aeroscopia tells the story of Airbus and puts a wide variety of historic and modern aircraft on display.
Your photo tour begins on the tarmac, which is the opposite order of how you'd see Aeroscopia in person. Outside, you'll find one of the museum's two Concordes. Called Concorde Fox Charlie ("F" and "C" were the last two letters in its French registration), it flew with Air France from 1976 to 2003. In 1993, it completed a 51,354-km (31,909-mile) flight around the world in 37 hours and 25 minutes.
The Concorde's nose landing gear sits so far back on the fuselage that it's behind the main door used to board passengers. Even now, almost 50 years after the Concorde first took to the skies, the supersonic airliner's sleek lines look like something out of the future.
"Long and pointy" would be an accurate way to describe the Concorde's fuselage. Fox Charlie's tail cone extends far beyond the vertical stabilizer (or tail) that's adorned with the Air France livery and the circle of 12 stars representing the European Union. During takeoff, a small wheel would lower from the tail cone to prevent it from striking the runway.
Also outside is the Caravelle. A thoroughly French plane made in Toulouse, the Caravelle made its maiden flight in 1955, breaking new ground in commercial aviation. It was the first jet airliner to be built for the short-range market (perfect for short hops between European cities), and it pioneered the design of putting engines near the tail rather than under the wings. Though it served mostly with European airlines, the Caravelle also flew for a few years with United Airlines.
The Caravelle's manufacturer, Sud Aviation, went on to design and build the Concorde with the British Aircraft Corporation. Sud eventually merged with other companies to form Airbus.
The majority of Aeroscopia's collection is housed in an immense hangarlike building. The first thing you see when entering on the second floor is a replica of the Blériot XI hanging from the ceiling. An early monoplane, it carried one person at a top speed of 40 mph and served as a French training aircraft in WWI. In 1909, designer Louis Blériot made the first air crossing of the English Channel flying from France to Britain. (You can see that aircraft at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.)
In the middle of the second floor is a long display with models of every Airbus aircraft, including the original A300, the workhouse A320, the giant A380 and the new A350. Behind are panels depicting the history of Airbus and French aviation.
Occupying a place of honor in Aeroscopia is the A300, Airbus's first production airliner. In the 1960s when Boeing and Douglas dominated the market for commercial aircraft, the governments of France, the United Kingdom and (then West) Germany decided to beat the American companies at their own game. Airbus was formed in December of 1970, and the A300 made its first flight in October, 1972.
Designed to carry around 300 passengers, the wide-body A300 was built for short- to medium-range routes. Sales were slow to start, even among European carriers, but the A300 got a break in 1978 when the former Eastern Airlines placed an order for 23 planes. It was Airbus's first US sale, giving the company a foothold in a critical market. A family of airliners followed.
You can step inside the A300 to see the cockpit, model business- and economy-class cabins, and this sweet-looking bedroom in the back. This A300 was built in 1983 and served with Pan Am and the bygone Indonesian airline Sempati Air. It made its last flight in 2007.
Inside is the museum's other Concorde (registration F-WTSB). It was the fifth Concorde to fly, making its maiden flight in December, 1973. Instead of serving with an airline, it functioned as a test aircraft and a crew trainer for Air France until 1985. Like its tail cone, the Concorde's nose comes to a sharp point.
The fuselage is only nine feet, five inches (2.87 meters) wide and 10 feet, 10 inches high (3.30 meters). That's about the size of most modern regional jets. Despite the four-figure ticket price, passengers had to squeeze into seats far narrower than what they'd find in subsonic first class and compete for the tiny overhead bins. But the trade-off was faster-than-sound speed (a transatlantic flight between New York and Paris took about three-and-a-half hours) and luxury service in the air.
Most of the Concordes on display in museums around the world don't allow you sit in the passenger seats. Sadly, this Concorde was no different, and a plexiglass wall separated me from the model cabin. Later this, year, though, you will be able to play passenger in a former British Airways Concorde going on display at a new aviation museum in Bristol, England.
Aeroscopia's other walk-through aircraft is one of the most unusual machines to ever fly, the Super Guppy. Built by the US company Aero Spacelines, the first Super Guppy flew in 1965. Like its sister aircraft, the Pregnant Guppy and the Mini Guppy, the Super Guppy's design was based on the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, but blown out (and out and out).
Capable of carrying around 27 tons, the five Super Guppys built had a distinguished career. NASA used them to transport Saturn V rocket stages (one is still in service with NASA), and they transported A300 fuselages for Airbus. To load the aircraft, the Super Guppy's entire fuselage opened like a door. But to do so, crews had to disconnect the flight controls, cables and wiring.
Beneath the nose of the A300 is a SA340 Gazelle helicopter. Built in Toulouse, the Gazelle employed new technology that allowed it to use an enclosed fan called a fenestron instead of a tail rotor. It first flew in 1967.
What looks like a giant fish about to swallow you whole is nose-mounted jet engine intake for the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 BIS. Though funny-looking from this angle, it was a powerful aircraft widely used by the Soviet Air Force during the Korean War.
Dwarfed by the tail of the A300 is a Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, which took its first flight in 1954. A unique -- and not very safe -- feature of the F104 was the pilot's ejector seat that fired downward rather than upward. This plane flew with the German Air Force. In the background is the tail of the Concorde.
This Fairchild Swearingen SA226-AT Merlin IV A was an altered version of an American-built commuter aircraft that started flying in the 1970s. Though this aircraft first served as the personal airplane of the governor of Kentucky, it was later sold to the French weather service. The sensors and instruments in the extended nose cone analyzed atmospheric conditions.
No, this isn't a minivan with wings. It's actually a Cessna 337 Super Skymaster "Push Pull." It gets its name from its two propellers: one on the front that pulled the aircraft and one in the rear that pushed it. The Skymaster flew as reconnaissance aircraft during the Vietnam War.
To close is a model of the Airbus Beluga. The replacement to the Super Guppy, it flies A380 tails (and other gargantuan cargo) to Toulouse for final assembly. Like the Super Guppy, it was based on an older aircraft, in this case the A300. A huge door over the cockpit opens upward for easy loading.