LE BOURGET, France: Nearly hidden among the ranks of giant airliners, military airlifters and sleek warplanes on display at this year's centenary Paris Air Show, an eclectic collection of historic aircraft has been drawing large crowds of curious onlookers.
Its centerpiece is the Bleriot XI, a rickety monoplane that was featured in the inaugural Paris air show in 1909, after its French constructor Louis Bleriot had used it for the first flight across the English Channel.
Drawing even more attention at the show -- open to the public through Sunday -- was the PBY5A Catalina, a beautifully designed US World War II-era flying boat, stuck ignominiously between a massive Air France Cargo Boeing 777 and a brand new Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role fighter-bomber.
The high-winged twin-piston engine Catalina performed a variety of vital but unglamorous duties such as long-range reconnaissance, anti-submarine patrols and air-sea rescue of downed airmen or sailors from sunken ships. It even maintained the only long-range aerial link with Australia while that nation was cut off by the Japanese Pacific fleet.
In the type's most famous combat action, a British Catalina located the Nazi super-battleship Bismarck in the north Atlantic in May 1941. That sent an allied fleet in pursuit, and the pride of Hitler's navy was attacked and sunk.
"This is one of the unsung heroes of WWII and the reason to keep it flying is to preserve the memory of this historic workhorse," said Rod Brooking, a retired British Airways pilot who now flies for the Catalina Society, a British group of enthusiasts who maintain the 66-year old amphibian.
Another aircraft attracting interest was the twin-engine MD 315 Flamant, an otherwise unremarkable model that happened to be the first plane to carry the Dassault designation -- which has since become synonymous with top-of-the range French warplanes and business jets. The Flamant was the first dedicated business plane in the world.
Its designer Marcel Bloch was an established aeronautical engineer in pre-WWII France who had conceived the MB406 fighter that became the mainstay of the French air force at the beginning of World War II.
After the fall of France, Bloch -- who was Jewish -- was imprisoned in Germany's infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. But he survived and returned to Paris after the war, where he assumed the pseudonym his brother had used in the resistance -- Dassault (meaning "for assault"). One of the jets he later designed was the Mirage III, which gained lasting fame for its spectacular performance in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
The manufacturer's latest warplane, the twin-jet Rafale, has been performing spectacular aerobatic displays in the sky above its older brethren.
The Flamant is part of a collection of classic planes maintained by Dassault Passion, a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving old French aircraft.
"These planes represent an important part of modern aviation history," said Gerard David, a former pilot and president of the society. "The Flamant, for instance, is the forefather of today's business jets."
Among the other historic planes on display were a beautifully restored 1950s-era Lockheed Super-Constellation four-engine airliner, a Ryan Recruit, the first US Army Air Corps all metal, monoplane trainer, and the Antonov AN-2 biplane transport aircraft.