An airport in Hampshire will this week play host to politicians, airline executives and military officials from across the world as the global aerospace and defence industry meets to parade the latest commercial airliners, fighter jets and drones.
Welcome to the Farnborough International Airshow 2014 - also a showpiece for British industry, with three of domestic manufacturing's biggest players, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, displaying their wares. For the public, the two-yearly event is a chance to see the Red Arrows and all the latest commercial and military jets - including, if all goes to plan, the first European flight of the F35-B Lightning II joint strike fighter, which has been grounded since one of the $135m planes caught fire on the runway last month.
But the real business of the event, opening tomorrow, will take place inside glitzy marquees along the runway, where defence company executives will press the flesh of politicians and army chiefs as they put the finishing touches to billions of pounds' worth of export deals.
On the commercial side, airline executives will be wooed by manufacturers Airbus and Boeing, looking for multibillion dollar deals, while Rolls-Royce seeks sales for the engines that power the aircraft.
"Everyone wants to get deals done by the next day," says Tom Williams, Airbus executive vice-president and the company's most senior Brit. "Real negotiations are taking place in all those little corridors . . . it's a very intense week."
In 2012, the last time the event was held at Farnborough - it alternates with Paris - more than pounds 42bn of aerospace deals were announced. A similar amount is expect to be pledged this year.
A sizable chunk of that cash will find its way to Britain as the UK underlines its prominent role in defence and aerospace, despite spending cuts across the world. For the British aerospace and defence, Farnborough is a shop window. "Aerospace sustains high-value long-term jobs in the UK," says Paul Everitt, chief executive of ADS, the aerospace and defence trade body. "We help create a rich science base with the kind of high-skilled jobs that politicians dream about. Aerospace is unquestionably the Premier League of our manufacturing industries."
British defence companies turned over pounds 22bn last year and, importantly to the government's need to rebalance the economy, defence exports amounted to pounds 9.8bn - up 11% on 2012. The UK now accounts for 22% of the global defence export market.
Britain's commercial aerospace sector is an even bigger exporter than defence: 90% of the sector's pounds 28bn turnover comes from exports. The UK now accounts for 17% of the global aerospace market - in terms of manufacturing and R&D - and is second only to the US. The industry is also a big employer of highly skilled, well-paid engineers, designers and researchers. More than 100,000 people are directly employed in UK aerospace, with tens of thousands more working indirectly in roles up and down the supply chain.
BAE, the UK's largest defence company, employs 34,800 people in Britain: the company claims they generate revenue at a rate of pounds 105,000 per employee - 2.5 times the national average.
Importantly for weaning the economy off its reliance on London, the vast majority of defence and aerospace jobs are located outside the capital. BAE assembles the Eurofighter Typhoon in Lancashire and built parts of the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, which the Queen officially named this month, in Glasgow and Portsmouth.
Rolls-Royce is another significant British player that will be prominent at Farnborough. It made the engines for the two Royal Navy QE-class aircraft carriers and key engine parts for the F35-B, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Airbus A400M, which has the world's newest and most powerful propeller engine, as well as the engines for the A380 and the upcoming A350. It, too, is a big UK employer, with 12,000 staff in Derby and 3,500 in Bristol.
Despite making some of the noisiest jets in the world, Rolls Royce'sBristol factory is quieter than a City office on a Friday afternoon as engineers methodically go about building and repairing engines that cost millions of pounds each. The quietness is maintained by the use of a double-skinned concrete bunker out the back for engine testing. Engines are also taken to the Sahara and the Arctic circle to check that they can operate at extreme temperatures, while at another facility (dead) Canada geese are fired at engines to check how they cope with bird strikes.
At the back of the factory, which has been a Bristol landmark since 1966, white hoardings block off not just visitors but most of the workforce from the section where the lifting system for F35-B jets is being built. The unique technology allows the F35-B - the most expensive military project ever attempted - to hover just feet above the ground, and to land vertically on new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Bristol, which has been famous for engineering since Isambard Kingdom Brunel started building the Clifton suspension bridge in 1829, is a hot spot for UK aerospace. Airbus occupies 12 acres of design and research facilities at what was once Filton airfield - site of the first Concorde flight, in 1969.
Franco-German-owned Airbus employs 4,000 people at Filton - designing aircraft, testing landing gear and making wings for the A400M. A further 6,000 Airbus staff are based at Broughton in north Wales, where the wings for the A380 superjumbo are made. Wings for the A400M - made from lightweight composites rather than aluminium to dramatically reduce weight and improve speed and manoeuvrability - are taking shape inside a nondescript hanger in Filton called 07N.
Inside, machines that took five years to build and cost euros 10m each are slowly drilling 12,000 holes into each A400M wing, mainly for attaching covers to the structural ribs and the leading and trailing edges. This kind of painstaking, state-of-the-art work ultimately yields multibillion deals for the likes of Airbus, Rolls-Royce and BAE at Farnborough. John Allen, head of Airbus's component delivery team for wings, explains that the margin for error of the drilling is "plus or minus a thousandth of an inch".
Airbus's civilian jets will be the main focus at Farnborough, when it is expected to announce plans to upgrade its widebody A330 jet to be 14% more fuel efficient. The new version, dubbed A330neo, is expected to be powered by a new Rolls-Royce engine that will increase its range by 400 nautical miles. Airbus's Williams, is keeping stumm on the A330 plans and will only say that "a lot of negotiations are still ongoing".
Williams says Farnborough has become the focal point for negotiations that may have taken months or even years to hammer out. While many of the deals have been agreed in advance and are saved for announcement at the show, others are "done right up to midnight in conference rooms" and inside Airbus's tent on the Farnborough grounds.
He says Farnborough also helps serve as a reminder to the British public that aerospace is one of the last areas of manufacturing at which the UK excels: "The UK is the number two player, beaten only by the US. It's something the UK can be undeniably proud of - lots of other economies around the world look on with envy."
He adds that the UK's place at the heart of this global industry is thanks partly to recent political commitment. "The government has been extremely proactive at working with industry to come up with a very significant strategy." Industry and government have pumped pounds 1bn into creating a UK Aerospace Technology Institute as part of the 15-year Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) plan.
And aerospace is taking a lead in encouraging young people to enter the industry: Airbus runs the biggest apprentice trainee scheme in the country with 450 people signed up in the UK.
Williams, who began his career as a Rolls-Royce apprentice, says encouraging young people, and particularly girls, to take more of an interest in science and mathematics is one of his key roles. However, at the Filton plant there is one female apprentice this year (there were none at all last year) and of 45 graduate trainees, just eight are women.
A phalanx of government ministers - including business secretary Vince Cable, business minister Michael Fallon, science minister David Willetts and defence secretary Philip Hammond - are due to speak at or attend the show, and David Cameron is expected to put in an appearance on Monday, although the government declined to confirm his attendance because of security concerns.
Cable describes UK aerospace as a "global success story" helping to drive the current economic recovery: "Our industrial strategy is ensuring that Britain is well-placed to capitalise on the huge growth anticipated in the aerospace sector, securing highly skilled jobs for the UK and a strong economy."
Williams hopes renewed government interest in the sector, and the diversification of Britain's skills base, will help change the public's perceptions of manufacturing and engineers.
"People have this perception that industry is all about dark satanic mills with floors covered in dust and dirt," he says. "But when you visit the building where we build the wings [for the A380 in Broughton] you will have to put on a white hat and go inside a giant vacuum cleaner to remove the dirt from you before you'll be allowed in."
Next weekend, Farnborough opens to the public, and the government will be hoping that schoolchildren will leave just as impressed as the politicians, airline executives and defence staff.
One of the greatest rivalries in industrial history will take off in earnest once again this week when sales staff from Airbus and Boeing compete for new orders at Farnborough.
Toulouse-based Airbus struggled to keep up with its US competitor in the first half of the year but a glut of expected contracts could partly close the gap. Airbus will steal some of the limelight if it can announce preliminary orders and give the formal go-ahead to a new version of the A330, known as the A330neo.
The Franco-German business reported only 290 new orders in the first half of the year and recently saw a deal cancelled for its big new hope in the long-haul market, the A350. Emirates, the Dubai-based airline that sponsors Arsenal football club, cancelled a $16bn order for 70 of the aircraft. Launch customer Qatar Airways will take delivery of its A350s at the year end. But Airbus is famous for stockpiling contracts so as to reveal them with maximum publicity at key industry shows such as Farnborough.
Seattle-based Boeing notched up 499 new jet contracts in the year to 30 June and has now powered ahead with a $56bn, 150-plane deal of its own for the long-haul 777X plane - also from Emirates. The first 777X, dubbed a mini-jumbo, is due to be delivered in 2020.
The Middle East is still a buoyant market, but the main driver of new demand is the Asia-Pacific region, with huge growth in flying among the newly affluent middle classes of China, India and Malaysia.
Experts were expecting to see deals slow down in 2014 following a frantic 2013 and have warned of a dangerous bubble of overcapacity being created. The industry is already gearing up for a 20% increase in annual production to 2,000 planes by 2018-19, but Boeing stirred further optimism last week by predicting that 36,770 new jets would be needed by 2033, worth $5.2tn.
The US company boasted that it would be the main beneficiary: a spokesman told the Observer that talk of a bubble was misplaced: "The market is strong and resilient. We don't believe in a bubble and we ourselves are very strong in our own product line to meet both market growth and [aircraft] replacement."
Randy Tinseth, Boeing's vice-president of marketing, said Airbus's share of next-generation and long-haul aircraft could drop as low as 30%, "if Airbus does not do something with its product strategy".
But the Franco-German company pointed out that it leads the way with large wide-bodied aircraft that are more fuel-efficient and agreeable to passengers.
No one would comment on a definite launch at Farnborough of the A330neo, which is expected to use British-built Rolls-Royce engines. But speculation continues that take-off is imminent.
Inside the Filton factory: (clockwise from main picture) riggers in the A400M main wing assembly hall; an engineer testing the A350 landing gear; the A400M on show at Farnborough.
Photographs by Adrian Sherratt
for the Observer, Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Airbus graduate trainee
Summer Mitchell in Filton.
Launch of the new Airbus A350 last year.