A Frenchman in Filton: Louis Gallois opens new Airbus centre
Sometimes you need a foreign visitor to make you appreciate home grown talent.
My friends from Bordeaux who marvel at our Somerset Cider heritage. The Hollywood animators who can't believe Wallace and Gromit are not painted on every Bristol street corner.
So it was at Filton this morning, when Louis Gallois dropped in to Airbus' state-of-the-art aircraft factory.
M. Gallois is Chief Exec of EADS, the parent company of Airbus. He is, as the assembled engineers were chuckling to me, a "Grand Fromage". He was here to open the new test facility for the Landing Gear on the next generation of Airbus passenger jets, the A350 family. But what was striking was his praise for British engineers.
"We have decided to open here because of your outstanding engineering capacity," he said. "You should not be shy of your achievements, you are world leaders at what you do."
Now I hear a lot of these speeches, and of course you would expect the boss to praise his staff on a red letter day like this.
But what struck me was his absolutely automatic assumption that Wings and Landing Gear mean Filton and Gloucestershire.
"All of our wings are designed and developed here," he shrugged. "The Landing Gear is from Messier Dowty in Gloucestershire, of course, and will be tested in Filton."
When I asked him if they had considered building the £40m landing gear test centre in Spain or France, he looked dumbstruck. I might as well have asked if they'd thought of hiring an American chef instead of a Frenchman.
"The experience, competence, capability of British engineers is unsurpassed in these two fields."
Nice words then, for the Filton faithful. Airbus is of course a pan-European project, so people often get twitchy that the mother-ship might decide to move some vital work from the UK to Spain, or France, or Germany.
"We are employing 16,500 people directly in the UK," chided M Gallois, "135,000 indirect jobs depend on our work. That is 2,000 more than in 2001."
Of course there is a shadow over the party. Next week Dr Liam Fox will reveal the defence cuts he plans to make as his contribution to the Deficit Reduction Programme.
Airbus military flagship, the A400M cargo plane, seems to have survived, and certainly M Gallois and his advisors looked confident this morning. But EADS also has Eurofighter, Eurocopter, other military products. Will the defence wing of the giant firm find itself shrinking just as the civilian wing is flying high?
"All I ask the governments is that they do not cut back on Research and Development." M Gallois told me. He understands that military manufacturing does not exist in a silo. And the plane we were talking about today was a perfect example.
The A350 is the first mostly carbon-fibre passenger plane Airbus have made. And the A400M is, if you like, its military sister. Both programmes have had to re-invent engineering, as the carbon fibre composite material reacts totally differently to aluminium. Clearly, lessons learned on one enrich the other.
Today, the Airbus supremo was confident of the schedule. A350, he insists, will make its first flight in 2012, and will be flying passengers by 2013. Airlines around the globe have already bought 550 of them, so he'd better be right.
But what about the next plane? Will Filton's design engineers be supported by contracts from our own government as enthusiastically as they are by this French chief executive? We have only a week or so to wait.
Meanwhile, here's a picture of the new A350 model, right in front of a replica of the Bristol Fighter, rebuilt by Filton Apprentices.