Sud Aviation and Aérospatiale
By T.A. Heppenheimer, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
In France, the relationship between the government and the aerospace
industry is very different from that in the United States. American firms
compete to win contracts from the Department of Defense in Washington,
relying on income from those contracts to stay in business. Yet even the
largest such corporations remain in the hands of private individuals,
including their stockholders.
By contrast, in France, the government owns the industry outright. In
particular, the government owns 97 percent of that country's largest
aerospace company, the firm of Aérospatiale. Officials in Paris thus have
been free to use this industry as an arm of the state, to advance French
interests. Yet experience has shown that, despite having the power of the
state on their side, aerospace leaders have found that there is no
substitute for responding to the demands of the market.
The story of Aérospatiale begins around 1950 with its corporate
predecessor, SNCASE. The company was building a line of aircraft that were
rather unexciting but brought steady business. These included the
Languedoc airliner and two fighters, the Vampire and Mistral. The Vampire
was British, being built under license; the Mistral used a jet engine, the
Nene, from Britain's firm of Rolls-Royce. In sum, there was not an
enormous amount of original thinking at SNCASE.
This changed in 1951 though, as the company began to build the Caravelle
jetliner. The Caravelle was not the world's first jetliner, but it was the
first to fly successfully. It had two engines and was built to serve short
routes, which were quite numerous in Europe. Significantly, its design
placed those engines at the rear of the airplane, behind the passenger
cabin, rather than under the wings, which led to a noisier ride.
Passengers could barely hear the engines, and the Caravelle became very
attractive because it was very quiet. Its jet engines also gave a smooth
and comfortable ride that was free of harsh vibrations.
Air France, the national airline, placed the first orders. That was to
be expected; it too was an arm of the state. However, nearly every other
major European airline also bought them. In a major breakthrough for
France, America's United Airlines
purchased 20 Caravelles. This broke with the practice of America's
carriers, which together formed the largest market for airliners in the
world, buying only American-built aircraft.
The first Caravelles entered service in May 1959. Two years later, they
flew an array of European routes running from London to Casablanca in
North Africa, while extending eastward to Moscow and to Tel Aviv and
Damascus in the Middle East. In the United States, Caravelles were serving
the important route from New York to Chicago. By then SNCASE had merged
with another French planebuilder, Ouest Aviation, and had formed the
powerful new firm of Sud Aviation. Having achieved great success with
Caravelle, Sud now was ready for something new.
This took shape as the Concorde, a joint
French-British attempt to build a supersonic commercial airliner. However,
it ran into cost overruns and delays, largely because it was a political
project. Four companies built it: British Aircraft and Sud, along with
Bristol Siddeley and the French engine-building firm of SNECMA. However,
all four were working as subcontractors to their governments, which meant
that political leaders made the most important decisions. In particular,
those leaders wanted the Concorde program to provide jobs for workers, so
they set up two separate assembly lines, one in Britain and the other in
France. Production facilities are among the most costly parts of a major
aircraft program, and this decision brought a great deal of wasteful
In addition, the delays that ensued provided time for the Boeing
747 to emerge as a rival. This enormous jetliner was
far slower than the Concorde but was very comfortable, and travelers liked
its low fares. By contrast, the Concorde came along just in time for the
oil crises of the 1970s, which sent the cost of jet fuel sky-high. The
high-speed flight of Concorde was achieved by burning as much fuel as the
vastly larger 747 used, yet Concorde carried only one-fourth as many
passengers. Each of them then had to pay four times as much as a 747
Only two airlines ever purchased Concorde, and only in very small
numbers. These were the national carriers Air
France and British Airways.
The Concorde, born in state decisions, ended the same way, as only the
airlines of those governments cared to buy them.
Sud Aviation continued to expand, merging in 1970 with another rival,
Nord Aviation, and with the missile and space group called SEREB. Together
they formed Aérospatiale. By then, company officials had learned sharp
lessons from the Concorde. They vowed that on their next attempt, they
would build something that airlines actually would buy.
This next effort took shape within an international collaboration
called Airbus Industrie, which brought in British
Aerospace as a partner, along with a subsidiary of Germany's firm of
Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm. They proceeded to build the two-engine Airbus A-300
jetliner. It had the wide cabin of Boeing's 747, which was popular for its
At first, the A-300 looked like another flop. Few of them sold, while
the French government continued to build these aircraft to provide jobs.
Aérospatiale could not simply cut back production and lay off its
workers, for French law required that such unemployed people were to
receive 90 percent of their pay for a year, while retaining their
extensive health benefits. As a result, Airbus Industrie was building
planes that no one wanted.
Yet while the high price of fuel helped to kill Concorde, it saved
Airbus, because the A-300 burned less fuel. It had rivals in triple-engine
wide-body airliners—the Lockheed L-1011
and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10.
But the A-300 had one less engine and hence was lighter in weight, which
is why it used less fuel.
The A-300 had other advantages. Having only two engines, it was less
costly to purchase. The tri-jets had mounted an engine in the tail, but
the A-300 avoided this. Hence it could fit more fare-paying passengers
into its cabin. The A-300 soon drove the DC-10 and L-1011 from the market.
This success opened new doors for Airbus, which launched new projects and
went on to challenge Boeing for leadership in aviation.
Ariane launch vehicle
European Space Agency photo
Aérospatiale also showed leadership in space flight. A European effort
of the 1960s sought to build the Europa launch vehicle, a three-stage
rocket with separate stages built in Britain, France, and Germany. All
flight tests failed, partly because there was no central authority that
could tell these sovereign governments what to do. Then in 1973, officials
of Aérospatiale stepped in.
They proposed to build a new launch vehicle called the Ariane. Other
European nations also were welcome to participate—but officials in
France would make the most important decisions, which would be binding on
all. This approach worked, with Ariane succeeding brilliantly on its very
first flight late in 1979. With this, the French went on to gain a strong
advantage over the United States. American space leaders had placed their
hopes on the Space
Shuttle. But the explosion
in flight of the Shuttle Challenger in 1986 showed that this launch
vehicle was too complex for routine use and could only fly in limited
service. Aérospatiale went on to develop more capable versions of the
Ariane, which took much of the business of space launches away from the
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author