Forgotten firsts — the Sud Aviation Caravelle

The French were pioneers in man’s quest for flight. Many innovative Frenchmen achieved milestones in the early years. In June 1783 the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne, were the first to ascend in a hot-air balloon.

Blériot IX— courtesy Wikipedia

Louis Blériot is credited with developing the world’s first successful monoplane, with a hand-operated joystick and foot pedals for the rudders — a combination that endures to this day. In July 1909, at the controls of his eponymous Type IX machine, Blériot famously became the first to fly across the English Channel from Calais (France) to Dover. (The original Type IX survives in airworthy condition, and I was privileged to watch it fly at Duxford a few years ago.)

Post WW2

But that was a long time ago. The carnage of the Great War, which caused unprecedented casualties and almost destroyed French society, was followed by the humiliating defeat of the Second World War. Even the Allied victory had done little to restore French pride, as a turbulent post-war period spawned 21 governments in 12 years. This chaotic era culminated in the Fifth Republic of 1958 led by President Charles de Gaulle, the hero who had commanded Free French forces in WW2.

After the war, France had adopted a ‘command economy’ type of capitalistic system, known as dirigiste, which led to a consolidation of the disparate aviation industry. Thus, in 1957 Sud Aviation (Southern Aviation) was born from the merger of Sud-Est (SNCASE, or South East Aviation) and Sud-Ouest (SNCASO/South West). It was centered on a little-known town named Toulouse, not far from the Pyrenees mountain range.

Comet changes the world

As discussed in previous articles, the initial success of the de Havilland D.H.106 Comet jetliner took the world by surprise. The three US giants — Lockheed with its Constellation series; Douglas Aircraft Company, whose utilitarian DC-4 followed the legendary DC-3 Dakota; and Boeing, maker of the Model 377 Stratocruiser (which had two decks and epitomized the luxury of contemporary air travel) — were making good progress with their piston-engine aircraft. A nascent initiative to build a regional jetliner by Avro Canada was stillborn due to the dominant US airlines’ lack of interest in turbine engines.

The Caravelle and the Comet shared the nose section and flight deck— courtesy DP

The speed and comfort of the Comet didn’t go unnoticed. Boeing, realizing that this was a paradigm shift in the game, began secretly working on a jet transport. Douglas was not so enthusiastic, and their caution seemed to be justified when the Comet soon became involved in a series of disasters, which led to the type being grounded.

The mandarins at the French Comité du matériel civil (civil aircraft committee) thought otherwise. Working closely with their British counterparts while aware of what was happening with the Comet, they saw a niche. Realizing that no one was working on a regional jet-powered type, the French issued a specification in 1951 for an aircraft capable of carrying 55 to 65 passengers and 1,000kg (2,200lb) of cargo on routes of up to 2,000km (1,200 statute miles), with a cruising speed of about 600kph (320kt).

Caravelle takes shape

Sud-Est Aviation, still operating as SNCASE, submitted a design featuring three Rolls-Royce Avon axial flow turbojet engines mounted at the rear. This was a novel configuration; all contemporary designs had engines on or partially ensconced in the wings. Soon after this design (designated the X-210) was selected, Rolls-Royce produced an updated version of the Avon with increased thrust. This allowed SNCASE to use only two engines, and the rear-mounted configuration was born in July 1952.

Air France Caravelle — courtesy Wikipedia

An added bonus, in addition to structural weight savings, was that the noisy jet engines were aft of the fuselage, thereby making the cabin much quieter. This engine location would prove to be a timeless design, with the Douglas DC-9, Fokker F28 Fellowship, BAC One-Eleven and other twin-jet designs, including the Soviets’ Tupolev Tu-134, adopting the same layout (followed not long afterward by tri-jets such as Boeing’s legendary 727, the de Havilland D.H.121 (Hawker Siddeley) Trident, and Tupolev Tu-154).

Manufacturing

In April 1955 the first prototype of the SE 210 was rolled out in Toulouse. It was named after the caravel, a type of small, fast, highly manoeuvrable sailing ship developed by the Portuguese in the 15th century. It is worth remembering that Boeing would only unveil its Model 367–80 (precursor to the 707) in August of that year, so the Caravelle was definitely a pioneer of the jet age.

The Caravelle was also unique for the time, with many of its components built elsewhere, only final assembly taking place at Blagnac airport in Toulouse. The cockpit and nose section was a direct copy of the Comet, licensed from de Havilland and manufactured by SNCASE. Bréguet Aviation, a French company, produced some sections of the fuselage; Fiat Aviazione of Italy built the tailplane, fin and engine nacelles. Numerous British and US manufacturers were sources of other sections. This was the diversified manufacturing template that in later years Airbus would use to successfully challenge Boeing’s dominance of the industry.

Sales success

The prototypes made a number of demonstration flights in 1956, and orders were received from Air France almost immediately. Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) followed soon after. Sud-Est and Sud-Ouest merged that year too and Sud Aviation was born. Type certification was received in 1959, and the first revenue flight of a Sud Aviation Caravelle took place in April, operated by SAS. It wasn’t long before French flag-carrier Air France followed suit.

The Caravelle found a favorable niche. Early jet-powered rivals such as the Comet 4, Boeing 707 and McDonnell Douglas DC-8 were aimed at the intercontinental market; the Caravelle’s only rivals in the regional market were turboprops, such as the Vickers Viscount, and aging reciprocating-engine aircraft — which were noisy, notorious for vibrations, and slow.

The sleek, fast, quiet Caravelle was a passenger favorite. Though slimmer than the 707 and DC-8, with a fuselage diameter of 3.01m, it was wider than the Comet. Initial models had 2+2 seating, but an extra row of seats was soon squeezed in, and a 2+3 configuration became the norm, making the SE 210 a profitable aircraft for many operators.

The Caravelle had a very distinctive window shape — courtesy Wikipedia

A signature feature of the Caravelle were its ‘trianguloid’ passenger windows, a design repeated on only one or possibly two other types, including the North American (Rockwell) Sabreliner biz-jet.

The Caravelle saw service with airlines all over the world, including the USA. European airlines were early users of course, with practically every major carrier on the continent, including Swissair, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Sabena, Finnair and numerous other airlines flying the SE 210. In addition to many African and Asian airlines, some with cultural and economic ties to France (such as Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Cambodia and South Vietnam) the aircraft even saw service with Indian Airlines Corporation. As the first jet-powered type operated by India’s domestic and regional ‘giant’, Caravelles of IAC were used on scheduled services to Colombo-Katunayake too.

The SATA Caravelle which flew for Air Ceylon — courtesy DP

Around 1967 Sud Aviation was in negotiations with Air Ceylon over an order for two Caravelles, but nothing eventuated from those overtures. Air Ceylon did, however, operate a Caravelle, but only for about a month in late 1971 when a Type 10 R was leased from Swiss charter company SATA (Société Anonyme de Transport Aérien) as a substitute for Air Ceylon’s Trident 1E which was undergoing maintenance.

United Airlines operated 20 Caravelles from 1961 to 1973, marking a rare US sales success for a European type. Apart from Mexico in North America, many Central and South American airlines were users too, including in such countries as Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile. Interestingly, British airlines were among the few that did not fly the type.

The simplicity of the Caravelle’s design, ease of maintenance and integral airstairs (located between the engines at the rear of the fuselage) were some of the reasons this attractive aircraft was so popular.

A total of 282 Caravelles of many variants were built in a production life spanning 1958 to 1972. This was a sales record for a French type, surpassed only by the Airbus A300 family many years later and exceeds the number of A380s sold.

Variants

In keeping with many early types, there were a bewildering number of variants. The length of the SE 210 increased from the original’s 32m (105ft) to 36.24m (118ft 11in) with a corresponding increase in passengers from 80 on the Type I, to a maximum of 140 on the Caravelle 12.

The Caravelle III was the best-selling version, and earlier Model I and IA aircraft were modified to this standard. The Model VI R was fitted with reverse thrust (hence the -R suffix) for United Airlines, and was also operated by Indian Airlines and TAP Air Portugal, Aerolíneas Argentinas and many others.

Super Caravelle with P&W engines — courtesy DP

A prototype with the General Electric CJ-805–23C aft-fan engines and an auxiliary power unit (APU), designated the 10A, was developed for TWA, but the order was cancelled. Subsequently, the 10B was built, with a modified wing and Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofans. The final version, officially named the Caravelle 12, with upgraded JT8D engines and a longer fuselage, was dubbed the ‘Super Caravelle’.

Ambitious plans

The Caravelle was an undisputed operational and sales success. In a different age the design would have been continually modified as engines and structures improved, allowing many more years to be eked out of the basic design. Douglas were able to do this successfully with the DC-9, a design launched in 1965 that morphed over the years into the MD-80 family and the Boeing 717. The final iteration of the basic DC-9 was produced in 2006, more than 40 years since the original flew.

However, the Sixties was an age of great optimism. Buoyed by their success, Sud Aviation embarked on a quest to develop a supersonic jet, thereby leaping ahead technologically. As is now known, this proved to be an extremely hard task, and it took many more years plus close cooperation with the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) of the UK before a viable design was achieved. The ultimate Anglo-French product, known as the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde, proved to be a blind alley, as a sharp increase in fuel prices and changing travel patterns meant that the market for such a machine was too small to be profitable.

Unintended consequences

The passage of time and competitive nature of the aerospace industry meant that Sud-Aviation was compelled to cooperate closely with other French and European establishments. By a process of gradual consolidation, the group had become Aérospatiale, and dominated the French industry. This new entity worked closely with British and German design houses, a process that eventually led to the formation of Airbus Industrie.

Today, the Airbus group, with its headquarters at Blagnac Airport in Toulouse, is the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, a crown it wrested from the hands of archrival Boeing only recently.

This is part of a series on the propliners of the 1950s and the slow transition to the jet age. It all began with the DC-3 of course, and my columns move through the other Douglas propliners, the Boeing 377, Lockheed’s Electras and the elegant Constellation. The Brabazon Committee which sparked such a wave of innovation in the UK with the Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Britannia and the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Many other significant aircraft, such as Avro Canada’s innovative but aborted C-102 passenger jet and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, which led us into the start of the Jet Age have columns too.

A few quirky segues I couldn’t resist: the ‘Double Sunrise’ flights between my two homelands Ceylon and Australia; the wonderful Carvairs and that very British habit of taking your car on holiday. I also had to write a paean to my beloved A380 and all my pilot friends in the Gulf as COVID ended that little dream.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I have relished writing them. My special thanks to my old friend, mentor, editor and repository of knowledge Roger Thiedeman, for all the encouragement and support throughout this project.

The definitive work on the Caravelle is undoubtedly Caravelle: The Complete Story, a 576-page tome of encyclopaedic proportions and scope, written by the late John Wegg and published by Airways International Inc. in 2005.

I love airplanes. As an airline captain I flew many including the A380 and Boeing 777. But wish I’d had the opportunity to fly some of these old propliners.