When compiling this list of terrible French aircraft we ran up against an unexpected problem: France hasn’t made many terrible aeroplanes. In creating features on the worst British, American and Soviet aircraft (reminds me, we should do German) the shortlist had to be (Frank) whittled down from thirty apiece, but here we had to work a little harder. France certainly made some mediocre aeroplanes, and some flawed designs, though few compete with some of the truly nightmarish offerings of the 20th Century’s other great aviation nations. Don’t worry though, we found a bunch of wonderfully weird French losers. Light up a Gitanes, stick Gainsbourg on the stereo and prepare to meet the ten worst French aircraft.
10. Blériot 125 ‘Verne Baby Verne’
After flying across the channel in his excellent Type XI monoplane, Louis Blériot spent the whole of the rest of his life trying to detract credibility from himself and his achievement. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series of large aircraft his company built throughout the 1920s. Seemingly engaged in a competition with himself to produce the aircraft most resembling an illustration from a Jules Verne novel, Blériot produced a series of unsuccessful bombers and airliners whose outlandish appearance were in direct proportion to their operational mediocrity and chief among these incredible duds was the 125. In October 1927 Blériot saw Fritz Lang’s seminal film ‘Metropolis’ and, taking the idea that life imitates art at glaringly face value, set about building an airliner to encapsulate the science fiction aesthetic he had so enjoyed on that autumn night at the Gaumont Palace cinema, Montparnasse. This, though almost undoubtedly untrue, is the only way to explain the appearance of the Blériot 125 when, in 1930, it emerged from the chrysalis of its hangar like a fantastical butterfly from a daring Art Deco future. Regrettably, an airliner carrying its passengers in twin fuselages resembling railway carriages whilst housing its engines and luckless pilots in a teeny car-shaped pod atop the single massive wing turned out not to be the way forward, as the complete and ongoing absence of aircraft of this configuration serves to prove on a daily basis. Even at the time people were confused, there are many contemporary references to the radical design of the aircraft but no mention anywhere of what possible advantage this configuration is supposed to confer.
The 10 sexiest French aircraft here.
As it turned out, the Blériot 125 turned out to be underpowered and exhibited severe controllability issues and one can hardly be surprised given the encumbrance of those two draggy fuselages combined with the modest power available from its two Hispano-Suiza engines plus the sheer amount of aircraft optimistically expected to be directed about the sky by its two teeny tiny rudders. At least with the massive side area provided by its mighty fuselages, not to mention the engine/crew pod, the 125 must have possessed impressive directional stability. The problems ultimately proved insuperable and after three years of tinkering the 125 still wouldn’t fly properly and was ignominiously scrapped having never carried a fare paying passenger. To be fair to Blériot Aéronautique S.A. they did produce a few relatively acceptable designs, unremarkable and largely forgotten now but who cares? Blériot’s crazed failure from a beautiful alternative future that would never come to be remains far more entertaining.
Pauvre Henri Mignet. The tragic tale of the H.M.14 ‘Pou-de-Ciel’ (in English, literally ‘Louse of the Sky’) could so easily have been completely different. A mere six inches or so of wing overlap separated unprecedented success from tragic disaster. Mignet was a romantic figure, a radio engineer (though some sources claim he was a furniture maker, whatever) with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a fascination with flight, and a chronic inability to fly a conventional aircraft. The latter quality inspired him to try and develop a new type of aircraft which would be simple, easy and safe to fly. The Pou-de-Ciel would ultimately achieve two out of three of these qualities.
Furthermore this was to be an egalitarian aircraft, straightforward to construct and designed to be built at home in a four metre square room.
In designing an aircraft easy for non-pilots to fly (“leave aviation to the aviators” he once quipped) Mignet’s aircraft was genuinely revolutionary. The Pou-de Ciel had no ailerons, lateral control deriving from the rudder and its interaction with the pivoting front wing. The only controls were the throttle and the stick, which operated the pivoting wing and rudder and flying the Pou proved easy and intuitive. Remarkably the aircraft was designed to be impossible to stall, if the front wing did enter a stall, the airflow from it over the rear wing forced the nose down slightly and the Pou automatically recovered. The future appeared bright for Mignet’s machine, especially after he and his wife flew their Pou-de-Ciel’s over the channel to Britain (where it was dubbed the Flying Flea) and there began a short-lived craze for building and flying Mignet’s creation. Unfortunately the phrase ‘short-lived’ would prove all too accurate in a rather more literal sense.
Between August 1935 and May 1936 seven H.M.14s were lost in inexplicable fatal accidents and the authorities in both France and the UK grounded all Flying Fleas. Wind tunnel tests were undertaken in both nations and it was discovered that the air flow from the pivoted front wing when pulled back, to point the aircraft up, increased lift from the rear wing, pointing the aircraft inexorably down: ironically the same effect that prevented a stall occurring and made the aircraft ‘safe’. If the Pou-de-Ciel entered a 15 degree dive, recovery was impossible and the luckless pilot was carried into the ground in the appropriately coffin-shaped fuselage and the French and British immediately banned the unfortunate aircraft. Mignet developed a successful fix for the suicidal tendency of his creation with creditable speed (basically moving the rear wing back the afore-mentioned six inches) but neither his own nor his Flea’s reputation ever fully recovered (though many modified variants of the basic design have since been constructed). A curious aside of this sorry tale is that, because none were flown after 1936, many original H.M.14s survive to the present day, so it is likely that you won’t have to travel far if you want to have a look at the deadly Sky Louse in the flesh.
8. Dassault Balzac/Mirage IIIV ‘Harrier Carrefour’
As F-4s and MiG-21s poured off production lines in their thousands, aircraft designers looked for unconventional ways to kill test pilots, spend billions and make aircraft that nobody wanted – the best solution to this was the vertical take-off & landing fighter. When NATO issued Basic Military Requirement No. 3 in the early 1960s aircraft manufacturers swarmed around like wasps to ice cream. NATO wanted a common supersonic fighter capable of vertical take off and landing. If World War III kicked off, the type would be based in austere locations away from known airfields, and drop retaliatory tactical nukes on the invading Soviet hordes. The fact that at the time of the brief there wasn’t even a subsonic jet VTOL fighter didn’t stop this ambitious concept. Anyone who was anyone in fighter design submitted a proposal; Dassault submitted a concept based on the Mirage III. Vertical propulsion would be provided by eight small lift jets embedded in the fuselage. Lift jets, it was hoped, meant vertical flight without the perils of tail-sitting and without the limitations of (inevitably non-afterburning) vectored thrust. The planned fighter, the III-V was to be large (around the length of a Super Hornet), but a smaller testbed – the Balzac – was modified from a Mirage III prototype. One lethal crash later many were questioning the sense of the project. It had many problems, including gross instability, stall-inducing exhaust re-ingestion and debris-sucking, a troublesome main engine and underpowered lift engines. Even if all of these were solved (and some were in its later big brother the Mirage III-V) there were the still the unsolvable issues of the terrible payload, terrible range (thanks to the Gainsbourgesque thirst of the lift-jets in the hover and their taking up most of the internal space where fuel tanks could have been located) and horrendous maintenance requirements of multiple engines. When the large Mirage III-V crashed in 1966, it was time to knock the whole thing on the head. Still at least, the Mirage IIIV grabbed the absolute speed record for a VTOL aircraft at Mach 2.03, a record unlikely to ever be surpassed (incidentally, the Mirage G.8 still holds the European speed record at Mach 2.34).
NATO never managed to get its shit together and mass order a single fighter type, despite the huge cost savings inherent in such a scheme.
(By the way, Britain’s entry, the P.1154 won the contest).
7. Airbus Helicopters Tigre ‘HAPless in Seattle’
While the Opel Tigra car, developed by Germany, France and Spain, is a huge success, its rotary-craft (almost) namesake (created by the same nations) has proved a huge disappointment. It’s a bit of push to blame the Tigre purely on France, but as it’s now under the Airbus Helicopters label (headquarters at Marseille Provence Airport), it’s fair game. To be fair, Spain and Germany, must shoulder some of the responsibility for what has been described as ‘a Ford attack helicopter at Lamborghini prices‘. Development was very slow, the requirement was issued in 1984 yet the type didn’t enter service until 2003 (even then it couldn’t do much). Integration of weapons systems proved slow and VERY expensive. Only one export customer bought the Tigre (or Tiger as other nations know it), the Australian Army. The first two helicopters were delivered to Australia in 2004. Full operating capability was planned for 2011, in reality it didn’t happen until 2016. In 2012, after multiple incidents with cockpit fumes that endangered aircrew, Australian pilots refused to fly the Tiger until all safety concerns were resolved. In 2016, an Australian Defence White Paper announced that the Tiger helicopters would be replaced with other armed reconnaissance aircraft in the mid 2020s – hardly a long life for such an expensive acquisition (the US Army have flown Apaches since 1986, and in updated form the type remains in production today). Issues cited by the Australian Paper included the shipping time of sending parts across the world for repair, a lack of commonality with other Tiger variants and the high maintenance cost of the engines. In 2013 prices a French HAD cost US$49m a pop (the 2014 unit price of the far, far more capable AH-64E was US$35.5M). It’s hard to know how they got it so wrong as France is great at building helicopters and their military equipment also tends to be first-rate. Perhaps the difficulty of the task was underestimated- or the failure of the partners to agree on a single variant is to blame, whatever the reason, it ended up as a very costly way to not buy Apaches.
6. Nieuport-Delage NiD 37 Type Course ‘Après moi le Délage’
The French philosopher Michel Foucault was sceptical of absolute ideas. Perhaps Foucault would have approved of the ‘sesquiplanes’ designed by Gustave Delage which denied such absolute notions as being either a monoplane or a biplane, instead opting to be ‘one-and-a-half- planes’. These made great fighters in World War One, so Delage kept going with the concept for his post-war racers. He flirted with pure biplanes with the Nieuport-Delage NiD 29V which smashed the world speed record in 1920 at an impressive 194.4 mph, but returned to his 1½ obsession with the Nieuport-Delage Sesquiplane. The following year the new aircraft bettered the ’29V by clocking 205.23 mph (a speed cars would only take seven years to equal, with Campbell’s Bluebird). At the Coupe Deutsch race this same racer crashed for reasons unclear (perhaps wing flutter or maybe a birdstrike), in the capable hands of Sadi Lecointe . In 1922 Delage came out with an even faster Sesquiplane, the NiD 37 Type Course (racing type, as opposed to the Type Chasse fighter). The ’37 looked, and was, weird: it had a broad aile inférieure (the wing-like shoe for the main landing gear or half-wing that defines the sesquiplane), minute wings and a sleek streamlined fuselage that resembled a bomb painted red and white (to add to its eccentric appearance, the radiator hung under the nose in a ‘lobster-pot’). On the day of the first flight attempt the test pilot (again the heroic Sadi Lecointe) sat astride the engine (with the pedals attached to the back of the 407 hp motor) ready for the type’s first flight. At full throttle the machine raced across the airfield displaying no intention whatsoever to leave the ground. Lecointe tried repeatedly to coax the reluctant machine into the air. He gave up when the carburettor burst into flames and burnt his feet.
5. Simplex-Arnoux (1922) ‘Race with the devil’
René Arnoux had pioneered tailless flying wings, designing his first as early as 1909. When he put his mind to creating the fastest possible racer he retained his disdain for the tail, seeing a potential weight and drag saving. The racer, which was powered by the 320 hp Hispano-Suiza, was built to win the Coupe-Deutsch race of 1922. It was to be flown by the national hero Georges Madon, a fighter ace in the First World War. The resulting aircraft, the Simplex-Arnoux, was tiny- the fuselage being essentially an aerodynamic fairing that covered the engine – and lethal. Interwar racing pilots were used to limited views from the cockpit and vicious handling characteristics, but even by these standards the Simplex-Arnoux was a nasty aeroplane. The enormously broad-chorded wing obscured the view down, the barrel radiator obscured the view ahead (and blasted the unfortunate pilot with scorching hot air). It had also had appalling control authority as Madon found on a pre-race trial flight. The Simplex-Arnoux was too much to handle, even for a pilot with 41 confirmed victories and 64 probables, and the resultant crash caused Madon severe injuries.
4. Antoinette ‘Monobloc’ ‘Ian Dury & The Monobloc-heads’
In the very early days of aviation the ‘Antoinette’ monoplane was massively successful, a supremely elegant machine when compared to the Wrights, Farmans and Voisins that were its contemporaries. At its heart was the world’s first V-8 engine, patented by Léon Levavasseur, intended for speedboats, and named Antoinette after the daughter of his financier Jules Gastimbide. And what an engine it was, boasting (for its time) exceptional smoothness and refinement, its power to weight ratio was not surpassed for 25 years and it is hardly surprising that early aviation pioneers beat a path to Levavasseur’s door to obtain an example of his brilliant engine. Alberto Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis made the first aircraft flight in Europe and was powered by an Antoinette, Samuel Cody made the first flight in a British built aircraft with an Antoinette engine, and an Antoinette powered Paul Cornu’s helicopter, the first to leave the ground, to name but three. When Levavasseur branched into building complete aircraft around his engine the future looked bright indeed, especially when famed Anglo-French pilot Hubert Latham started to set altitude and distance records in them. The company helped set up a flying school (incidentally training, amongst others, the first female pilot to fly combat missions, Marie Marvingt) and developed the world’s first flight simulator. Antoinette was on top of the world.
Thus the utter and complete failure of the Antoinette Monobloc was tragic indeed. The aircraft was years ahead of its time, the world’s first cantilever monoplane wings, fully faired undercarriage in huge spats and a beautifully streamlined fuselage which completely enclosed the Antoinette engine. For 1911 this was futuristic indeed. Unfortunately it couldn’t fly. The Monobloc was (under)powered by the 50 hp V-8 engine that had propelled its immediate predecessor, the Antoinette VII which had weighed 590 kg and could hurtle to a maximum speed of 70 km/h. All the fascinating features of the Monobloc had pushed its weight up to 935 kg and 70 km/h (or indeed any speed at all) would remain an unattainable dream. Nonetheless Hubert Latham took it to the Concours Militaire at Rheims where he gamely demonstrated its utter inability to fly to the assembled military dignitaries of many nations.
Within a year the Antoinette company was liquidated.
3. Spad S.A ‘Free Spadicals’
Have you ever stood inches in front of the whirling propeller of a frontline fighter from the First World War? Have you then made a small wood and canvas box to sit in, have someone bolt it to the front of said fighter, then got in it, with the whirling blades of the propeller maybe a foot away from your precious head, whilst an undertrained adolescent flies it (and more importantly you) up into the sky in which lurks hundreds of people in better aircraft who are literally trying to kill you? Of course you haven’t because you’re not an idiot. Yet that was exactly the fate of the observer of the SPAD S.A, an aircraft apparently designed to maim, kill, or, at best, terrify one of its occupants.
The design was a cruelly logical response to the problem of firing a machine gun through the airscrew arc of a conventional tractor aircraft. If you can’t shoot through the propeller, just attach the gun in front of the propeller – and the gunner to fire it. The idea was not unique either, the Royal Aircraft Factory in the UK built the experimental B.E.9 with the same layout, however the British machine was wisely discarded but the SPAD S.A. went into service.
It was not popular.
As well as the obvious inherent horror of the design the gunner’s perilous nacelle was prone to extreme vibration and on several occasions detached from the rest of the aircraft with lethal consequences. Communication between the crew was impossible, and in the event of the aircraft tipping onto its nose (a common occurrence at the time) the observer would be crushed. A British evaluation of the type came to the chillingly sardonic conclusion that “it would be expensive in observers if flown by indifferent pilots”. Contemporary French reports suggest the S.A was little used and many were offloaded onto the Russians as soon as possible. In Russian service the S.A was similarly unpopular and its only effect on Russian servicemen was to prove their Imperialist masters really did have it in for them and hasten the revolution. It also didn’t help that the acronym SPAD phonetically translates as ‘plummet’ in Russian.
2. Bloch 150 (early) ‘Bloch Party’
By 1935 it was a fair bet that any new conventional aircraft built by an experienced design team would be able to fly. However every now and then a machine unable to leave the ground would emerge to challenge such assumptions and the Bloch M.B.150 fighter was just such an aircraft. Attempts to get the new fighter off the ground were abandoned in 1936. As well as being embarrassing, the ensuing delay as the aircraft was redesigned cost precious months and meant that, when the Bloch fighter was most desperately needed it was not available in sufficient numbers. It is probably an exaggeration to claim that the failure of the original M.B.150 to fly cost France victory in the air but it certainly didn’t help.
Even once the Bloch had been developed into an aeroplane that could actually fly it wasn’t exactly a stellar performer. With its wonky nose (the engine was pointed slightly to the left to counteract airscrew torque), slab sided fuselage, apparently undersized wings, cumbersome tail unit and crudely massive gun barrels it could hardly be described as a looker either. It was, at least, incredibly strong and able to survive remarkable levels of combat damage, which was lucky given its lack of speed or agility and the M.B.150 and its slightly improved M.B.151 and 152 variants served valiantly but not particularly effectively throughout the Battle for France. A considerably better variant, the M.B.155 was just entering service as France capitulated and served in the Vichy air force but the final development, the M.B.157, boasted truly outstanding performance. Unfortunately the single example suffered the ignominy of only ever flying in German colours.
Ultimately Marcel Bloch changed his name and that of his company to Dassault consigning the embarrassment of the M.B.150 to another age, and, to the casual observer, another aircraft company.
1. Potez 630 and 631 (fighter variants) ‘Le Bf 110′
Had the Potez 630 and 631 fighters been able to avoid combat it would have been just another pre-war mediocrity hardly worthy of mention. Unfortunately for it and its crews it was committed to aerial combat against, amongst others, a far superior aircraft that it just happened to uncannily resemble.
During the 1930s most of the world’s major air forces flirted with the idea of twin-engined ‘heavy’ fighters. These shared a common concept that a larger fighter aircraft could effectively escort bombers deep into enemy territory, making up for any deficiency in agility deriving from their size, when compared with opposing single-engined fighters, with heavier firepower and speed. Aircraft such as the Westland Whirlwind and Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu were all variations on this theme. Sadly the concept was flawed, World War Two era twin engine fighters were never a match for their single engine counterparts as the debacle of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 in the Battle of Britain serves to demonstrate. The Messerschmitt was an excellent aircraft (its rate of climb was greater than that of the Spitfire for example) yet it was unable to survive against determined fighter opposition, ultimately needing to be supplied with a fighter escort even though it was supposed to be an escort fighter. Imagine then how much worse it would have been if it hadn’t been such an excellent aircraft and one has a reasonable idea of the hopelessness of the Potez 630.
The Potez 630 family was a diverse group of aircraft with pleasant flying characteristics comprising derivatives optimised for every conceivable role from Army co-operation to bombing, and in general it performed adequately if not spectacularly during the fighting over France and after. The fighter variant was, at least, well armed boasting two 20-mm cannon in a ventral gondola and two fixed machine guns (one firing backwards!) plus a machine gun on a flexible mount for the second crewman. However it never had sufficiently powerful engines to propel it to a decent speed and proved to be slower than many of the German bombers that it was supposed to be shooting down. Against modern fighters it had no chance at all. The afore-mentioned Messerschmitt 110 with an extra 750 hp on tap was a full 120 km/h faster and unfortunately for the Potez, from most angles it looked very similar indeed to the German fighter. It is not known how many ‘friendly-fire’ incidents resulted in losses but there are many documented instances. Pity the poor Potez pilot – strapped into an aircraft with inadequate performance, expected to chase down bombers that he is unable to catch, and shot at by friend and foe alike in invariably superior aircraft.
To be fair to the French, the limitations of the Potez as a fighter were well known by 1939 but the fact was (in an annoyingly non-stereotypical act of engineering efficiency) it was so well designed for mass production that it was available in great numbers immediately, plus it was very cheap: despite being a fairly large twin-engined aircraft the Potez 630 could be built in fewer man-hours and for less money than a Morane-Saulnier 406, the commonest French single-engine fighter in 1940 (and also not that great a combat aircraft). Ultimately even the standard escape route for inadequate twin-engined fighters, night-fighting, provided no solace for the Potez. In the absence of any kind of guidance system the best it could do was fly around at night hoping to blunder into an enemy aircraft and it is fair to say that its service as a night fighter was effectively irrelevant. At least it was nice to fly and the three examples that somehow contrived to survive the conflict were used postwar as trainers for the reconstituted Armee de l’Air.
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