You should be ashamed of yourselves, and by ‘you’ I mean you. You should be ashamed of yourself for not sharing with me the utter grand madness of 1940s French airliners.
The following are utterly magnifique and I’m thrilled to have the chance to share them with you. Normally I save the best to last, but I am so head-over-heels with the SE.200 Amphitrite, we will start there.
Sud-Est SE.200 Amphitrite ‘L’oie de l’épinette’ (1942)
Flying boats opened up the world in the 1930s. Who needed airports if you could land on water? There weren’t many large airports, so flying boats – in all their grand glamour – led the aeroplane travel revolution. Now air travel routes from linking North America, Europe, South America, Africa and Asia were possible.
In the 1930s the French air ministry was tantalised by the possibilities of international travel and identified a need for a transatlantic flying boat airliner to serve Air France. The requirement specified a 6,000 km (3,700 mi) range – and being the 1930s – room for only 20 lucky passengers (and 500 kg of cargo, probably mostly consisting of Pâté en Croûte, Pastis and mistresses’ underwear).
The aircraft manufacturer Lioré et Olivier set about creating a large handsome six-engined aeroplane, the LeO H-49, powered by six of the then-new Gnome-Rhône 14R-26 1600-horsepower radial aero-engine. With the unfortunately timed nationalisation of the French aviation industry, the aircraft became a Sud-Est concern. The hugely impressive flying boat was named ‘Amphitrite’ after the sea goddess and wife of Poseidon from Greek mythology. Before the huge machine could be flown, Germany invaded France – but work continued at Marignane in southern France. The first aircraft, named Rochambeau, flew on 11 December 1942, and what a machine it was.
The German occupiers were impressed by the aircraft and seized it, taking it to Lake Constance in Germany for assessment. It was here that it was destroyed by RAF Mosquitoes. Four other airframes survived for a short time at Marignane, but one was wrecked by a USAAF raid that also severely damaged the other three.
Sadly, 2022 would see another beautiful six-engined giant aeroplane destroyed from the air with the destruction of the world’s biggest aircraft, the Ukrainian An-225.
Sud-Ouest Bretagne (1945) Brittany and her turbo-Cannes
In the mid to late 1940s, transport aircraft looked like fat sausages (or saucisses in this case). Britain had the banger-esque Vickers Valletta, the US the chubby-wiener that was the C-46 and the French the quaintly porky Bretagne. Conceived in glamourous Cannes on the French Riviera, the Bretagne was operated as an airliner in France and French colonies, as well as in Iran. The coolest thing about this lovable machine is the optional booster jets (two Turbomeca Palas rated at a rather cute 1.47 kN – 330 lbf) under the outer wings. It was also used as a testbed for the Nene jet-engine which made it look like three sausages flying in formation.
SNCASE SE.161 Languedoc ‘The Languishing Languedoc‘ (1939)
Despite a rather appealing appearance – and the fact it was the first post-war French aircraft to fly* – the Languedoc cannot be considered a success. Of a total of 100 built, 11 crashed and a further 7 were damaged beyond economic repair. The bulk of these incidents took place in a period of only four years. It was initially powered by four Gnome-Rhône 14Ns rotary engines, which had a short time between overhaul and were unreliable. A poor view from the cockpit, landing gear issues and other issues dogged the aeroplane, and passengers endured cold and noisy trips in the Languedoc. It was greatly inferior to international competitors, notably the far more modern Vickers Viscount. The Languedoc is best remembered today as the mothership of René Leduc’s experimental ramjet aircraft.
*(or rather return to flight as it had first flown in 1939)
Breguet Br 761 ‘Deux-Ponts’ ‘Eurovision Score’ (1949)
American engines and French airframe design has generally been a very harmonious combination, and the superb Br 761 was a shining example. This design was a double-decker, following the form set by the Latécoère 521 and the Sud-Est SE.200 Amphitrite, a slew of British and US flying boats and more directly, the American Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, and as such anticipated today’s Airbus A380. One significant reason to go taller rather than longer is hangar space. The two decks had room for over 100 passengers: 59 passengers on the top deck, and 48 on the lower deck. Like the A380, it enjoyed a fabulous safety record and a short production run.
S.N.C.A.S.O. SO-93/ Sud-Ouest Corse (1947) ‘Two Corse Sausage Lunch’
Another aircraft from ‘generation friendly sausage’, the Sud-Ouest Corse (Corsica) identified as a mail plane. It was also a pocket-sized airliner with room for 13 passengers. Created with Air France in mind, it failed to meet their needs and the national airline turned its nose up at the Corse. Still, this lovable mediocrity found a home in the French navy and in smaller numbers with the air force. It even enjoyed a short career with Air Services of India.
Latécoère 631 ‘The Constance Lakebed Gardener’
A great big schnozz that even Gérard Depardieu would envy and mighty six-engines identify the gloriously characterful and incredibly impressive 631. It was the largest flying boat ever built, necessitating the considerable grunt of six Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclones. It endured a rather too eventual career: of the eleven aircraft built, five were written off in accidents and one was destroyed in the same RAF attack on Lake Constance that wiped out the Amphitrite. The 631 was the rival of the Amphitrite, designed and built for the same Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile requirement for a 40-passenger airliner with a range of 4,000 kilometres.
Nord 2100 Norazur (1947)
French aerospace engineers had a post-war flirtation with the pusher configuration, creating the pleasingly bananas SNCASO SO.8000 Narval, cute SECAN Courlis and somewhat eccentric Potez 75. The Norazur was not a bad design, but there were many cheaper aircraft types available to fill the light transport and training role.
Bréguet 500 Colmar (1945) ‘Girlfriend in a Colmar’
The four-engined Bréguet 482 heavy bomber would have been very fast: its projected cruise speed of 329mph was a whole 129mph faster than that of the British Lancaster; its top speed of 350mph was 70mph faster than the equivalent figure for the Lanc, and almost as quick as the best fighters of the time. Plans for the 482 were scuppered by the German occupation, but a twin-engined airliner derivative made sense. Inheriting its sleek good looks from the cancelled 482 bomber, the 500 Colmar first flew in 1945, after gestating in occupied France. It was planned that it would carry up to six passengers in the forward cabin and 17 in the rear. With a glut of rivals and France’s post-war woes, it was decided not to put the aircraft into production, but a single example did serve in the French air force for two years as an extremely classy VIP transport.
Breguet Br 892S ‘Mercure‘ (1949)
If you see a photograph of an unfamiliar World War II fighter the story of the project’s demise will have been caused by one of the following three causes: 1. Invasion/occupation/war’s end 2. A dodgy or undeveloped engine 2. The presence of good-enough rivals. If, on the other hand, you see a photograph of an unfamiliar medium-sized transport aircraft from the late 1940s, the story is even simpler: too many cheap C-47s/DC-3s in circulation rendering the effort uneconomical. The military airlifter variant, the Mars, was spurned by the French Air Force in favour of the rather more exciting Nord Noratlas.
SNCASE Armagnac Armagnac whine (1949)
The elegant Armagnac was very big and very heavy. Even with the grunt of four Wasp Majors, the most powerful piston-engines to ever enter production, the Armagnac was underpowered. Plans to equip the aircraft with the Allison T40 (powerplant to a trio of cancelled or rapidly curtailed US projects) were abandoned. Though it had a disappointing range performance, the Armagnac, with its wide-body configuration was a taste of the future.