Is this aircraft company the French Blackburn?
If there’s one thing that social media knows about aircraft, it’s that the Blackburn Blackburn is the perfect meme. Of course, I must remember my social media may be different to yours, and you might not be mired in the Groundhog Day of aviation twitter, where ancient jokes are denied a dignified death – and exist in a parody of life, like severely injured sea turtles in a Buddhist rescue centre. But if you are aware of this ‘Av-Geek*’ online world you will know the Blackburn Blackburn is a visual punchline to expectations of the beauty of flight; its chonky earnestness has cemented its manufacturer Blackburn’s reputation as uniquely gifted constructors of ugly airframes. And the existence of the Beverley, Roc (below) and just the mere name of the Blackburd have only added to whatever we’re supposed to call the antithesis of mystique. The problem is that jokes about Blackburn become a little stale when everybody is making them.
To hell with bad British aeroplanes.. what you really want is a lot more mon dieu, mes yeux!
The joy of the Anglo-centric experience is the great treasures our ignorance has hidden. As we listen to the tiresome Hurricane-defenders and provocative Defiant-apologists we are missing out on a wealth of French aircraft, some of them delightfully rubbish. So join us as we leave the browning cliffs of Dover and meet a parallel universe Blackburn, where the designers had better sex and coffee yet STILL created av-bominations. Allow me to introduce you to the grizzly Gaulish output of Avions Farman.
*The term ‘av-geek’ is an imperialist move by the geeks to rob an intrinsically cool subject of its cool, and debase it in the sexless muck of the hoarding data-collators
The Farman Voisin / Farman III
Like the American Wright Brothers, Henri Farman was a skinny guy with an interest in bicycles and natty headwear. Like so many other great innovators, Farman started with a plane built by somebody else. Henri bought his first aircraft from Gabriel Voisin in 1907 and soon started making improvements of his own, which Voisin then incorporated into production aircraft. It was one of these hybrids that Farman used to set records for distance, duration, and actually landing where you intended to. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the design, however, is that if you cover over the tail with your hand, it now looks like Henri is flying a much later biplane backwards.
Unfortunately, the partnership with Voisin was short-lived. French aviation was notoriously fractious, and having previously fallen out with Bleriot, Voisin now angered Henri by selling the intended Farman II to the perfidious English. Piqued, Farman went and designed his own version, the Farman III, which was to become hugely influential. With a leading elevator extended forward on twin booms and a pusher prop, the “Farman type” was widely copied elsewhere and known by that name. The genuine Farman III would set several national firsts around the world, including as far afield as Japan where the one original survivor (the first powered aircraft to fly in the country) can be found.
Other good, early Farman designs include younger brother (and business partner) Maurice’s MF.7 Longhorn (left) – one of which holds the dubious honour of being the first military aircraft to be shot down in air-to-air combat – and his slightly more modern-looking MF.11 Shorthorn, which would enter history as the aircraft that the fictional character Biggles first learned to fly in.
The F.60 Goliath
By the end of the Great War, Farman had moved away from pusher props and also embraced and a far less delicate look, one that fans of Blackburn’s output will love. The 60 Goliath was intended as a heavy bomber but found the role disappearing with the end of hostilities. Not wanting to lose commercial opportunities, Farman rapidly converted the nascent bomber to become one of the first airliners by (apparently) sticking some windows in the bomb bay and calling it a day.
Despite flying characteristics that weren’t ideal – and marred by the inconvenience of asking the rear passengers to shuffle forward to try and get the tail off the ground – the Goliath was a commercial success. It was later converted back to a heavy bomber, a role in it which was also successful. Whether the bombs were ever asked to scooch up to help the pilot is unrecorded.
Perhaps the oddest – yet successful – developments of the Goliath was as a torpedo carrying floatplane. This continued a long tradition of naval feuding that had begun with a Japanese Shorthorn attacking a German cruiser in 1914 – the first recorded naval strike in history. I wonder whatever happened to the Japanese and that idea?
The Super Goliath and, er, the other Super Goliath
Farman struggled to repeat the success of the Goliath, so much so that two entirely different designs were given the “Super Goliath” name. The first, the BN.4, was another slab of what might politely be described as utilitarian design and an example of the 1920s urge to do-the-same-thing-but-bigger. With the ability to haul two and a half tons of bombs skywards, the BN.4 could certainly deliver, but the French military were undergoing one of their regular phases of being utterly skint.
On landing outlying bits of the Super Goliath stopped well after the main undercarriage, giving the alarmed crew an intense jolt and tipping the aircraft frontwards. An additional nose gear was added to soften the inevitable upset.
The second attempt at a Super Goliath, the 140, wasn’t exactly super either. Although three experimental prototypes and six production aircraft were delivered, a series of major structural failure led to the French grounding all their multi-engined Farman designs including the hitherto solid Goliath variants. Wondering whether the wings were about to fall off is the sort of thing that leads to a loss of confidence in a design though.
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The F.120 Jabiru – ‘All-aspect ugly’
And now we’re really into the good stuff. The 120 and its bafflingly large family of related oddballs are where Farman’s true genius finally blossomed, achieving the rare distinction of producing aircraft that managed to look ugly from every conceivable angle, except – possibly – from the inside. Available with anything from two to four engines, depending on how little confidence you had in them, and occasionally with an extra pair of stubby little wings to put them on, the overall effect is of airliners designed by someone who only had hearsay to go by.
Defying engineering convention – and in an echo of the Blackburn Blackburn, which was perfectly decent at its role – the 120 and related freaks looked wrong and flew right. They were award winning aircraft in their day, being given half a million francs in the 1923 Grand Prix des Avions de Transports. Possibly under the condition they just took them away. Quickly.
Incidentally the Jabiru is named after a type of stork. I don’t even want to think about the babies.
The F.170 Jabiru
Having tried all number of engines, Farman tried taking the 120 family and just putting one, albeit massive, prop at the front. They then made a mockery of the stork nickname and cut its legs off. The result looks – from the front at least – like a typical modern light aircraft that has badly overdone the Christmas celebrations. Despite this a NACA report was broadly favourable, reporting that the 170 was “practically independent of possible errors in piloting”. It’s not clear why this is a good thing – it appears to mean that if the pilot screws up it’s his own fault, still, that would sound pretty good in the marketing material.
Now I know this isn’t technically a plane, but let’s be honest – all the best planes secretly want to be boats. Think of the purposeful majesty of the Sunderland, the extravagant lunacy of ekranoplans, or the staggering performance of the Shinmaywa US-2, a plane that apparently flies using the power of cheat codes alone. And in the 1920s Farman cut straight to the chase with the Hydroglisseur.
Seemingly the result of trying to fly a seaplane through a bridge that was a lot narrower than expected, this Farman airboat was allegedly capable of nearly 70 knots. That’s pretty rapid when your firm-buttocked le cul is two inches above the water, although the name “Le Ricocheur” – the bouncer – suggests that either the directional control or ride comfort might not have been all that it was cracked up to be. Or just that you weren’t coming on board if you were wearing trainers.
As with many Farman ventures the market was less enthusiastic, and by the end of the decade they’d reverted to being a pure aeroplane manufacturer. Oh, and they also tried cars, though that idea sank without a trace too.
The F.180 Oiseau Bleu (Bluebird) ‘1927’
The Bluebird was conceived for a non-stop crossing between Paris and New York, an attempt that was quietly shelved after somebody finally noticed the 650-mile range and spent an educational, if somewhat chastening, afternoon staring at an atlas in disbelief. Still at least it was only spirits that ended up dampened, and the three 180s that were completed seem to have performed perfectly adequately shuttling between European capitals. For a Farman design the 180 was relatively good-looking, although the latent desire for oddity did lead them to compensate with a tandem power unit in the upper wing, a pusher prop adding its effort to the more conventional one in an effort to gain more power with less drag.
The F.190 & F.280
I don’t care how good and popular the 190 (below) was. It still looks like something has sat on it.
A development using the same wing was the F.280, which was intended as a mail courier. There are only really two requirements of a mail plane: it ought to be quick, and it ought to be able to carry lots of mail. To a degree these aims are contradictory, and in the case of the 280 Farman compromised by attempting neither of them. Despite being blessed with no fewer than three engines, the top speed never exceeded 230km/h despite being reengined twice, and the two examples were quietly and unceremoniously dumped by the newly formed Air France.
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The other stuff…
Farman’s output trailed off somewhat in the 1930s, presumably due to the headwinds and political pressures that led to the nationalisation and rationalisation of the French aircraft industry in 1936. This denied us the opportunity of seeing what Farman could have achieved in the age of the jet engine, which to judge by their earlier experimental aircraft is a massive loss to the history of flight.
Blessed with an outsized wing that implies Farman’s main ambition was to blot the sun out completely, the F.1000 series was designed to investigate the difficulties of high altitude flight.
Slightly safer was the F.1020, built to investigate what would happen if Farman put all the spare curves they’d been saving from their remorselessly angular wings into one half-pancake. Apparently it was nearly impossible to spin, though without any other qualities to recommend it. Similarly unimpressive was the F.370’s monocycle landing gear, although its racing career was cut short due engine overheating – likely a consequence of packaging everything tightly to minimise drag.
The difficulties of high altitude flight were as nothing compared to the difficulties of Farman’s idiosyncratic design decisions. Wishing to make the pressurised cockpit as airtight as possible, Farman fitted just two side windows. For landing, when a view ahead is generally considered helpful, the pilot would open a hatch, raise the rudder pedals vertically, plug in a second stick (or possibly just attach it to the one below – logic has long since left the building) and then sit on top of the fuselage to fly the plane. And yes, this did all go badly wrong and kill the test pilot.
The F.1010, on the other hand, answered a dangerous question that nobody was asking – namely “what happens if you squeeze the barrel of the 33-mm cannon between the engine cylinders and fire it through the spinner of the propeller?”. Despite the excitement of the premise it turned out the main thing that happened was you spent ages working out how to make it possible to manoeuvre a plane that’s now 10% cannon by weight. You give up, that’s how.
The French Blackburn?
Even Blackburn weren’t the equivalent of the internet’s “Blackburn” – a practical joke played upon an unwitting world of aviation, whose unsuccessful designs are best viewed in the dark. You don’t build thousands of planes without some of them doing at least part of what was asked of them. But you want a moment of genius that caps years of underwhelming, slightly funny looking designs? The Farman III does the Buccaneer thing – being the golden child of a cursed family – it just does it at the other end of the story. The various iterations of the Jabiru are aesthetically the equivalent of the Blackburn Blackburn, and even suffer by being judged by the cover in a similar way. Want a Blackburd? Well, god help you, but the Goliath could haul a great big torpedo around and could even drop it without the undercarriage having to fall off. Okay, so there’s no Roc, but if any manufacturer was daft enough to take on the challenge of making it half-work.
I should probably add at this point that Henri Farman’s dad was an Essex-boy and his mum was born in Kent, and despite being born in Paris, Henri did not adopt a French nationality until 1937. Perhaps at least some of the company’s incompetence was British in origin, indeed perhaps Farman was a British ‘Blackburn’.
*in the original sense of “I wonder what the hell they were thinking?”