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December 21, 2006

Some Un-Stylish French (Airplanes)

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The French are known for style, non?

And do they sometimes make the stylish faux pas?

Mais oui!!

Even the French are human. When their sense of style collides with demands of la logique, strange things might happen. And did, when it came to military aircraft they built in the early-mid 1930s.

Admittedly the period from roughly 1928-36 was one of rapid transition for military aircraft designers in the most advanced countries. The typical 1927 fighter or bomber didn't look much different from 1917 Great War equivalents. Prototypes flying in 1937 heralded the sleek, powerful aircraft that fought in the first years of World War 2 and later.

The Americans made the transition relatively smoothly. And I'd say that the Germans did too -- except that they didn't have an (official) air arm until 1935, after Hitler took power. Regardless, most of their mid-30s designs were better than the average for the times.

The French look bad in part because their procurement process dragged longer than it should have. Like the Italians, they entered World War 2 with a lot of obsolescent and even obsolete aircraft.

Another procurement-related problem had to do with the type specifications laid down by the army and (later) the air force. A noteworthy peculiarity was the multiplace de combat type -- an aircraft with a four-man crew that was supposed to perform the roles of (1) bombardment, (2) reconnaissance and (3) fighter combat. Resulting planes could manage the first two tasks, but were totally unsuitable for the last. By the end of World War 2 it became clear that if a bomber-recce-fighter was required, you had to start with a fighter and tack on bits such as bomb racks and cameras to do the trick.


H.P.50 Heyford.jpg
Handley Page H.P.50 Heyford.
Setting the stage... This British bomber was ordered in 1928 and first flew in 1930. Heyfords were in service from 1933 to 1939, thus missing the war. They were considered "night bombers" and presumably needed to worry about flak, but not enemy fighters. At any rate, they were even more ugly than the following French designs. (But the English weren't renowned for chic in those days -- at least compared to the French.)

Amiot 143.jpg
Amiot 143M.
A multiplace do combat built in response to a 1928 army specification. The prototype 140 (in the French numbering system, the final digit represents sequential subtypes of the basic model) first flew in 1931. Production was ordered in late 1933, the first delivery was in 1935, production continued into 1937 and 143s saw combat in 1939-40: keep these dates in mind for comparison.

If you imagine away the fixed landing gear and observation bin on the forward underside of the aircraft, the Amiot 143M does not seem so archaic as it does in its entirety. But those features are there, so the plane is an ugly, clumsy beast.

Farman - F.222.jpg
Farman F.222.
The Farman 220 series comes from a 1929 night bomber specification. The first flight was in 1932 and production took place in 1937-38. Only 50 planes were built, but some saw service in World War 2.

The 222's inception was marginally later than that of the Heyford, which might have been a factor in its being a monoplane rather than a biplane. Another progressive feature was retractable landing gear. Nevertheless, wing struts are present, indicating that it wasn't nearly state-of-the-art structurally. An interesting feature is the positioning of the four motors -- two to a nacelle, one a tractor, the other a pusher. Still, nowhere near being a glamour girl.

Martin - B-10B.jpg
Martin B-10B.
This U.S. Army bomber was truly state-of-the-art when first flown in 1932, about the same time as the Farman. Advanced features included cantilevered wings, stressed-skin construction and considerable aerodynamic refinement. The B-10 was already out of first-line service before the war, though some export versions served in the Dutch East Indies in 1942.

Boeing B-17C.jpg
Boeing B-17.
The plane pictured is probably a B-17B or C from the late 30s, but it looks almost like the prototype Boeing model 299 that first flew in 1935. This is a further demonstration of how far behind French aircraft design was lagging during that period and how much more attractive American planes were.

Amiot 351.jpg
Amiot 351.
But all was not lost, chic-wise!! The prototype Amiot 340 bomber first flew in 1937 and the re-engined 350 in 1939. A few 354 models we available for combat in 1940.

There were other up-to-date French bombers and reconnaissance planes as the 30s ended, showing that French aircraft designers were capable of competing with the Americans, Germans and British in terms of airframes. By 1940, the main French failing -- besides slow production -- was that their engines were not as powerful as those of their rivals.

Even though French aircraft design recovered by the late 30s, they were still capable of building some pretty odd-looking airplanes. But I'll save those for another time.



posted by Donald at December 21, 2006


Forgot the most beautiful one, IMO. From her semi-distinct dual control surfaces to her ability to carry even more payload than the more "popular" B-17, the B-24 was the graceful workhorse of the Air Core.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on December 21, 2006 9:23 AM

The French were never known for their industrial design, so this kind of comes off as typical "surrender-monkey" bashing.

Posted by: the patriarch on December 21, 2006 12:07 PM

It's funny how cloddish the oh-so-chic French can be, isn't it? They're a funny combo of being more-suqare-than-we-can-imagine and cutting-edge. They certainly seem more comfy playing with clothes and jewelry than with machine, though as you've shown before they've had their moments ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 21, 2006 2:05 PM

That tail-sitter annular wing thing (whose name escapes me) will have to be in the sequel. A bizarre beast indeed.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 21, 2006 4:49 PM

French designers have designed plenty of stylish aircraft. How about the Nieuport, the Dewoitine 520, the Super Mystere, the Mirage III, the Caravelle, the CAP-10, and part of the Concorde? To attribute aircraft design to some feature of national character seems a stretch. There are only a few prominent aircraft designers in any society, so a lot of the explanation for what got designed where is probably related to accidents of birth.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 21, 2006 9:43 PM

patriarch & jonathan -- C'mon guys! Aside from dragging in the stereotype of the French being style-conscious and noting that there have been exceptions, I don't think I did any serious French-bashing here. I tried to frame the timing of the planes and the circumstances to a pretty short span of years. And I concluded by showing that the French were able to quickly adjust to technological trends and come up with attractive designs.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 22, 2006 1:08 AM

"the English weren't renowned for chic in those days" - maybe not in general, and there's no defending the Heyford (how did they drop the bombs without hitting the bottom wing?). But the late model Hawker biplane fighters and light bombers of the early 30s - Hind, Fury etc. - were lovely; and of course the Spitfire (mid 30s design) has to be a strong contender for the most beautiful piece of industrial design ever.

Posted by: Alan Little on December 22, 2006 2:03 AM

Yeah, you're right.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 22, 2006 3:57 AM

I meant that Donald is right, but Alan Little is right too.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 22, 2006 6:28 AM

Upstate, that's the first time I've ever heard the B24 called graceful. Workhorse, for sure, but it was a bitch to fly--they didn't call it "the flying boxcar" because of its looks alone--and it was somewhat prone to midair explosions due to faulty fuel system design.

Or so I read.


Posted by: Narr on December 22, 2006 11:37 AM

Dunno what you read, but I'm going solely by reports from my grandfather, who was a belly and tail gunner on one (the "Lucky Babe") in the European theater. Well, him and his pals who were also gunners and pilots.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on December 23, 2006 10:49 AM

Michael Blowhard: It's funny how cloddish the oh-so-chic French can be, isn't it? They're a funny combo of being more-square-than-we-can-imagine and cutting-edge. They certainly seem more comfy playing with clothes and jewelry than with machine, though as you've shown before they've had their moments ...

Mais c'est simple.

The modern French excel at womanly arts: clothing, decorating, food, flowers, etc.

They, uh, don't excel at manly arts: war, rock and roll, big scary machines, etc.

Posted by: simplistick on December 23, 2006 10:22 PM

Um, maybe you addressed this, but they're making planes for WAR here...maybe they had more important things on their mind than making sleek making sure the pilots didn't get killed while they were trying to kill the enemy...

I know you value aesthetics, but this is one place where it's totally irrelevant...except maybe to make your war machine as scary-looking as possible...

Posted by: SFG on December 25, 2006 3:08 PM

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