© Wonders of World Aviation 2015-24  |  contents  |  site map  | contact us  |  cookie policy

Wonders of World Aviation

Mobile Site

Based on a nationalized aircraft industry, the Armée de l’Air has been completely reorganized


POTEZ 63 MONOPLANES at Villacoublay

POTEZ 63 MONOPLANES at Villacoublay, eight miles south-west of Paris. These aircraft are made in three classes: fighter, bomber an i reconnaissance. They are fitted with two Hispano-Suiza 14 HBs radial air-cooled engines, developing 670 horse-power at 3,500 metres (11,480 feet). The span is 52 ft. 6 in., the length 36 ft. 3 in. and the height 9 ft 10 in. The maximum speed of the fighter models is 285 miles an hour at 4,000 metres (13,120 feet) and the cruising speed 199 miles an hour at the same height. The armament of the fighter comprises two 20-mm. cannon fixed beneath the fuselage and one flexible machine-gun in the gunner’s cockpit

HISTORICAL associations bind the Royal Air Force and the French air force closely together, The early development of both services took place under the stress of the war of 1914-18 and each helped the other with men and material.

Thousands of British pilots fought their battles in aeroplanes of French design and thousands more in aeroplanes fitted with engines of French design and construction. The incomparable inventive genius of France was a strong aid to the Royal Flying Corps and to the Royal Naval Air Service, as will be recalled by such names as Morane Parasol, Morane Bullet, Caudron, Nieuport and Spad among aircraft, and of Renault, Salmson and Le Rhone among engines.

The Monosoupape, or single-valve rotary engine, was a design of genius, and it was used to an enormous extent for the training of British war-time pilots. The Maurice Farman machines occupied an equally important place in the training, although their nationality would appear to need some elucidation. The Farman brothers were English-born although they always lived in France and worked there. The early Maurice Farman aeroplanes, both “Longhorn” and “Shorthorn” (see the chapter “Aeroplanes of the Great War - 1”), were fitted with French Renault engines.

The Renault air-cooled stationary engine and the Le Rhone air-cooled rotary engine could put forward a good claim for consideration as the most noteworthy engines produced in the war period. Each in its way was a masterpiece. Those who flew and got to know the Renault could not speak too highly of it; they still aver that it was a finer engine than were the British developments of the design.

As for the Le Rhone, it was the “jewel” among aero engines. The 80 horse-power model was probably the most nearly perfect rotary aero engine ever made. In Sopwith Pups, Bristol Scouts and many other types of aeroplane, the 80 horse-power Le Rhone did magnificent service.

A similar tribute could be paid to the French airframes. For instance, large numbers of British pilots came to know and to admire the French Nieuport Scout. Indeed some of the greatest British fighting pilots obtained many of their victories with these machines. The Spad, although used in the Royal Naval Air Force and, to a less extent, in the Royal Flying Corps, was mainly in the hands of French pilots. It was with a machine of this type, for example, that Georges Guynemer, who is by some regarded as the greatest of all fighting pilots irrespective of nationality, obtained the majority of his victories.

It was with the Spad, too, that Guynemer made his experiments with the motor-cannon (see the chapter “Aircraft Armament”). This was a gun mounted in the V of the water-cooled Hispano-Suiza engine with the barrel pointing through a hole in the centre of the airscrew shaft. As this engine was of the geared type, the airscrew shaft was higher than the crankshaft. Guynemer secured a few successes with his motor-cannon, but later gave it up and returned to his pair of machine-guns.

The Hispano-Suiza engine, without the cannon, however, was used extensively in the Royal Flying Corps and was the engine standardized in one of its most successful fighters, the S.E.5. Hispano-Suiza engines were later built at numerous factories, some of them in Great Britain, but the design originated in France.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the value of this pioneer French design work with engines and airframes. These air-cooled rotary and water-cooled stationary engines might be regarded as the foundations upon which the Royal Flying Corps was built up. Before them there was the French Gnome, and it was not until late in the war that entirely British aero engines came into extensive use in British machines. The French 110 horse-power Le Rhone was used for a long time in Camels, Sopwith Triplanes and other types; an engine of French origin, the Clerget, supplemented it later.

As the French and English air services worked in close collaboration during the war of 1914-18, it was inevitable that this early collaboration should have its effect on all later events. The French and English air forces have ever since been in close harmony and visits have been paid by French squadrons to the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon, and by British squadrons to the French regiments’ display at Villacoublay, the aerodrome near Paris.

So far as numerical strength is concerned, the French air force has fluctuated considerably. For years it was divided under the Army and the Navy, in the same way as the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in Great Britain.

Independent But Cooperating

In 1927 the French air force was numerically one of the strongest in the world, with probably some 1,400 first-line aeroplanes. It maintained a first-line strength of about this number for four or five years, when there was a slight increase. After that the number again remained approximately stationary. It is doubtful if today the French air force has a first-line strength of much more than 2,000 aeroplanes.

At the time of writing (summer 1938) the French air force is about the same size as, or possibly somewhat smaller than, the British air force.

After the war of 1914-18 France did not reduce her air strength so rapidly or so drastically as did Great Britain. By 1923 she still had approximately 950 first-line aeroplanes, including 250 bombers, 150 fighters and 550 cooperation machines. The preponderance of cooperation machines fixes the type of air force favoured by the French at this period. The French air force was essentially an auxiliary to the Army and might have been described as mainly a defensive and auxiliary aviation. It was not until 1924 that the authorities decided on expansion. A result was the figure of about 1,400 first-line aeroplanes reached in 1927.

The air service was still in two parts, as sections of the Army and the Navy. In 1928 the French Air Ministry was created, and it controlled the Armée de l’Air. In 1934 the figures for the strength of the French force were officially given at 1,665 first-line machines, of which 1,200, including those based in ships, were for home defence.

The Armée de l’Air was defined as an independent force capable of taking air action and also of cooperation with the land and sea forces. It adopted the multi-seater fighter partly because of the writings of the Italian General Giulio Douhet. It used also single-engined bombers of two or three tons and twin-engined bombers of seven or eight tons, with speeds approaching 200 miles an hour.


SINGLE-SEAT HIGH-ALTITUDE FIGHTER, the Dewoitine D-510. This low-wing cantilever monoplane has an 860 horse-power Hispano-Suiza 12 Yers engine. A 20-mm. cannon fires through the airscrew boss and there are two machine-guns in the wings. The span of the aircraft is 39 ft. 8 in., the length

26 feet and the height 7 ft. 10 in. It can climb to 7,000 metres (22,960 feet) in less than 9.1 minutes, and its speed at that height is 241 miles an hour.

When the reports of the German air force progress were circulated in France additional orders were placed for new aircraft. One of the types ordered in series was the Bloch 200. Others were the Potez 54 and the Amiot 143. These machines would not now be considered efficient, but at the time they approximated to the standards which were accepted in other forces, and they were probably about on a level with comparable German and English types.

In 1936 the French expansion programme, after the example of the British, was accelerated. The first-line figures, which had been planned to be reached in three years, were now to be reached in two years, and a first-line strength of 1,500 machines was visualized. It was under the regime of M. Pierre Cot that this new programme took shape, and it was also under his administration that the plan for counting an obsolescence period for military machines of five years came into being.

Obsolescence is one of the major problems in the building up of an air force. Aeroplanes of new types are obsolescent by the time they begin to reach the squadrons; but it often happens that they remain in the squadrons for much longer than M. Cot’s years. His definition of the obsolescence period as five years, therefore, indicated that considerable advances in production rates were contemplated in France.

When it was sought to produce new machines as rapidly as this and to keep the designs sufficiently advanced from the technical point of view, the French aircraft industry was scarcely prepared to cope with the demand. The situation in France ran almost exactly parallel to that in Great Britain. When it was found that the French industry was not in a position to keep pace with demand, and when further news came through of Germany’s continuing expansion, the French Government determined that drastic steps would have to be taken.

Increased Output, Improved Quality

The French Government called for a higher and higher production rate and for more and more rapid technical progress. When the constructors, especially of the airframes, failed to meet these demands, the Government decided on a drastic step. This was the nationalization of the French aircraft industry in 1936.

This nationalization of the French industry is of such importance that certain points must be clearly understood by those attempting to appreciate the way in which France is building up her air strength. The principle of nationalization was accepted on August 11, 1936, and was applied in 1937. The constructors were then grouped into six regional companies. They were named as follow: La Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques de l’Ouest, La Société Nationale du Sud-Ouest, La Société Nationale du Nord, La Société Nationale du Centre, La Société Nationale du Sud-Est, and La Société Nationale du Midi (National Companies of Aircraft Construction of the West, South-West, North, Midlands, South-East and South).

At the time of the changeover there were various industrial disputes in France; these disputes interfered with the effective operation of the new plan. Production rates still fell. The effect of all these troubles was that at the end of 1937 the home defence strength was about 1,300 machines in the first line, although the French air force had and still has a number of obsolete types which it could yet call upon in time of need. The total strength, however, cannot be computed — as has been said — at much higher than 2,000 machines.

The quality of the machines has begun to improve lately. The French are recovering their skill in design and production and some of the latest fighters and bombers bear comparison with any others in use in any air services in the world.


A FARMAN HEAVY BOMBER. After the establishment of the French Air Ministry in 1928 the Armee de l’Air adopted the multi-seater fighter, the light single-engined bomber and the heavy bomber capable of speeds approaching 200 miles an hour. In 1936 the French expansion programme was accelerated. The authorities planned a first-line strength of 1,500 machines, to be reached in two instead of three years The French aircraft industry was nationalized in 1937 and the constructors were grouped into six regional companies

Before dealing with the aeroplanes upon which the French are now concentrating for their air force equipment, a word should be said about armament.

The French air force, which pioneered the motor-cannon, has developed this type of gun and is now using it in a great many machines. The armament of the French machines is probably more advanced than that of the machines of any other country. A great number of single-seater fighters have the cannon and a few special types have been built, among them a relatively low-powered but exceptionally small single-seater, expressly designed for using the cannon in combat.

The Hispano-Suiza motor-cannon, in its latest form, which differs greatly from its earlier form, is found in many of the machines which are now to be described. It is mounted — as it was in the early war-time type — between the cylinder banks of the engine; this mounting enables the mass of the engine to be used for absorbing the recoil. The designers claim high muzzle velocities and therefore long ranges for this type.

The Morane-Saulnier 405/406 carries a motor-cannon and has a speed at 5,000 metres (16,400 feet) of about 305 miles an hour. Another motor-cannon single-seater is the Dewoitine D-510, which is not quite so fast; yet another is the Nieuport 161, which has a speed of nearly 300 miles an hour at its operating height.

The light fighter mentioned above, which is made specially to carry a pair of cannon — these being mounted in the wings — is the Caudron-Renault C 710. The speed of this machine is about 285 miles an hour.

In the bombing class some good-looking new designs have been produced. The Amiot 350 bomber does about 280 miles an hour at its operating height with 4,400 lb. load and can go 1,250 miles non-stop when carrying full military equipment.

Highly Skilled Pilots

In the quality of the pilots the French Armée de l’Air stands in a good position. It has a great many highly skilled men of the type that makes good fighting pilots and some of the best formation flying is done by the advanced French flying schools.

In the summer of 1938 it was decided that the French air force should be still further expanded. To that end special steps were taken to provide for an increased flow of aeroplanes and for the more rapid training of pilots and mechanics. It remains to be seen whether the nationalized industry will be able to compete on level terms with the industries composed of individual firms, but the experiment is an interesting one and well worth close study. The tactical use of the parachute has been accepted in the French air force. This use was originally developed by the Russians and was later taken up by the Italians and the Germans. The French also regarded it as sound, and obtained volunteers from the infantry. These men learn how to fold and maintain parachutes and go through a course of parachute descents. They form a nucleus of parachute infantrymen who would be able to be placed at a strategically important point by aeroplane.

In an attempt to sum up the position of the French air force, it must be concluded that it is most advanced in its armament. In this it is probably ahead of the air forces of all other countries. In the technical quality of its machines it is probably rather less advanced than Great Britain.

If the nationalization of the aircraft industry proves successful, it may be expected that within a few years the first-line strength of the French air force will have grown and that it will again have achieved a pre-eminent position among the leading air forces of the world. The brilliance and artistry of the French designer, when he is allowed full scope for the exercise of his genius, should ensure the realization of this prospect.

The Breguet Bizerte sesquiplane

FOR OPEN-SEA RECONNAISSANCE, the Breguet Bizerte. This is an ail-metal sesquiplane, with the upper wing in five and the lower wing in two sections. The upper span is 115 ft. 3 in. and the lower span 61 ft. 11 in. The length is 66 ft. 7 in. and the height 24 ft. 10 in. The duralumin two-step hull has a stainless steel bottom. The Bizerte has three Gnome-Rhone 14 Krsd fourteen-cylinder radial air-cooled engines, each developing 845 horse-power at 1,500 metres (4,920 feet). The speed at this height is 149 miles an hour and the range 1,100 miles.

You can read more on “Aero Engines of the Great War”, “Aeroplanes of the Great War - 1” and “The German Air Force” on this website.

The French Air Force