Gareth Stringer looks back at the life and times of one classic airliner that always caught his eye when he was a youngster interested in aviation – the Sud Aviation Caravelle. Images as credited.
We all know the saying “If it looks right, it flies right” and while it is undoubtedly true that this mantra can be applied to some aircraft more readily than others, for this writer at least, the Caravelle certainly lives up to the rule.
I should probably make it quite clear that I have never so much as set foot in a Caravelle, let alone flown in one, but when I was a far more youthful aviation enthusiast I saw the Caravelle in books or magazines and at foreign airports as we passed through as tourists on family holidays and the aircraft, without fail, always made an impression.
Maybe it was the sweeping, graceful, archetypal French flair of the design (albeit, as we shall see later, with a strong British influence), or the rear mounted engines or perhaps the fact that it was so noisy and impressive in the flesh. Regardless, as another popular saying goes, “They don’t make them like that anymore!”
Truth be told, it was probably a combination of all those factors and they still hold true when I look at images or footage of the Caravelle to this day. So much so, that all these years later I decided to put pen to paper, at least in a modern day sense, and take a look at the career of this aircraft that I still find so captivating, helped of course by a host of images from the GAR archive.
Designed and built by Sud-Est / SNCASE (which later became Sud Aviation), the Caravelle was the world’s first jet powered airliner developed specifically for the short / medium-range market and one of the most successful first-generation jet airliners wholly designed and manufactured in Europe, where it won significant orders for Sud Aviation from numerous operators. The aircraft even achieved sales success in the USA while the design of the Caravelle established a configuration that remains familiar on many smaller airliners even now.
Sud-Aviation was France’s State-owned aircraft manufacturer and officially came into being on 1 March 1957 as a result of the merger of Sud-Est (SNCASE, or Société nationale des constructions aéronautiques du sud-est) and Sud-Ouest (SNCASO or Société nationale des constructions aéronautiques du sud-ouest). Both Sud-Est and Sud-Ouest were born out of smaller, private businesses that had been nationalised into several specialist design and manufacturing companies just prior to World War II. Sud-Est was conceived on 01 February 1937 as a result of the merger of Lioré et Olivier, Potez, CAMS, Romano and SPCA. It is interesting to note that Sud Aviation was later amalgamated into Aérospatiale, then the EADS group and eventually Airbus, so the company’s bloodline is still very much alive to this day.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, to tell the Caravelle’s story from the beginning we need to take a step back to October 1951 when France’s Civil Aircraft Committee (Comité du matériel civil) published a requirement for a medium-range aircraft capable of carrying between 55 and 65 passengers and 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) of cargo on routes of distances up to 2,000 km (1,200 miles) and at a cruising speed of approximately 600 km/h (370 mph). Neither the type or number of engines were specified.
The response to this requirement from the French aviation industry, which had understandably stagnated under military occupation during World War II, was so comprehensive that it has been claimed that every major manufacturer submitted at least one proposal and that ultimately a total of 20 different designs were received. Among these were several submissions from SNCASE which was eager to produce a passenger aircraft that utilised what was, at that time, recently developed jet engine technology and more specifically, using the British Rolls Royce Avon engine which was available to manufacturers.
But, with the type of engines not specified in the official requirement, not all the submitted designs relied wholly on turbojets. Breguet, for example, entered a proposal powered by both turboprop and turbojet engines, while Hurel-Dubois submitted several proposals, among them some that were similar in design to the propliners that were already operating on regional routes. The proposals submitted by SNCASE, numbered from the X-200 to the X-210, were however all purely jet-powered, the latter with three engines.
Having studied the numerous entries in depth, in March 1952 the Civil Aircraft Committee announced a short-list of three design submissions. These were the four-engined Avon / Marbore SNCASO S.0.60 (with two Avon engines and two smaller auxiliary Turbomeca Marborés powerplants), a twin-Avon Hurel-Dubois project and the three-engined Avon-powered SNCASE X-210. Significantly, at around the same time Rolls-Royce announced that it would be able to offer a new, 50% more powerful version of its Avon engine to aircraft manufacturers. This version would be capable of developing 9,000lb of thrust and, in the specific case of the designs shortlisted by the Comité du matériel civil, this extra thrust would render unnecessary both the two auxiliary engines on the S.O.60 and the third engine featured on the SNCASE X-210.
The Committee decided to ask SNCASE to re-submit its X-210 proposal as a twin Rolls Royce Avon powered design. SNCASE readily agreed to do so but decided not to move the remaining two engines from their rear-mounted position. Most designers opt to mount engines under the wings and attached to the main spar as this results in an overall weight saving, but SNCASE calculated that the savings weren’t worth the effort of entirely redesigning the X-210.
This decision turned out to be of great benefit to the final design, perhaps slightly fortuitously, with cabin noise significantly reduced as a result. Rear mounted engines also allow for an aerodynamically cleaner wing, reduced issues with asymmetric thrust, a lower aircraft with shorter / lighter undercarriage (which also makes loading and unloading easier) and less susceptibility to foreign object damage. For the Caravelle, these factors would all prove to be beneficial when it came to operating out of smaller airports on short / medium range routes and other elements of the Caravelle’s design had been put in place to maximise both passenger comfort and operator convenience. One such measure was the inclusion of a rear entry door complete with built-in stairs which meant that mobile airport equipment was unnecessary.
A revised X-210 design was re-submitted to the committee in July 1952 and two months later, SNCASE received official notification that its design had been accepted, along with confirmation of an order for two flying prototypes and two additional, non-flying airframes which would be utilised for fatigue and stress testing.
On the 21 April 1955, coded F-WHHH (later re-registered as F-BHHH), the first prototype of the Caravelle was rolled out. Madame Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of French President Charles de Gaulle, had given the Caravelle project its name, christening it after the 15th and 16th century Portuguese caravel ships that had explored the world’s oceans during the so-called Age of Discovery. The aircraft flew for the first time on 27 May for a total of 41 minutes, powered by two Rolls-Royce RA-26 Mk.522 powerplants and a crew led by the hugely experienced Test Pilot Pierre Nadot with André Moynot (Second Officer), Jean Avril (Flight Engineer), André Préneron (Radio Operator) and Roger Beteille (Engineer).
Having worked with them on earlier projects, SNCASE’s Caravelle design included several fuselage features licensed directly from the British manufacturer de Havilland, including the nose and cockpit layout which were taken directly from the latter’s own jetliner, the Comet. The rest of the aircraft was assembled locally and the main production line for the Caravelle was located at Sud Aviation’s factory at Blagnac Airport near Toulouse.
Many of the aircraft’s parts were however initially manufactured at other sites across France and abroad. Responsibility for several large sections had been given to sub-contractors and these included the Italian aircraft manufacturer Fiat Aviazione (tailplane, fin, ailerons and engine nacelles) and French company Breguet Aviation (rear fuselage) while much of the additional equipment for the Caravelle was purchased off the shelf from either British or American companies. Sud built and fitted the nose section of the Caravelle along with the tail-cone, rudder, flaps, both the leading edges and trailing edges of the wing and most of the fuselage.
Almost exactly twelve months after the first flight, the second prototype (F-WHHI which was later re-registered as F-BHHI) took to the air, but without the cargo door seen on aircraft number one (it had been fitted to the lower left fuselage) in favour of an all-seating configuration and, by the autumn of 1956, the two prototypes had flown for more than 1,000 hours between them.
The Caravelle 1, fitted with Avon 522 engines and a slightly longer nose than the prototypes to allow for installation of a weather radar, entered production late in 1956 and, with an order in the books and trials for Air France already well underway, at the end of the year the two prototypes visited a number of locations across Europe and, a little farther afield, North Africa. The second prototype accumulated some 2,500 flight hours across various visits to North and South America in 1957 and the Air France order was followed by one from Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) – its first for a jet aircraft. A significant landmark in the extensive marketing and demonstration programme that proved so successful for the Caravelle comprised two return flights between Orly and Casablanca in Morocco on 28 August 1957, with all four legs being flown on a single engine! It should also be noted that 1 March 1957 saw Sud-Est and Sud-Ouest come together, as described earlier, to officially form Sud-Aviation, but at this time the Caravelle retained its Sud-Est designation.
In 1959, the Caravelle received its airworthiness certification which enabled the type to enter passenger service and on 26 April the first SAS services were inaugurated, to the Middle East. Air France quickly followed suit, introducing its Caravelles on a Paris to Istanbul route on 6 May and when an FAA type approval was granted this opened the way for Varig (Brazilian airline Viação Aérea Rio-Grandense) to commence the first American services with the aircraft, which it did in December 1959.
Less than five years after entering airline service a total of 172 Caravelles had been sold to a range of operators and, as a result of the aircraft’s ongoing success, various models of the aircraft were developed and produced over the lifetime of the production run. These were often in response to the increased power available from newly developed engines, which allowed higher take-off weights to be embraced and the aircraft’s design and equipment levels could be adjusted as a result.
By 1963 a visit to Blagnac Airport would have revealed no less than six different versions of the aircraft in production. These were designated Caravelle III (considered to be the basic variant of the airliner), the VI-N, VI-R, 10A, 10B and X-BIR. The Caravelle VI-N was fitted with more powerful Rolls Royce Avon 531 engines and also with an additional heat exchanger for its air conditioning system, while the Caravelle VI-R was equipped with thrust reversing Avon engines, a new windscreen design with larger windows, more powerful brakes, additional soundproofing, a new luggage compartment door and wing spoilers.
The changes for the VI-R came about as a result of demands made by American airline United Airlines which, to the delight of Sud Aviation, had ordered 20 aircraft. The VI-R first flew on 6 February 1961 and was granted FAA certification on 5 June, entering passenger service with United on 14 July. The VI-R was equipped with Avon Ra-29 Mk.533R and Mk.535R (R = Reverse) engines with 12,600lb of thrust. Earlier versions of the aircraft without reverse thrust, including the III and the VI-N, had actually utilised a brake parachute for landing.
The Caravelle 10A and 10B differed in the engines used – the new Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofan – and were commonly referred to as the Super Caravelle, featuring not only improvements common to the VI-R but numerous additional changes in design. These included a 33 inch (84 cm) stretch of the fuselage, a new wing (with double-slotted Fowler flaps and additional, re-positioned stall vanes), an aerodynamic fairing behind the fin of the tail-plane and increased cargo capacity as a result of both a strengthened floor and higher cabin windows that allowed more space for the underfloor cargo compartments. The wing root and leading edges were also redesigned to improve the performance of the wing during takeoff and landing.
As mentioned above, different powerplants were adopted or proposed for use on some later Caravelle models, such as the American-built Pratt & Whitney JT8D-1 and General Electric CJ-805-23C engines and it was the JT8D-9 that powered the Series 12, the last version of the Caravelle to appear. The Caravelle 12, also often known as the Super Caravelle, first flew on 12 March 1971 and was basically a 10B with a noticeably longer fuselage; stretched by 3.2m (10ft 6in). It was fitted with a newer, upgraded version of the JT8D engine with 14,500lb of thrust which allowed it to carry up to 140 passengers, albeit over a reduced range.
The Caravelle 12 was aimed primarily at the charter market and just a dozen examples were manufactured – the launch customer, Sterling Airways, receiving seven aircraft. The remaining five went to Air Inter and the Super Caravelle flew in Europe until October 1996 and beyond that in Africa.
Of note, the French ‘Centre d’essaies en vol’ (Flight test centre) operated its Caravelle III until February 1998 and the Swedish Government retired its Caravelles in April 1999 with the last ever Caravelle III carrying out a ferry flight to Stockholm Arlanda. This aircraft is now kept in a running (but not flying) condition by ‘Le Caravelle Club’ and the Swedish Air Force donated its entire remaining warehouse of spare parts to the club, including three spare engines, special tools, ground equipment and all documentation.
Despite seeing such significant commercial success, the Caravelle would not be developed further following the introduction of the Series 12 , with Sud Aviation directing its design efforts, and resources, towards an ambitious, new project that it hoped would come to fruition as the Caravelle’s successor. Sud’s target was production of a supersonic transport aircraft of approximately the same size and range as the Caravelle. The company decided that this supersonic airliner should be named after the firm’s recent success story and so, rather confusingly as the aircraft already existed, the Super Caravelle name was given to the design. Ultimately, though, the work carried out on the supersonic Super Caravelle project would be merged with similar work that had been undertaken by Britain’s Bristol Aeroplane Company and this would later result in the development of Concorde.
There seems to be some debate regarding where the last Caravelle passenger operations took place and who operated them. When Gabon Express ceased operating on 15 June 2004 it was certainly one of the last airlines still using the aircraft on scheduled passenger services, as the wonderful video below demonstrates, although some suggest that Waltair of Congo Kinshasa may have been the last airline to fly the Caravelle.
Operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1983-2005, Waltair’s Air operator’s certificate was revoked by the Congolese Civil Aviation Authority in 2005 and the company found itself added into the EU’s list of banned airlines in the European Union. Their last Caravelle was 9Q-CPI which had been the original 10B prototype and could boast a service record that included Finnair, Altair, Air City, Aero Jet and then to Waltair
In total, 282 Caravelles of all types were manufactured – the two prototypes and 280 production aircraft. There are no remaining airworthy examples of the aircraft.
It has been reported that Sud Aviation’s projected break-even point for the type had been forecast at around the 200-airframe mark and if that figure is even vaguely correct, there is little doubt that the aircraft proved to be a resounding success. Regardless, the Caravelle is most certainly a classic airliner and a fine looking one at that.
Gareth Stringer would like to thank everyone who assisted with this feature.