Friday, August 31, 2012

French Fighter Competition: Early 1930s

I've probably said it before and will probably say it again: Following the aircraft industry was a lot more interesting before 1960 than since. That's because airplanes became much more complicated, which meant that development times and costs increased considerably. In recent times, airliners and combat aircraft take years to bring to production, but they also stay in production and service much longer than in the old days. For example, Boeing's single-aisle 737 series prototype first flew 45 years ago, and variants will be in production for years to come. So far as the aviation buff is concerned, the amount of interesting new stuff had been reduced to a trickle over the years.

Wars and threats of wars served as spurs for technical progress in aviation. Most striking is a comparison of aircraft entering service at the end of 1918 with those flying mid-1914, just before the Great War started.

A consequence of the war was greatly lessened demand for new military aircraft. Technical progress became relative slow so there was less motivation to rush what new designs there were into production. The main French fighter of the early-mid 1920s was the Nieuport-Delage 29, a design under development in the closing months of the war. The late 20s and early 30s saw production of the Nieuport-Delage 62 series that boasted a top speed only 20 miles per hour (30km/h) faster than the NiD-29.

By the late 1920s the threat of a major new war was still small, but the need to modernize was growing stronger thanks to recent technical innovations. The French initiated a specification in 1930 that was modified in 1931 and 1932, forming the basis for a new generation of C1 category aircraft. (C1 is short for Chasse -- fighter (actually, "pursuit," as the U.S. Army Air Corps also called it) -- single-place.)

It's almost hard to believe from today's perspective, but ten different manufacturers submitted entries. That's because aircraft were pretty simple in those days; the builder basically had to come up with an airframe compatible with "government furnished equipment" such as the motor, weapons, radio, and so forth. Even so, airframes were beginning to require more technology than previously, this largely due to the replacement of wood or metal-tube frameworks covered by canvas with (nearly) all-metal construction.

Here are the planes involved in the concours:


ANF-Mureaux 170
Although it performed well, this fighter was rejected because the position of the wing interfered with the pilot's forward field of vision.

Bernard 260
The Bernard was unusual in that it had advanced features including slats and trailing-edge flaps on the wings. But it failed to win a production contract.

Gourdou-Leseurre 482
This aircraft suffered from above-average aerodynamic drag, so it fell short of the speed rquirement and was eliminated from contention.

Morane-Saulnier 325
The Morane experienced severe buffeting that was never completely cured.

Wibault-Penhoët 313
Although it offered promising performance, a long development cycle caused the Wibault to lose out.

Blériot-Spad 510
The only biplane in the competition, the Blériot-Spad received a contract for 60 examples. It was the last biplane fighter accepted by the French air arm.

Loire 46
The Loir 46 was an advanced version of models 43 and 45 that, in stages, were in the concours. The 43 and 45 had a wing positioned similar to that of the ANF-Mureaux, but the 46 was an extensive redesign that featured an aile du mouette, or gull-wing. It too saw production. Some 60 were ordered by L'Armée de l'Air while a handful of developmental aircraft were sold to the Republican forces during the Spanish civil war. (These numbers have been disputed, but there is no question that production was less than 100 aircraft.)

Dewoitine 500
This was the winner of the concours and production of variants was in the low-to-mid hundreds.

As noted, the competition dragged on for several years. And then getting the Loire 46 into production took longer than it might have, thanks to the nationalization and consolidation of French airplane builders in 1936; its first-line service life was about two years. By late 1938 this generation of fighters began to be replaced by the Morane-Saulier 406, a monoplane featuring retractable landing gear and an enclosed cockpit, standard features of World War 2 fighter planes.

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