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Early French Aviation Industry

France was undoubtedly the leader in the earliest days of aviation. It had the first designers and was the first to form independent companies dedicated to building aircraft. The earliest company of this type was probably Gabriel Voisin and Ernest Archdeacon's Syndicat d'Aviation, which they formed in 1905. The company produced two biplane gliders, one for Archdeacon and one for Louis Blériot, mounted on floats and resembling a box kite in appearance.

Blériot joined Voisin and formed the Blériot-Voisin Company later in 1905. The company built a floatplane, a glider, and a powered machine. But their craft couldn't fly, and the two parted in 1906, with Voisin buying Blériot's shares. In November 1906, Gabriel Voisin and his brother Charles formed Voisin Fréres, the first commercial aircraft company. The Voisin company built gliders and airplanes and produced about 20 airplanes before World War I began in 1914. At about the same time, Blériot began his own company and built a series of popular aircraft, including his famous Blériot XI, which he used in his record-setting crossing of the English Channel in 1909, and the Bleriot XII, which shone at the Reims International Air Meet.

Voisin's earliest planes were built for Léon Delagrange in 1907 and were not very successful. The Voisin-Delagrange I went through several modifications, including one as a floatplane before it was restored to its original configuration, and was eventually able to fly 1,640 feet (500 meters) in 40 seconds. The next Voisin plane, the Voisin-Farman I, was much more successful, especially after Henri Farman made several improvements to it, and the plane set several records. Voisin built another improved plane for Delagrange incorporating Farman's improvements. Delagrange flew almost 9 miles (14 kilometers) in this plane and also, on July 8, 1908, in Turin, Italy, took the first female passenger, Thérèse Peltier, aloft. The Voisin company built hundreds of biplanes that flew in World War I with France, Belgium, Russia, and Great Britain Air Forces. Successive models had more power, and his planes became the standard bombers in the first years of the war.

Henri Farman also established his own successful aircraft company, which began in a rather bizarre way. After he had extensively modified the plane he had purchased from Voisin, he ordered a second. But Voisin sold Farman's plane to another customer. Angered, Farman began his own aircraft company. His first plane, the Henri Farman III, debuted on April 6, 1909. It was the first to achieve lateral control through a practical system of ailerons. After extensive testing, he installed a 50-horsepower (37-kilowatt) Gnôme rotary engine, which would become one of the most popular early engines. He continued making improvements, and the plane became the most widely used aircraft in the years before World War I.

Henri went into partnership with his brother Maurice in 1912, forming the Société Henri et Maurice Farman. When World War I began, their plant was the only one prepared to fill large orders, making Farmans the most widely used planes during the war. Both brothers designed planes, and both had planes that served as bombers and for reconnaissance.

Louis Breguet began his aviation career in 1907 with "gyroplanes," an early helicopter powered by an Antoinette engine. In 1908, he and Charles Richet formed the Société des Ateliers d'Aviation and turned to fixed-wing planes. They produced their first biplane, the Breguet I, in 1909. It attracted a lot of attention at Reims with its original features, including its wide use of metal components. The plane featured wing-warping for longitudinal and lateral control.

Their next model, the Breguet III, appeared in 1912. It used sheet aluminum on the front part of the fuselage. That, and the whistling sound that it made in flight, gave it the nickname the "Tin Whistle." Breguet's later planes all were derived from the basic design of this tractor biplane.

The Breguet Bre. 14, first flown in 1917, was considered France's single most important and successful aircraft of the war. Almost 5,500 were built in the last two years of the war. The plane also made the first European airmail flights, served on the first passenger lines, and made some outstanding long-distance flights. In 1919, the Bre.14 flew 994 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the Mediterranean and back and 1,180 miles (1,900 kilometers) from Paris to Kenitra, Morocco. It remained in production until 1926.

The short-lived Antoinette company was named for the daughter of the director Jules Gastambide. Its fame owed much to its designer Léon Levavasseur, who also designed the fine Antoinette engines. The Antoinette IV, introduced in October 1908, was the first in a series of aerodynamically advanced monoplanes. It featured a slim fuselage, trapezoidal wings with marked dihedral, and cruciform tail. It was the first practical monoplane with ailerons, although they performed poorly and were replaced with wing warping in later models. On June 12, Hubert Latham set a world record for monoplanes, staying aloft in his Antoinette for one hour and seven minutes. Although Latham failed in his two attempts to cross the English Channel flying Antoinettes, the plane won numerous prizes for distance and altitude with Latham and others piloting before the company dissolved in 1912.

Ambroise Goupy produced another plane of French origin that would prove to be a prototype of future aircraft. His Goupy II, built in 1909, along with Breguet's early planes, featured a tractor-driven propeller, long fuselage, and tail control surfaces. The two craft established the standard biplane configuration that would remain for the next 30 years.

The Société Anonyme des Establissements Nieuport was another French company that would produce planes in large numbers before and during World War I. Established in 1910 by Edouard de Niéuport. Nieuport's early planes were monoplanes, with the first built in 1908, before the company was established. It resembled Blériot's monoplane and had an open fuselage. A Nieuport plane was one of three aircraft the French Air Forces chose in 1911, and 10 were ordered. (The others were Deperdussin and Breguet aircraft.) In 1912, this plane was the first aircraft fitted with a permanently installed machine gun. Nieuport 11s and 17s were used in World War I by the French and the American Expeditionary Forces as well as by the Air Forces of Russia, Belgium, Italy, and Great Britain. The Nieuport 11, commonly called "Bébé" because of its small size, was instrumental in defeating the "Fokker Scourge" of 1915. The Nieuport 17 was a larger and sturdier aircraft.

French aviators Léon Morane and Raymond Saulnier formed the Sociéte Anonyme des Aéroplanes Morane-Saulnier in October 1911 and produced a varied group of monoplanes during 1911 and 1912. Among the most important was the monoplane flown by Roland Garros from Tunis to Marsala, Sicily, on December 18, 1912, and the seaplane that participated in the 1913 Schneider Trophy contest. On September 23, 1913, Garros flew a remarkable 454 miles (730 kilometers) entirely over the waters of the Mediterranean from St. Raphaël in southern France to Bizerte, Tunisia, in a Morane-Saulnier plane, arriving with a mere seven minutes of fuel remaining in his tanks.

One other French company deserves mention. Armand Deperdussin founded the Société Pour les Appareils Deperdussin (SPAD) in 1910. His designer, Louis Béchereau, built the first plane to use the monocoque method of construction, in which the aircraft's skin bears most of the load and allows a roomy fuselage for passengers or freight. This configuration freed the interior of the plane from wires and struts and led directly to the modern air transport. The plane was quite successful as a racer and broke the 124-mile-per-hour (200-kilometer-per-hour)-barrier in 1913. The company lasted only a short while because Deperdussin was arrested for embezzlement in 1913. However, Blériot took over SPAD and kept it going for many more years, producing the SPAD 7, one of the outstanding planes of World War I.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:46:59 ZULU