Behind the Scenes: Dassault Aviation
For the past nine decades, Dassault has proudly flown the flag for French aviation, with a superb lineup of military, business and commercial jets that are loved and respected across the planet.
From the early days of aviation, through two world wars, to the modern day, Dassault has always been at the forefront of technological advancement. The most recent addition to the Dassault range, the sublime Falcon 8X business jet, is the culmination of years of effort to be the best, but Dassault’s history goes back to much simpler times.
The story of Dassault started more than a century ago, with their enigmatic founder Marcel Bloch – later known as Marcel Dassault – creating his first aeronautical part in 1916. After graduating from the ‘École supérieure d’aéronautique et de constructions mécaniques’ engineering school, Bloch had been drafted into the French army in October 1913, in an aeronautical engineering regiment. His gift for aviation innovation was immediately apparent, and he was soon assigned to the highly respected Chalais-Meudon aeronautical research lab.
His first design was the groundbreaking Éclair propeller, which was used on French airplanes during the first major aerial combat in history, in the skies above Verdun. The propeller was an immediate success, and aided the French Air Force to a stunning aerial victory.
“I made the design of my propeller, then traced sections of it onto the wood so that the carpenter could follow the outlines,” Bloch later recalled, in regards to the relatively primitive construction of that first prop. “I stayed right at his side while he planed down the propeller, guiding his hand along the harmonious lines I was trying to achieve.”
The immediate success of the Éclair propellers saw them adopted by many allied countries, with the British alone ordering more than 4000 for their Sopwith twinseat scout and bomber aircraft. They were also used on the Dorand twin-seat scout, powered by Renault 170 or 190-hp engines, the Letord LA3, and the Spad VII pursuit plane, which was famously flown by French ace Georges Guynemer.
“When Guynemer’s plane, Le Vieux Charles, with its 19 victories, was presented at the Invalides as a witness to his glory, I went to see it,” Bloch remembered. “Naturally I saw the propeller, one I had designed and built. I felt a lot of satisfaction, and maybe just a bit of pride.”
By 1917, Bloch was the fourth-largest propeller manufacturer in France, but he was destined to have an even greater influence on the world of aviation. The increasing demand for fighter planes saw Bloch turn his attention towards building entire airplanes, using the knowledge and experience he’d gained during his years in the military. Along with Henri Potez he created a new company, the Société d’études aéronautiques, or SEA.
In 1918, Bloch revealed his first plane, the SEA III twin-seat pursuit and observation plane. Designed to replace the ageing Sopwith scout, it was to be powered by a 200-horsepower engine that Clerget was developing. But the test results were disappointing; mounting this new engine on the SEA airframe was problematic and the project was soon abandoned. This early failure proved to be an important lesson for Bloch, who learned never to combine too many new elements on a prototype.
Thankfully, the successor to this initial project, the SEA IV, was more successful. Initial tests were very well received, with more than 1000 ordered. This success wasn’t to last, however, with the end of the war seeing the majority of these orders cancelled, with only 100 planes ever delivered. For the next decade Marcel Dassault worked outside the aviation sector, returning in 1929. His time away did nothing to extinguish his passion for aviation, and in time he would become the most successful and best known privately-owned aircraft manufacturer in France.
“I came to know the characteristics of all the planes being constructed at the time,” Bloch explained. “I followed their development from the moment they were conceived until their final preparations, in order to make sure that my propellers were functioning correctly. I was continually visiting airfields and carefully noting down the little mishaps that occurred with either a plane’s engine or body and how these problems were later ironed out.
“That was how I learned the techniques of flight testing and the final preparation of a new aircraft. Having learned which new models succeeded and which ones failed, I was able to acquire a great deal of experience in deciding what should and should not be done to make a good airplane.”
A WORLD AT WAR
Bloch took the aviation world by storm in 1929, forming a new team of highly-skilled individuals under a banner that would come to be known around the world – Société des Avions Marcel Bloch. They went on to build a series of airplanes during the inter-war years, ranging from the all-metal MB-60 trimotor postal plane to the MB-200 and MB-210 heavy bombers, along with the MB-160 four-engine transport and the MB-152 single-seat fighter.
The company was nationalised in 1936, but Bloch continued to run a separate design firm, the Société anonyme des avions Marcel Bloch (SAAMB), which designed the aircraft built by the state-owned companies.
Of course, further troubles weren’t far away, and the Second World War was to have a devastating effect on France, Marcel Bloch, and his company. Bloch’s expertise was highly sought-after by the occupying forces, but he refused to collaborate with them and was subsequently imprisoned. He was then sent to the brutal Buchenwald concentration camp, where more than 30,000 innocent people were killed. Bloch survived the nightmarish conditions and, whilst his experiences would haunt him for the rest of his days, his spirit remained unbroken.
Shortly after returning to France in April 1945, Bloch returned to business, quickly designing a new model for the French air force, the MD 315 Flamant transport aircraft. It was at this time that he legally changed his surname from Bloch to Dassault, in honour of his brother’s call name in the French Resistance. The company name was also transformed at this point, and it was in the emerging field of jet aircraft that the newly-named Dassault would truly make a lasting impact.
The MD 450 Ouragan (that’s French for Hurricane) became the first French jet-powered combat aircraft to enter production. It ushered in the French aircraft industry’s first post-war export sales, to India, Israel and El Salvador. The fighter-bomber was incredibly advanced for its time, and Marcel Bloch was widely praised for his innovative approach to aviation.
1951 saw the introduction of the Mystère, an incredibly advanced jet that was inspired by the original Ouragan. This, in turn, was quickly superseded by a successor that blew away all expectations. Introduced in 1954, the Mystère II was the first French plane to break the sound barrier. It was a major component of the French air force for the next three years, before being relegated to the role of advanced trainer.
The third version of the Mystère never made it out of the prototype stage, but the fourth version proved to be very successful. The United States ordered 225 of the jet fighters, to be retroceded to France within the scope of a NATO agreement. Dassault aircraft were certainly making their mark.
The Mirage III program kicked off in the mid-50s, marking the introduction of Mach 2 capable fighters, whilst also leading to further export markets for Dassault. Aerial combat during the Six-Day War in 1967 would seal, once and for all, the global reputation of Dassault jet fighters. The Israeli fleet was made up largely of Dassault aircraft and dominated the short-lived battle.
Dassault then participated in France’s nuclear deterrent force by building the Mirage IV strategic bomber, allowing the company to learn new techniques, especially concerning high-temperature materials. Dassault also diversified its scope of research, including such advanced areas as vertical takeoff (with the Mirage III V) and variable geometry wings (thanks to the Mirage G). Obviously, the company was always looking for ways to remain ahead of the pack.
The Étendard IV M and its successor, the Super Étendard, were carrier-launched strike fighters first seen in 1974. Miraculously, these fearsome beasts were only retired by the French Navy last year, showing how advanced they were for their time.
Dassault was best known at the time for its military aircraft, but it also produced excellent civilian models. Technical solutions developed for the Communauté twin-engine liaison plane were combined with technological breakthroughs from the Mystère IV, leading to the Mystère 20 business jet. Released in 1965 and also known as the Falcon 20, American airline Pan American ordered a number of these jets for domestic flights, leading to a rush of popularity across the continent.
A smaller derivative, the Falcon 10 twinjet, and the larger Falcon 50 tri-jet, offering transatlantic range and were adopted by a number of carriers. The success of the subsequent Falcon 900 and Falcon 2000 models in the 1980s and 1990s confirmed Dassault’s technological expertise in premium business jets. Close to 1000 of these jets have been sold, and it doesn’t look like production will be ceasing anytime soon.
Dassault even entered the commercial transport market with the Mercure, a single-aisle commercial twinjet with 150 seats, operated for many years by French airline Air Inter.
In 1969 Dassault merged with Breguet Aviation, creating Avions Marcel Dassault – Breguet Aviation (AMD-BA). This merger expanded the company’s international reach, through
the maritime patrol aircraft Atlantique, then the Atlantique 2, the Jaguar ground attack model and the Alpha Jet trainer. Many planes came out of the Dassault factories, and the quality was exceptional.
Dassault continued to incorporate state-of-the-art technologies during the 1970s, with the delta-wing fighters Mirage 2000 and Mirage 4000, which saw the introduction of innovations such as composite materials and fly-by-wire controls. The company also developed a computer-aided design and manufacturing system known as CATIA. Now used worldwide, this sophisticated system was astonishing at the time and had an incredible impact on the aviation world.
Dassault was also active in the space sector, starting in the 1960s, with the MD 620 missile, design studies for the TAS 1 and 2 space vehicles, and a thermal protection project for the U.S. Space Shuttle. Dassault Aviation also made the main components in the pyrotechnic system on Europe’s Ariane launch vehicle.
It seemed like the only way was up for Dassault, but in the mid-80s, the company was rocked by tragedy.
A NEW HOPE
Marcel Dassault died in 1986, at the age of 94, leaving behind a lifetime of aviation excellence. Despite the enormity of the loss, the company that he had built continued, with Marcel’s son Serge taking over as Chairman and Chief Executive. Dassault was in good hands, and four years later the Société des avions Marcel Dassault-Breguet Aviation was given the name it has today – Dassault Aviation.
Since then, a number of highly qualified men have been in charge of the company. Charles Edelstenne became Chairman and Chief Executive Officer in 2000, followed by Éric Trappier in 2013. Part of the Groupe Industriel Marcel Dassault, Dassault Aviation is the only aerospace company in the world that still belongs to its founding family. By remaining true to their core values and visions, Dassault has been able to continue innovating.
Today, Dassault Aviation offers a family of world class combat aircraft in the Rafale line, which is available in single and twin-seat configurations, in air and naval versions. Literally meaning ‘burst of fire’, the twin-engine fighter was introduced 15 years ago and has aged like a fine wine.
As well as being an integral part of the French Air Force, the Rafale is also used by the Indian, Egyptian and Qatar Air Forces. An upgraded version is due next year, with a new set of weapons and avionics.
On the civilian side is the Falcon family of business jets, including the 2000LXS, 2000S, 900LX, 5X, 7X and 8X. The 8X is a truly remarkable aircraft and the current jewel in the crown of Dassault Aviation.
With a range that can see it comfortably fly between Australia and China, the 8X boasts sublime fuel efficiency, incredible performance, immense flexibility and unrivalled comfort, while saving millions in total life cycle costs versus any rival.
The powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada turbofans deliver five per cent more thrust than their competitors, yet they also lower fuel consumption. They also reduce NOx emissions 30 per cent below today’s most stringent standards. The PW300 series has more than 12 million hours of proven, highly reliable operation – and are the perfect engines to power such an impressive aircraft.
The versatility of the 8X is exhibited by the fact it can be ordered in any of 30 different layouts, meaning it can be perfectly tailored to the needs of the owner.
Dassault delivered the first Falcon 8X in October last year to Greek business aviation operator Amjet Executive, and there’s since been immense interest from operators all over the world.
In the past 15 years, fast-paced progress in information technology has moved design departments from drawing boards to computerised 3D design, necessitating a change in the way the folks at Dassault do their business. Physical models have disappeared, replaced by virtual digital models, streamlining the entire process. This industrial revolution was made possible by product lifecycle management software from Dassault Systèmes. This approach is already widespread in the aerospace and automotive sectors and is expanding to many other sectors.
Dassault Aviation is now gearing up for the future as the prime contractor for nEUROn, a European program for an unmanned combat air vehicle technology demonstrator, leading contributors from Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, Spain and Italy.
Drawing on its skills and expertise, Dassault Aviation has also shown an interest in developing combat drones, especially within the scope of the French-British FCAS
(Future Combat Air System) program, as well as medium-altitude, long-endurance drone systems. This is truly a company that is always looking for something new to conquer.
As a major player in the French industrial landscape for many decades, Dassault Aviation boasts proven high-tech expertise that makes it one of the world’s leading plane-makers.
The company’s two-pronged success in high-performance combat aircraft and luxurious business jets is largely thanks to the outstanding efforts of the men and women who work for the company.
Dassault has been a leading force in European aviation for the best part of a century, introducing game-changing technology and producing some of the finest aircraft of all time. They’ve had a significant presence and sales success in our very own Asia Pacific region too and with the introduction of the awesome Falcon 8X, it seems that success will continue unabated.
A company with broad interests and even broader dreams, Dassault proudly carries on the spirit of its founder, Marcel Dassault. For the men and women of Dassault, innovation isn’t just the way forward, it’s a way of life.