While Germany has come to dominate the market in terms of building trains, cars and boats, commercial aviation has never been the nation’s strong point, especially since the end of World War II. The division of the country between the communist held East and the capitalist West severely disrupted much of its infrastructure, while early sanctions on German aircraft manufacturers following the end of the war in 1945 meant that most of these builders were very much short on cash by the time these sanctions were lifted in the late 1950’s.
The only attempts at commercial jet aviation during the years of a divided Germany between 1948 and 1990 came down to two examples; East Germany’s Baade 152 from 1958, and this; the VFW-Fokker 614 from West Germany.
The history of the VFW 614 goes back to the early 1960’s, when in 1961 the Entwicklungsring Nord (ERNO) group, comprising Focke-Wulf, Hamburger Flugzeugbau (HFB) and Weser, proposed a small twin-jet regional airliner carrying between 36 and 40 passengers using American-built Lycoming PLF1B-2 turbofan engines. This aircraft would be built to take on the likes of the upcoming BAC 1-11 and the Douglas DC-9 by providing a smaller alternative which could easily access smaller inner city airports, essentially a pioneer of the STOL (Short-Take Off and Landing) system that we all know today. As mentioned, sanctions on the construction and development of aviation technology on the German nation had only recently been lifted, thus there was a substantial drive in West Germany to develop their own aviation industry.
Until 1955, West German manufacturers were only allowed to build gliders and non-powered aircraft, with this restriction eventually expanded to permit the construction of motorised aircraft. Consequently, West Germany was very much behind in terms of aviation technology and development when the 614 was proposed in 1961. The result was the combining of the aircraft builder’s efforts into a single combined company, resulting in the establishment of Vereinigte Flugtechnische Werke (VFW), based at Bremen, West Germany.
Problems were immediately encountered however when Lycoming chose not to pursue the development of the PLF1, forcing VFW to instead take on alternatives. Help came in the form of a joint venture between Bristol Siddeley and SNECMA in the form of the M45H medium bypass turbofan engine. Bristol Siddeley was eventually purchased by Rolls Royce in 1966, but development of the engine was honoured by the successor company.
West Germany’s lack of preceding commercial aviation designs since 1945 meant that the airframe for the 614 was entirely new. This, combined with the development of an engine specifically designed for the aircraft, resulted in there being something of an optimism and a curiosity for the project by potential buyers. The main goal of the 614 was to allow for reduced engine noise over its competitors, making it an ideal choice for use at smaller municipal and inner city airports where noise abatement issues were enforced.
The project was eventually launched in 1968, with 80% of its funding being provided by the West German Government. This was followed in 1970 by the approval of full-scale production for the VFW 614, during which time VFW had merged with Dutch aircraft builder Fokker, creating Europe’s first transnational aircraft company. Many of the aircraft’s design features, including the discarding of a T-tail in favour of a conventional unit, furnished with a low-set vertical stabiliser and dihedral, were accredited to Fokker’s involvement. Much of this innovation came from the development of Fokker’s own regional jet, the F28 Fellowship, which was launched in 1967 to widespread acclaim and high customer satisfaction. By extension, the success of the F28 meant that Fokker intended to market the VFW 614 through Fokker’s established civil sales unit and support infrastructure; however, the union has been regarded by some commentators as having been an ‘unhappy arrangement’ and had only lasted for ten years before its dissolution. In addition, several risk sharing agreements had been concluded between other aviation companies, including Siebel Flugzeugwerke ATG (SEAT) in West Germany, Fairey and SABCA in Belgium, and Shorts in the United Kingdom. Final assembly of the aircraft was to be performed at VFW’s Bremen facility. Sales forecasts for the 614 estimated a production run of approximately 300 to 400 units, mirroring the success of the F28.
The final design of the VFW 614 resulted in a twinjet with a low-mounted horizontal stabiliser. Perhaps the most notable feature of the 614 is the fact that its engines are mounted above the wings. This arrangement had several advantages, such as avoiding the structural weight penalties imposed by rear-mounted engines and the potential ingestion risks present when engines were mounted low down underneath the wings. The engine configuration allowed the adoption of a short, sturdy undercarriage, which was specially suited to performing operations from austere or otherwise poorly-prepared runways. The position of the engine over the wing, compared to under-wing, also shielded people on the ground from intake noise during flyovers; this shielding effect is also present for aft-mounted engines.
The aircraft could be flown by a crew of two while carrying up to 44 passengers at speeds of 437mph over a range of 743 miles at a service ceiling of 25,000ft. These performance factors made it comparable to the successful F28, thereby increasing the promising forecasts for the aircraft’s sales run.
On July 14th, 1971, the first of three 614 prototypes took to the air from the Bremen factory, being both the first flight of the aircraft but also the M45H engine, which had not been previously tested for in-flight performance. The first two prototypes were dispatched to Spain for three month ‘hot and high’ trials, evaluating their performance in areas where the runway is positioned at high altitudes in warmer climates; similar to the likes of the Vickers VC10. Once testing was completed, a final design was settled upon and building of the production units was commenced.
However, despite its promising forecasts, the 614 could only be described as a disaster when it came to sales. In the end, only 19 aircraft were ever built when production ceased in 1977 followed by the collapse of VFW in 1981. With such a piffling number of aircraft produced, the 614 has gone down in history as one of the biggest commercial aviation failures of all time.
Many factors have been attributed to the disastrous production run of the 614. The first came in 1971 when Rolls-Royce went bankrupt following the expensive development of the RB211 engine for the Lockheed Tristar project. With the company’s future hanging in doubt, sales for aircraft which were solely powered by Rolls-Royce powerplants, including both the 614 and the Tristar, were severely damaged. This was compounded by tragedy on February 1st, 1972, when the first prototype was lost following a crash caused by elevator flutter; a public relations nightmare.
At the same time, a great deal of resentment was spawned in the ranks of the German VFW towards the Dutch Fokker, with some management figures citing a conspiracy by Fokker to deliberately purchase the company, then design an aircraft which was built and marketed to an inferior level as the F28 so as to destroy a potential competitor. Marketing for the 614 was indeed very lacklustre, with the Fokker management placing their own products with higher priority over the 614.
Eventually, the 614 made its first orders in 1975, when Denmark’s Cimber Air ordered 10 aircraft in February of that year. This was followed by a maiden flight of the first production unit that April, and delivery four months later. Cimber Air would eventually take on only two units. However, help did come from a very unlikely place, that being France. Two airlines, Air Alsace, an air taxi operator based in Colmar, and TAT (Transport Aérien Transrégional) European Airlines, a Tours based holiday airline, placed orders, purchasing 10 units overall; 2 to Air Alsace and 8 to TAT. TAT would eventually become the largest operator of the 614. As mentioned, the project was officially cancelled in 1977, the final three 614’s eventually being sold to the Luftwaffe as VIP transports.
614 operation in commercial service lasted no more than 4 years as, in 1981, VFW folded, taking with it any mechanical and technical support for the 614. Foreseeing this, most airlines had handed back or otherwise disposed of their units, with the final operational examples being in the service of the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe continued to use these aircraft as late as 1999. The final operational and airworthy example of the VFW 614 was used as late as December 2012 by the Advanced Technologies Testing Aircraft System (ATTAS) project. Upon retirement, the aircraft was sold to the Deutsches Museum Flugwerft in Oberschleißheim, Germany, bringing a sad end to Germany’s original commercial jet airliner.
The VFW 614 is something of a real tragedy in my eyes, an aircraft that promised much but delivered little. The aircraft, I feel, was very much a victim of circumstance, with the Rolls-Royce bankruptcy and prototype crash being major contributing factors to the aircraft’s lack of success. While many may side with the conspiracy theorists that the 614 was deliberately sabotaged by Fokker so as not to present a viable competitor to the F28, I feel that the main problem with the aircraft was its lack of marketing and brand recognition. Germany hadn’t built a commercial airliner since before World War II, thus any German manufacturer barely registered on any airline’s scopes. While this was exacerbated by Fokker’s lack of enthusiasm to market the aircraft, I feel that, even with the best marketing campaign in the world, it simply wouldn’t have been able to match up to the F28, especially since they were near enough identical.
It’s a sad case of how marketing means so many things in the world of aviation, and how it has killed many a capable aircraft in its time.