In a time when the Boeing 737 was dominating the playing field in terms of the domestic air travel market, one French air company attempted to break its winning streak in the same way the Sud Aviation Caravelle had done 10 years earlier. However, this endearing and somewhat interesting little plane would eventually become one of the biggest failures in aviation history, and a rare bird that would never set foot outside of its Gallic homeland.
Plans for the Mercure go back to 1967, following the release of the highly successful Boeing 737. The 737 was built originally to compliment the larger 727 as a smaller alternative capable of reaching airfields of limited runway length. However, it was very quickly found that the 737 could stand up very strongly on its own, and was placed on a wider variety of operations, and, in some instances, would go on to replace its 727 brother.
In 1967, Dassault Aviation, one of France’s most prominent aircraft manufacturers, proposed, with assistance from the French Government, a competitor to try and garner major interest against the 737. The idea was to try and replicate the success of the legendary Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle, a sleek and sublime commercial airliner that was France’s most successful airliner before the formation of Airbus. The main characteristics that set the Caravelle apart from its competition was mostly its speed, capable of doing 500mph in a time when the only real rivals were turboprops.
Dassault had hoped to do the same, create an aircraft based on similar principles as the 737, but also one that was much faster, but could also take-off in half the runway length due to low-speed lift aerodynamics. However, Dassault was taking quite a gamble as this would be their first (and only) commercial airliner, the company having previously been famed for its various fighter jet designs as well as business jets. High speed aerodynamics was very much their thing, but could they translate that into a passenger aircraft?
The aircraft was christened Mercure (French for Mercury), and design was put down to Dassault founder and chief designer Marcel Dassault. Extremely modern computer tools for the time were used to develop the wing of the Mercure 100. Even though it was larger
than the Boeing 737, the Mercure 100 was the faster of the two. In June 1969, a full scale mockup was presented during the Paris Airshow at Le Bourget airport, followed by a roll out of prototype Mercure 01 on April 4th, 1971. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-11 engines, the first flight took place on May 28th, 1971. This was followed by a second prototype, basically identical apart from the use of Pratt & Whitney JT8D-15 engines, eventually the main powerplant of the production fleet. On July 19th, 1973, the first production aircraft made its maiden flight, with the type receiving its certificate of airworthiness on February 12th, 1974.
Now, it was all very well building the thing, but what about marketing it? One thing Dassault hadn’t considered when it attempted to create a contemporary version of the Caravelle was the fact that aviation had moved on 15 years. When the Caravelle was launched, the only main competitors were the Vickers Viscount and Douglas DC-7 turboprops, the only other jet airliner being the long-haul Comet. By 1974, the market was saturated with viable alternatives, the Boeing 727 and 737, the Douglas DC-9, the Hawker-Siddeley Trident and the BAC 1-11. As such, although the Mercure could offer the fastest speed over all of them, its comparatively small size and inferior fuel efficiency meant it failed to endear itself to most airlines, and when I say most, I mean pretty much all of them. While the 1973 Fuel Crisis didn’t help its case, the biggest issue regarding the Mercure were a lack of brand recognition, and its piffling 1,700km range.
A frequent joke made by aviation experts at the time was that the reason why no one bought the Mercure outside of France is because it wasn’t physically capable of leaving the nation’s borders! While a 1,700km range was good for short hops, in order to be as versatile as the Boeing 737 and DC-9 it intended to lock horns with, it needed to be competitive in terms of range, and the Mercure simply didn’t fit the bill. As for brand recognition, Dassault had been known for creating great fighter jets and business jets, but never a commercial airliner, while Boeing, Sud Aviation, Hawker-Siddeley, Douglas and BAC had all made a name for themselves as providers of good, strong aircraft for passenger use.
Though Dassault attempted to woo potential buyers with an extended range Mercure 200, even gaining the attention of some American airlines, the project design costs were also high, and not enough revenue was generated from the original Mercure 100 to cover the expenditure. The result was that the Mercure only ever sold 12 aircraft (including the two prototypes), all of which went to the same airline, French domestic carrier Air Inter, and this was only because the French Government paid them £10m to take on an ‘Orphan Fleet’ of aircraft.
As such, Dassault blew a fortune on what they’d hoped would sell in hundreds. Between 1970 and 1973, five new production lines had been built across France for Mercure production, with break-even expected at around 125 to 150 aircraft, and a forecast 300 aircraft built by 1980. In the end, most of these production lines never built a single Mercure, and were shut completely in 1975, with only the original Bordeaux plant left open to create Dassault’s other products.
The Mercure however did show amazing promise as it plied its trade with Air Inter. Operational between 1973 and 1995, these aircraft performed 360,000 flight hours, carrying 44 million passengers in 440,000 flights with no accidents, and a 98% in-service reliability. The Mercure 100 was also the first commercial airliner to be operated by a 100% female crew on one of its flights.
However, in spite of being among the most reliable aircraft in the sky, and with a clean safety record, the gradual breaking-up of Air Inter in the early 1990’s meant that the airline had to make a variety of cuts to keep itself financially buoyant. Competition on domestic routes by the TGV, combined with a libertarian approach to airlines using French airports, meant that in 1995 the airline lost its monopoly on domestic services out of Paris-Orly. With profits falling, the airline had to see off its older models, and thus the Mercures were retired on April 29th, 1995.
Today, seven of these sadly ill-fated aircraft continue to exist in preservation, all but one of which are in France. It truly is a shame that the Mercure never truly got its footing in the aviation world as the design was very endearing for the time. Sadly it was a victim of circumstance, and now barely anyone remembers it even existed. Some may call it a 737-wannabe, but most call it a damn good airplane!