A common stereotype among aviation enthusiasts is that all French aircraft are unreliable, slow and boring. They are of course wrong as France has given us some of the most innovative airliners that have ever flown, starting with the genesis of short to medium range jet powered flight, the Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle.
The Caravelle spawned from an era when jet aviation was in its infancy. While great strives were being taken in the realms of military aviation to create high performance jet fighters and larger jet powered bombers, commercial aviation had become something of an afterthought in the years following World War II, due largely to the ever increasing threat of communism in the late 1940’s. However, designs for a jet powered commercial airliner had been in the works since as early as 1942, the plans of which came to fruition in 1949 with the launch of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner. This game-changing aircraft quickly put other aircraft manufacturers into panic as they attempted to match a plane which was smoother, faster, and, internally at least, quieter.
The story of the Caravelle, however, begins on October 12th, 1951, when the Comité du matériel civil (civil aircraft committee) published a report specifying the need for a medium range aircraft capable of carrying between 55 and 65 passengers and 1,000kg of cargo at speeds of up to 370mph over a range of 1,200 miles. The concept was not new though, as leading French aircraft designers had been toying with the idea since the war’s end, though independently these designers had not the financial backing to create concepts.
The tender for constructing this new aircraft was given to the Direction technique et industrielle, who dispersed it among the leading aviation manufacturers of France. In total, 20 different designs were received, a majority of which were turbojet powered. Turboprops were also considered, following the phenomenal success of the Vickers Viscount which did away with unreliable and noisy piston-powered aircraft. Engine configurations ranged from four-engines similar to that of the Comet, to a triple-engine design which predated the likes of the Boeing 727 and Hawker-Siddeley Trident.
Eventually, three designs were shortlisted for further development in March 1952, these all being turbojet powered but differing in configuration, one with two-engines, one with three and another with four. The three and four engine configurations were comprised of two main powerplants and either one or two auxiliary engines to provide extra boost, as at the time the engines provided were somewhat primitive and prone to breakdown. Each of these considered the use of Rolls Royce Avon engines, of which the company was in the process of producing a new model of the Avon developing 9,000lbf. This new Avon engine rendered the need for auxiliary engines moot, and thus the final design came down to the two-engine configuration.
This particular aircraft design was submitted by Société nationale des constructions aéronautiques du Sud-Est (SNCASE), based in Toulouse. The aircraft in question was dubbed the X-210, which was revised to include the latest versions of the Avon
engines as a twin-engine design, with the powerplants mounted at the rear of the fuselage. The engines were mounted in this manner so as to avoid the cost of having to redesign the wing, and had the added benefit of reducing cabin noise, though operational costs were slightly higher due to the increased weight.
Much of the design behind the X-210 was based on the de Havilland Comet, as SNCASE had assisted in designing and building the Comet. As such, the cockpit design, including nose shape and window arrangement, were carried directly over from the Comet. The remainder of the fuselage design was entirely local. Another interesting little quirk of the X-210 was the aircraft’s triangular cabin windows, which were designed to present a great structural rigidity but at a smaller size than conventional cabin windows. The X-210, and the later Caravelle, were also fitted with drogue parachutes which were deployed before the reverse thrusters to help slow the plane on landing. Later versions of the Caravelle removed this feature once powerplants had been updated.
In terms of performance, the X-210, and later production units were capable of flying at speeds of up to 500mph over a range of 1,060 miles at an altitude of 39,370ft. Each were powered by Rolls Royce Avon Mk.527 engines producing 11,400lbf of thrust each. The aircraft could also carry up to 80 passengers and 8.4 tonnes of cargo.
Being christened the Caravelle by Madame Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of future French President and war hero Charles de Gaulle on April 21st, 1955. This was followed on May 27th of the same year with the maiden flight of the prototype, which lasted for 41 minutes without incident. This was followed almost a year later by the second prototype on May 6th, 1956. The two prototypes differed by way of their external design, the first prototype being fitted with a large cargo door on the lower left side, while the second had this feature removed to make room for more passenger space.
Testing was complimented by a tour of Europe and North Africa by the prototypes, while early production models were given acceptance trials by Air France. In 1957, the second prototype made its way to the Americas, accumulating 25,000 hours of flying time in both North and South America. Enthusiasm was high for the Caravelle, resulting the aircraft’s first orders in 1956 and 1957, these being from Air France and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), respectively. Meanwhile, SNCASE was merged with fellow French aircraft manufacturer Société nationale des constructions aéronautiques du sud-ouest (SNCA du Sud-Ouest) to create Sud Aviation. However, the original designation of SE (Sud-Est) would remain with the
Caravelle throughout its production life.
Finally, in 1959, the Caravelle received its airworthiness certificate, followed in April of the same year by its introduction into service with SAS, making its first revenue earning service on the 26th of that month. Air France started operations shortly afterwards, using it to replace many of the airline’s older piston-powered designs and repurposed WWII transport aircraft.
The success of the Caravelle and its incredible performance took the aviation world by surprise, becoming the first short-to-medium range jet airliner ever to take to the skies. Immediately, operators from all across the globe were eager to purchase SE 210’s to make use of its speed, agility, reliability and range, hoping to see an end to ageing propeller powered designs. Even in the United States the Caravelle was admired, with United Airlines placing an order for 20 units to operate on the carrier’s busiest routes. United would, however, be the only operator of the Caravelle in the USA, and its term of stay in the United fleet proved to be merely a stop-gap until domestic US manufacturers developed a comparable aircraft. Once the Boeing 727 and 737 had been perfected in the mid to late 1960’s, the SE 210 was sold on in 1970 after only 9 years with the airline, but some ex-United examples did see continued service with smaller US carriers into the late 1970’s.
Regardless, the SE 210 found its way into the hearts of many airlines, with an eventual 282 units produced by the time production ended in 1972. Carriers which used the aircraft included Air France, SAS, Finnair, Thai Airways, Swissair and Sabena. Throughout its production life, 9 variants of the Caravelle were created, each with differing capacities and powerplants to match, some being fitted
with Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofan engines from the Boeing 727.
However, while the Caravelle was the hot new number for the 1960’s, by the mid-1970’s its design was starting to look very, very archaic. The likes of the Boeing 727, 737 and Douglas DC-9 had now firmly established themselves as both more capable and simpler to use, thus they became the favoured sons of airlines across the globe, pushing the Caravelle out of its perch in the fleets of major carriers.
The story for the SE 210 was not over though, as it found continued service with airlines in Africa and South America well into the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The last known airworthy example was Caravelle 10B (Super Caravelle) 9Q-CPI, which was operated by Waltair of Congo as late as October 2005.
The SE 210, however, was not immune to accidents, suffering a total of 26 with the result of 1,309 deaths.
The first Caravelle to be lost was on January 19th, 1960, where SAS Flight 871 crashed at Esenboga Airport, Turkey due to excessive descent for reasons unknown, resulting in the deaths of seven crew members and 35 passengers.
One of the more notable Caravelle crashes was on June 30th, 1967, when Thai Airways Flight 601, approaching Runway 31 at the famous Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport, crashed into the sea short of the runway during a heavy rainstorm when the crew lost concentration, killing 24.
6 months later, and on November 4th, 1967, Iberia Airlines Flight 062 crashed into Blackdown Hill in West Sussex, England, killing all 37 aboard. The cause of this incident remains unknown, though it is hypothesised that the crew misread the 3-pointer altimeters, which were designed to warn the pilots with a cross-hatch indicator when they were flying below 10,000 feet.
The worst incident involving a Caravelle was on March 14th, 1972, when Sterling Airways Flight 296 crashed 20 miles west of Kalba in the United Arab Emirates, killing 112 passengers and crew. The cause of the crash was found to be due to pilot error, the flight crew being found to use outdated maps which made them believe they were closer to the Dubai than they really were.
The last incident involving a Caravelle was on January 18th, 1986, when an Aerovías Guatemala example crashed in the jungle while on approach to Santa Elena Airport, Flores, Guatemala after a short flight from Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport, killing all 93 aboard. The cause has never truly been determined, but low cloud cover may have been a factor.
Today, an astonishing 44 of these aircraft remain on display, either as fully intact or partial airframes. The significance of these aircraft at being most nation’s first jet powered commercial airliners made them incredibly popular to keep hold of, a true symbol of how this magnificent plane brought modern aviation to so many nations.
Personally, I think that sums up the Caravelle almost perfectly, it truly was what brought modern jet aviation to so many parts of the globe. While the Comet was the pioneer, its distribution among most airlines was limited, especially following the Comet crashes of 1953 and 1954. The Caravelle, however, was the unsung hero, a testament to the early pioneers of jet powered flight, a true mixture of reliability and performance, all wrapped up in a neat little body that is just dripping with French panache. Perhaps the biggest shame is that it was, for most airlines, simply a stop-gap, employed simply to introduce jets into the fleet before updated equivalents such as the Boeing 727 and 737 were built. For that, we often forget the Caravelle and its achievements, instead focusing on the Comet which preceded it or the American airliners which followed.
Nevertheless, one thing we can’t take from the Caravelle is its reputation, it was a brilliant plane when it was first launched and it remains a brilliant plane now, a design that has stood the test of time and saw global use.