Dassault Aviation Celebrates 50th Anniversary
“Engineered with Passion” is more than a clever catchphrase. At Dassault Aviation, it effectively summarizes a company-wide culture. Even though the image of engineers doesn’t normally go hand in hand with passion, in this case, the apparent contradiction seems appropriate. Dassault Group has built a world-class family of companies; a strategically balanced portfolio, including design production and support of military and civilian aircraft; and the Group’s signature technology company, Dassault Systèmes.
It all began in 1909, with a brilliant young French engineering student who saw Wilbur Wright fly while on a tour of Europe. Marcel Bloch, later to be known as Marcel Dassault, was smitten with flying machines, later remembering, “I knew that aviation had entered my spirit and my heart.”
The company he formed celebrates a special 50th anniversary this year, marking the date of the first flight of what became the patriarch of the Falcon business jet line–the Mystère 20–on May 4, 1963. In the five decades since then, more than 2,250 Falcons have been delivered to customers around the world. Dassault stands alone as the sole remaining European manufacturer of business jets, a tribute to the passion and dedication to that industry that started with its founder and culminated with that first flight half a century ago.
As part of the year’s celebration, dedicated craftsmen have restored that very airplane, Serial Number 1, at the Musée de l’Air et de l’Éspace (Air and Space Museum) at Paris Le Bourget Airport. Bedecked in its flight-test livery, the airplane that started it all for Dassault Aviation will be on prominent display at next month’s Paris Air Show. Its three-year restoration was a project truly “engineered with passion.”
Marcel Bloch’s first engineering feat of note was marked in 1915, designing a new propeller for Allied pursuit ships of World War I. The Éclair (French for “lightning”) wooden propeller was aerodynamically superior to anything else available, and gave pilots an edge in performance. Bloch’s propeller equipped several models, including the French SPADs flown by aces such as Charles Guynemer, René Fonck and America’s top-scoring pilot Eddie Rickenbacker (26 victories).
Between the wars, Bloch designed cutting-edge aircraft for airlines, special-purpose operators and the French military. Among his designs was the MB 220 (“MB” for Marcel Bloch), a medium-range airliner carrying 16 passengers. With war clouds looming in the 1930s, the French nationalized their aviation industry, and as part of that complex, Bloch produced the MB 151, MB 152 and MB 153 single-seat fighters and his most famous warbird, the MB 174, a 280-knot light bomber/attack aircraft. In 1940, Bloch built a sprawling factory in St. Cloud, a suburban commune in Paris, to build engines. That complex of buildings is where Dassault Group is now headquartered.
Bloch had become a prominent French industrialist, one of the champions of aviation innovation and a national figure. When the Germans took over the country and attempted to force him to cooperate with the Nazi war effort, he refused and was imprisoned by the French Vichy puppet government in 1940. In 1944, he was deported to Buchenwald concentration camp where he nearly died from diphtheria.
Amazingly, when Bloch emerged from captivity in 1945 at age 53, he received his confiscated personal possessions back, including his wallet holding a four-leaf clover, his lucky piece. To this day, the four-leaf clover is part of the corporate symbol of the company he continued to lead after the war.
It was at his time Bloch also changed his family name to Dassault. Over the rest of his life, he rarely discussed the reason for the name change, but it is thought to be a tribute to his brother Darius-Paul’s French Underground code name, “Char d’Assault,” the French term for “tank.”
Just two years after the end of the war, in 1947, Dassault established the current aircraft factory and flight-test complex in Merignac, near Bordeaux, France. Also at this time, he began subcontracting the manufacture of components for his aircraft, but to ensure quality control, the original tooling, assembly and flight test have always been kept in-house, a policy that continues today.
The Potential of Jet Power
In the years immediately after the war, Avions Marcel Dassault turned out the military MD 315 (“MD” now being the designation for “Marcel Dassault”) piston twin in great numbers, but Dassault saw the potential of jet power. In 1949, the company built its first jet fighter, the straight-wing Ouragan (“Hurricane”). Hundreds were built for the French and export market. But the Ouragan was just the beginning of a legendary progression of jet fighters.
It’s remarkable that Dassault’s company could emerge from the rubble of World War II Europe and achieve the milestones it did within just a few years. Despite the German occupation and oppression, the company was designing, testing and building cutting-edge jets less than half a decade after the end of the war.
In 1951, Dassault combined the fuselage of the Ouragan with all-new swept wings. The Mystère II became the first French aircraft to exceed the speed of sound. More than 150 were built in Merignac. If some wing sweep is good, then more must be better, and the Mystère IV appeared a year later with 32 degrees of sweep and a more powerful engine; it was followed by the Super Mystère with 45 degrees of wing sweep and capable of supersonic flight even at low altitude.
In 1955, Dassault built its first delta-wing Mystère fighter, later to become legendary as the Mirage I. With license-built British Viper engines augmented by a rocket, the new fighter achieved speeds of Mach 1.3 in level flight. A year later, inspired by the success of the lightweight, simple, Russian MiG 15 of the Korean war, Dassault mated the Mirage I with a larger fuselage and more powerful Snecma engine. The Mirage III was capable of not only flying faster than twice the speed of sound (Mach 2) but also of fulfilling multiple military roles. It served as a high-altitude interceptor ground-attack platform, reconnaissance ship and even as a trainer. More than 1,400 were built, eight out of 10 for the export market.
A naval fighter loomed within Dassault’s purview when the French navy launched a program to build the Clemenceau and Foch aircraft carriers. The result was the introduction in 1957 of the Étendard IVM and Super Étendard series of carrier-borne fighters. Continuing with the theme of lightweight combat aircraft, the new fighter was remarkably agile and capable. More than 90 were built.
Branches into Electronics
In 1960, Dassault addressed the limitations of outsourcing its electronics by forming Dassault Electronique. Besides aviation applications, the division also developed automatic bank teller machines and transit-fare vending machines. The in-house technology company was a right decision for Dassault Group, and today Dassault Systèmes, whose Catia computer design software is world renowned. Besides providing expert in-house support for the dedicated aviation divisions, it gives Dassault Group’s portfolio of divisions a diversity that helps balance out the ebb and flow of the world economy. Companies as diverse as IBM and General Motors use Catia software.
The Falcon Line is Born
All the military contracts and other research seemed destined to lead to what was arguably the most significant new aircraft in Dassault’s history–certainly on the civilian side. Taking the wing design of the Mirage IV series, Dassault mounted them on a small, airliner-type cabin with a pair of Pratt & Whitney JT12 turbojets on either side of the rear fuselage. First known as the Mystère 20, the design came to be known as the Falcon 20, the ancestor of all future Falcons.
Development of the purpose-built business jet took a few more turns. General Electric engines took the place of the Pratt & Whitneys, and the wing’ airfoil configuration was given a leading-edge droop for improved runway performance and slow-speed handling. But even before these changes were made, a visit from American Charles Lindbergh forever changed the course of not just Dassault and the Falcon line, but the entire general aviation industry, worldwide.
Lindbergh, who knew the air route from the U.S. to France from personal experience, visited the test facility in Merignac in May 1963, 36 years after he stunned the world with his New York-Paris flight, at the time of the first few flights of the prototype Mystère 20. He was on a mission for Pan Am president Juan Trippe, who was interested in forming a business aviation division of the iconic airline.
At this time, development was ongoing for the original Lear Jet Model 23 in the U.S., as well as for the Lockheed JetStar, both designed as small, fast VIP transports. No one will ever know exactly what was going through Lindbergh’s mind, but when he again saw the Mystère 20 fly later that summer at the Paris Air Show (held at the familiar site of his landing in Paris in 1927: Le Bourget Airport), he sent a telegram to Trippe indicating he had found the airplane for their venture.
Light Jet Charters
The idea of forming a light jet charter division of a major airline was unique, and Pan Am’s early role in developing business aviation in the U.S. has gone largely unnoticed. It was close enough to the end of the Korean war that many of the pilots recruited to join the division were military veterans. An ex-Air Force fighter pilot, the late Randy Kennedy was among them. He once described how, having joined Pan Am after leaving the military, he assumed his future employment would consist of routine flying from the cockpits of large airliners. When told of the opportunity to help launch a business jet venture, he jumped at the chance. So did many other young ex-service pilots who were loathe to giving up flying lighter, more responsive jets. Flying high-performance, agile jets carrying a few executives or VIPs to diverse destination airports appealed to Kennedy. He said, “When I heard what the plan was for the business jet division, I said, ‘This is for me.’”
Pan Am ordered 40 Mystère 20s with options for 120 more, and in deference to further penetrating the English-speaking North American market, the airplane was renamed the Falcon 20. The first Falcon 20 was delivered in 1965 (not one of the Pan Am order). In the end, more than 500 were built, and it is still regarded as one of the most beautiful business jets that ever flew. Many are still in service.
As has been the case with Falcons ever since, the emphasis on designing the Falcon 20 was on aerodynamic efficiency and handling qualities. Falcon models are usually not the largest, fastest or longest-range jets in their class. But the balance of speed, range, cabin size, short-field landing and takeoff performance and smooth flying has been respected and admired by Falcon operators for half a century.
Over the years of growth at Dassault, Marcel’s son Serge began taking on more and more responsibility. He headed up the flight-test division, and later moved higher into upper management, where he ultimately served as chairman and CEO. When Marcel Dassault died in 1986, Serge Dassault was well established as an icon in the aerospace industry. He resigned as president and chairman in 2000, when long-time company executive Charles Edelstenne took over as CEO. Eric Trappier has since assumed the role of chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation, but Edelstenne retains the title of chairman for Dassault Group (which includes Dassault Systèmes and several other divisions). Serge Dassault remains honorary chairman, is active in conservative politics (as is his son Olivier) and was listed by Forbes magazine in 2011 as one of the 100 wealthiest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $9.3 billion.
The FedEx Connection
The association between Dassault and Pan Am likely influenced a young American entrepreneur to take notice of the Falcon 20 for another out-of-the-box role. As a Yale undergraduate student, Fred Smith wrote a business plan for an overnight delivery service, including using a fleet of light jets flying to and from myriad small cities nationwide. Though his professor gave him a low grade, history has smiled more kindly on the business now known as FedEx.
Smith ordered 33 Falcon 20s, and arranged with Arkansas Airmotive in Little Rock, Arkansas, to convert the passenger jets to cargo configuration. The modification included removing the windows and installing a large cargo door. Working with extensive cooperation from the Dassault factory engineers, Arkansas Airmotive delivered on its engineering promise on time, and on budget. The association ultimately led to Dassault purchasing Arkansas Airmotive in 1975, and Little Rock is now the hub for Falcon completions and one of its major service centers.
In 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered 41 examples of its own patrol version of the aircraft, known as the HU-25A “Guardian.” Conversion work was performed in Little Rock and the first Coast Guard jets entered service in 1981.
In 2008, a massive expansion at the Little Rock facility saw the addition of 116,000 sq ft of new space under roof, at a cost of $20 million. The new buildings included a four-bay paint hangar with the latest in environmental controls. With completion of the project in 2012, Dassault now has close to one million sq ft of space at its Little Rock facility (more than 20 acres). And it all started with a single 61,000-sq-ft hangar.
Dassault Falcon Jet
The synergy between Pan Am and Dassault led to the formation in 1972 of Dassault Falcon Jet, a joint venture between the two companies. Based at Teterboro Airport near New York City, it became the Western Hemisphere-based marketing arm for sales and support of Falcons, working in parallel with the Paris-based Eastern Hemisphere marketing, sales and product support teams. In 1980, Dassault acquired Pan Am’s interest in the joint company, and became the sole owner of Dassault Falcon Jet.
In 1973, Dassault researched adding a third engine to the Falcon 20 airframe. After the switch to a new supercritical wing design, the resulting model is dubbed the Falcon 50. The three-engine configuration became an unofficial Dassault trademark. The efficiency of the design was highlighted by a series of world record flights by the prototypes. The Falcon 50 was certified in 1979 and deliveries began.
Subsequent models include the twinjet Model 2000, certified in 1982, and the larger Falcon 900 trijet in 1986. Upgrades in engines and avionics over the years have ramped up the efficiency and utility of both models, far beyond the scope of their original performance capabilities.
The Falcon EASy electronic flight information system (EFIS) cockpit looms large among the technological advances. Based on the Honeywell Primus Epic system, the EASy and follow-on EASy II cockpits are optimized for Falcon pilots with software and presentation configurations designed specifically by Dassault. The emphasis is on intuitive, workload-saving software and interface capabilities.
The Falcon 7X flagship represents the culmination of so much of Dassault Aviation’s history and corporate structure. Not only is the 7X a technological step forward–with fly-by-wire controls and cutting edge avionics–but even the process of designing the airplane carved out new ground.
Today, any new aircraft design will involve dozens of partners who will develop and build components– major systems such as engines, avionics, and hydraulics–but also smaller components, such as fuel control systems, thrust reversers, landing gear and brakes and so forth. All partner’s contributions are vitally important, and their efforts must be integrated and woven into the final design.
Using its proprietary computerized integration system, Dassault placed all its design partners on the 7X in constant communication, linking them from around the world and integrating their input as though they were in the same room. The result was a final design that went straight to the production tooling stage, with no need for trial fittings. The proof of the pudding was the seamless fitting of all components, and the efficiency of not only the final production phase, but also ongoing maintenance procedures after the aircraft entered service.
Worldwide service is yet another hallmark of Falcon ownership. With a heritage of supporting military aircraft for export buyers around the globe, Dassault has a history of parts and logistic support infrastructure that helps translate to the civilian market.
Ironically, the longevity of Falcons has hurt the company in support surveys over time. An aging aircraft is less expensive to buy, but can be much more expensive to maintain. Not only do parts and life-limited components wear out, but the original vendors who supplied them may be out of business and the manufacturing rights ceded to new companies. That can make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for the aircraft manufacturer to control the cost of replacement parts or components that were originally made by an outside vendor.
“Engineered with Passion” may be an odd combination of words. But to the employees at Dassault, from student interns up the ranks to senior management, it represents a commitment to fulfill a promise of delivering the best and most creative engineering solutions. At the same time, it means sustaining an individual integrity that starts with each person, expands to include their relationship with their employer and grows further to encompass a national symbol. As the international corporate force that it is, Dassault is a source of deep national pride. And that sense of pride drives those who wear the four-leaf-clover logo to hold their responsibilities at the highest level.