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European and Soviet Aircraft Industries

by T. A. Heppenheimer

Imagine running a small factory that builds sailboats in limited numbers, each capable of carrying one or two people. Then war breaks out—and suddenly government officials are at your door, offering huge sums of money and placing orders for your boats, in very large numbers. That is what happened to the planebuilders of Europe after World War I began in 1914.


The airplanes of the day resembled sailboats, for they were small and flimsy. Even so, they had considerable military value, for they could observe the movements of an enemy's army. Fighter planes, capable of shooting down such observers, soon made their appearance. Large aircraft took to the sky, for use as bombers. New designs succeeded each other quickly, as engineers sought improvements in size, speed, range, and weapons load.


Progress was rapid. In 1909, France's Louis Blériot had made headlines by flying across the English Channel. In 1919, a British bomber, the Vickers Vimy, flew nearly two thousand miles and became the first airplane to cross the Atlantic.


In England, leading planebuilders included Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, Thomas Sopwith, and A.V. Roe. All gave their names to important aircraft companies. Vickers, a supplier of heavy guns and other armaments, expanded to build bombers as well. The British government also set up the Royal Aircraft Factory. Planes of the era included the Sopwith Camel, a fighter, and the De Havilland DH-4. The Camel had a hump that mounted machine guns. The DH-4, a bomber, used an engine of 400 horsepower, which was the most powerful engine available at the time.


Leading French designers, all with their own companies, included Louis Breguet, Henri and Maurice Farman, and Raymond Saulnier. Other important planebuilding companies included the firms of Nieuport and Spad, which built fine fighter aircraft. In Germany, the top designers included Hugo Junkers and Anthony Fokker. Fokker was from Holland; working in Germany, he became famous for his own fighters.


The firm of Gotha built bombers that struck at London. Albatros, a company with a branch in Austria, crafted fighter planes. In addition, a German nobleman, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, had an aviation empire that was all his own.


He had invented the zeppelin, a large airship with enough power to maneuver against the wind. He had used them to set up the world's first airline. When the war came, the German government ordered dozens of these craft, in increasing size, using them as bombers. Zeppelin also set up a branch near Berlin that built large conventional airplanes, also for use as bombers.


The end of the war, in 1918, brought a sudden collapse of this industry. Military orders became few and far between. The Germans had a particularly hard time of it, for they had lost the war. Some companies stayed alive by building airliners. But after 1930, as nations prepared for new wars, aviation again came to the forefront.


Japan went to war as early as 1931, fighting initially in China. The government in Tokyo placed military aviation in the hands of large existing companies, especially Kawasaki and Mitsubishi. The latter company developed the excellent fighter plane known as the Zero, which Americans came to know all too well when fighting in the Pacific during World War II.


In Germany, the Nazis came to power in 1933 and quickly began to build arms. The planebuilder Willy Messerschmitt won particular favor, for his Me-109 became the standard German fighter plane of World War II. The firm of Junkers developed the widely feared Stuka dive bomber. Ernst Heinkel crafted the He-111, a twin-engine bomber.


Within the Soviet Union, the dictator Josef Stalin watched Germany's buildup with considerable concern, knowing that his country was to be the target of attack. The Soviets lacked privately owned aircraft companies as in Germany and Great Britain; all industry was owned by the communist government. However, there were several state-run aircraft factories, which were closely allied with design bureaus.


A design bureau was an engineering office, with a high-ranking technical manager as its director. These top designers included Pavel Sukhoi, Sergei Ilyushin, and Nikolai Polikarpov. Polikarpov won a competition and built a fighter, the I-16, that saw extensive service after the Germans indeed invaded, in 1941. Stalin also put much hope in Ilyushin's II-2 fighter-bomber. He declared, "The Red Army needs the II-2 just as urgently as its daily bread."


German and Soviet warplanes first fought each other during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. The Soviet planes performed poorly, and Stalin responded by throwing some of his best engineers in jail. These included another head of a design bureau, Andrei Tupolev. However, his prison was a "sharaga," which provided facilities for aircraft design. Tupolev knew that he could win release by crafting a superior warplane. He responded with the Tu-2, a twin-engine bomber, which was good enough to enable him to return to his normal life.


Britain had its own planebuilding industry. The firm of Supermarine, a branch of Vickers, prepared for war by building racing seaplanes that set speed records. For combat, this company developed the famous Spitfire fighter. It fought alongside the Hawker Hurricane, built by a company that had formerly been the firm of Sopwith during World War I.


The firm of Avro, named for A.V. Roe, built the four-engine Lancaster bomber. It was considerably more deadly than its German twin-engine counterparts such as the He-111, for it could carry heavy bomb loads. However, the British also made good use of smaller bombers, with the Vickers Wellington being a notable example.


These nations all sought to build high-performance aircraft, and this demanded research. National governments therefore supported their aircraft industries by providing funds for research centers. The British had the Royal Aircraft Establishment. Germany had a major center for aeronautics at Gottingen University and a second one, which was highly secret, hidden in a forest near the city of Braunschweig. The Soviets had their Central Aero-Hydrodynamic Institute, in Moscow.


World War II ended in 1945, with Germany and Japan in utter defeat. Their independent aviation industries ceased to exist. However, the Soviet Union stood among the winners, and its aircraft industry gained new strength amid the demands of the Cold War. Heavy bombers with long range were particularly important, for they could deliver nuclear weapons against the United States.


Tupolev built the first such bomber, the Tu-4. He copied it in full detail from captured American B-29s, which were far more advanced than anything the Soviets had at the time. However, there was strong interest in original designs. A new design bureau, headed by Vladimir Myasishchev, developed the first of them: the M-4, known in other countries as the Bison. Tupolev then made a comeback with a new and better heavy bomber: the Tu-95, called the Bear.


Fighter aircraft also drew attention. The Soviets had two strong design bureaus during the war, headed respectively by Sukhoi and by Alexander Yakovlev. After 1945, a third bureau came to the forefront, directed by Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich. Their MiG-15 was the first Soviet jet fighter. It challenged American jets during the Korean War of 1950-1953, showing that this bureau was a force to reckon with. With Sukhoi and Yakovlev providing ongoing competition, MiG fighters of increasingly advanced design continued to provide the main strength in Soviet fighter power.


The postwar years brought new opportunities. Helicopters now were important. New design bureaus, headed respectively by Nikolai Kamov and by Mikhail Mil, proceeded to provide them. In addition, engines now had enough power for cargo aircraft of substantial size. Another bureau, headed by Oleg Antonov, prepared their designs. It also became possible to build civilian airliners with enough range to cover the vast distances of the Soviet heartland. These came from Tupolev: the jet-powered Tu-104 and the Tu-114.


In western Europe, France had been under Nazi control from 1940 to 1944, but its planebuilders made a strong comeback after the war. Chief among them was Marcel Dassault, who survived imprisonment in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was well aware that France could import planes from the United States, so his own aircraft had to be good. His Mystere IV-B jet fighter broke the sound barrier in level flight in February 1954, only nine months after America's F-100 jet accomplished the same feat. Although Chuck Yeager has first accomplished this in 1947 in the X-1, his airplane had been rocket powered instead of being propelled by a jet. A Dassault Mirage III-A flew at twice the speed of sound in October 1958, hard on the heels of the similarly speedy Lockheed F-104.


British firms continued to build fighters and bombers for the Royal Air Force. Some of them crossed the Atlantic to enter service in America. A bomber built by English Electric, the Canberra, won acceptance with the U. S. Air Force as the B-57. A fighter from Hawker Siddeley, the Harrier, flew for the U.S. Marines. The firm of De Havilland built fighters: the Vampire and the Venom. Other companies developed bombers named Valiant, Victor, and Vulcan. These came respectively from the firms of Vickers, Handley Page, and Hawker Siddeley.


The De Havilland company also built the world's first jet airliner, the Comet. It made its first test flight in 1949 and first flew with passengers in 1952. It stirred great excitement with its high speed and in-flight comfort, and orders from airlines rolled in. But during 1954, it showed an unpleasant tendency to blow apart in flight. British officials withdrew it from service, demanding a major redesign that would make it safe to fly, and this took four years. By then the airliner market had been captured by the American-built Boeing 707. The British airliner industry never recovered.


A French company, Sud Aviation, built its own jet airliner: the twin-engine Caravelle. Sud sold twenty of them in the United States and many more to European airlines. Moreover, the Caravelle flew with jet engines built by the British firm of Rolls Royce. This encouraged thoughts of a new project, wherein France and Great Britain again would join to craft a particularly advanced jetliner.


The project that resulted was the Concorde. It started with a 1962 agreement between Britain and France. It sought nothing less than to carry passengers across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound. No one had ever built such an airliner, but the Royal Aircraft Establishment stood ready with the necessary research. France's Sud Aviation joined with the firm of British Aircraft to develop and build the airplane. Britain's Bristol Siddeley worked with another French company, Snecma, to craft the engines.


For Concorde to succeed, it had to win sales among U.S. airlines, which included some of the world's largest. But in 1973, leading U.S. executives decided not to buy it. It was too small, and was very costly to operate; tickets on the Concorde, therefore, were expensive as well. With these decisions, the Concorde has never been a commercial success. It entered passenger serviced in 1976 with Air France and British Airways and has continued to be flown only for prestige purposes between Europe and North America since then.


But while this was happening, European planebuilders gathered their strength for a new attempt. Officials of Sud Aviation took the lead in launching another venture, Airbus Industrie. They drew in two British planebuilders, Hawker Siddeley and British Aircraft, with West Germany stepping in to help with the funding.


Officials of Airbus set their sights on crafting a plane with room for around 250 passengers. There was much demand for such aircraft, and U.S. firms were building them. But these airliners had three engines. Airbus developed a plane of this size, the A-300, with only two engines, meaning that there was one less engine to pay for and to maintain. This proved the key to its success. Beginning in 1978, Airbus Industrie sold an increasing number of A-300 aircraft, in many different variants, not only in the United States but also around the world.


Airlines fly airplanes in a range of sizes, to serve both short and long routes. Since 1980, Airbus has offered an increasingly varied line of aircraft. Today, it stands as the world's second-largest planebuilder, as it competes vigorously with America's Boeing for the top spot. Boeing continues to offer the 747, the world's largest airliner, with room for up to 421 passengers. But today Airbus is developing it's A-380, with as many as 656 seats, along with room for baggage. If the world's airlines buy the A-380 in large numbers, then Airbus may leap past Boeing to become the number-one builder of commercial aircraft.



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