Dassault reflects on 40 years of Falcons and proud history

 - October 12, 2007, 5:50 AM

Forty years ago, late in the afternoon of May 4, 1963, the first Falcon business jet–then known as the Mystère 20 and powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney JT12A-8 turbojets–took to the air for the first time at Bordeaux-Merignac Airport in southwest France. On May 5 this year, some 1,600 Falcons and more than 10 million flight hours later, honorary chairman Serge Dassault, senior company management, employees and guests gathered at the same field to mark the 40th birthday of what served as the foundation for the whole family of Falcon business jets.

Among the guests was Erik Lindbergh, grandson of pioneer transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh. With his ties to Juan Trippe and Pan Am, Charles Lindbergh had been involved in the launch of the Falcon, and in fact had been at Bordeaux (with Pan Am vice president Franklin Gledhill) to inspect Mystère 20-01 just hours before its first flight, crewed by René Bigand and Jean Dillaire. Serge Dassault recalled last month how Lindbergh had telexed Trippe from Bordeaux on the evening of May 4 to say, “I have found the bird.” Pan Am subsequently ordered 40 aircraft powered by General Electric CF700 turbofan engines–in addition to options for 120 more Falcons–and what became known in the U.S. as the Fan Jet Falcon was born.

Looking more deeply into the history of the Falcon, Serge Dassault (who recently turned 78 years of age) recalled how he had traveled to the 1962 NBAA Convention in Pittsburgh armed with photos of the wooden mockup of the Mystère 20, and how he had returned to report to his father, Marcel, that the response had been encouraging–an appraisal that was much more on target than he could have known at the time. The roots of the Dassault-Lindbergh connection can be traced to Marcel’s presence at Le Bourget when the Lone Eagle landed from his solo transatlantic crossing in May 1927. With Erik Lindbergh at his side, Serge Dassault paid tribute to the young man’s grandfather: “I would like to say a special thank you to Charles Lindbergh and Pan Am. If it wasn’t for the confidence they showed in the Falcon, there would be no program today.”

As Dassault Falcon Jet president John Rosanvallon pointed out, the experience of all the DFJ board members reaches back as far as the Falcon itself: “Five members of the board have a combined 200 years with Dassault. They are Monsieur Dassault, Charles Edelstenne [chairman], Bruno Revellin-Falcoz [vice chairman], Christian Decaix [executive v-p of industrial affairs] and Jean-François Georges [senior v-p of civil aircraft]–each with 40 years at Dassault. I am the rookie with 28 years.”

In Bordeaux last month, the first production Falcon 20 stood as the backdrop to the ceremonies. Even today, four decades later and no longer in production, the Falcon 20 still looks every inch the modern business jet.

Pan Am ended up taking, and selling, all 160 airplanes it had signed for. All told, the Falcon 20 production run accounted for 476 airplanes. The smaller Falcon 10, particularly popular with pilots, made its debut in December 1970, and by the end of its production run 229 had been delivered, including the Falcon 100 derivative (first flight Feb. 10, 1977). The Falcon 50 trijet series followed in November 1976 and lives on as the Falcon 50EX (first flight April 10, 1996) after a production run of more than 330 aircraft so far.

The larger 900 series has surpassed 300 deliveries and continues in the 900EX and 900C (although the EX these days accounts for the lion’s share of demand for the large trijet). More than 200 Falcon 2000/2000EX twinjets have been delivered. Ahead lie the EASy flight deck-equipped Falcon 2000EX and 900EX, and the fly-by-wire, 5,700-nm Falcon 7X, due to fly in 2005. In other words, the Falcon 20 has sired quite a family.

Dassault has been investigating the feasibility of a supersonic business jet (SSBJ) for more than five years. With the retirement of Concorde imminent, AIN asked Revellin-Falcoz whether this untimely demise for the SST spells a better chance for an SSBJ.

He said that the twin issues of demand and of a suitable powerplant remain the two big open questions awaiting development of an SSBJ. “We still need to identify the market. It’s a chicken-and-egg question. When we survey the market to gauge demand for an SSBJ, the price is one of the first questions asked by potential customers. The price to a large extent is decided by the demand. It is the same with the engine, the cost and feasibility of which will depend on how many airplanes we can sell. The engine is not a technological problem, but an economic problem.”

A Dassault SSBJ would likely cost between $60 and $80 million, and it would be a 10-year program to take the airplane from launch to certification, according to Revellin-Falcoz.

Falcons and Fighters

In 2001, Falcon business jets accounted for 75 percent of Dassault Aviation’s business, Mirage and Rafale fighters accounting for the remaining 25 percent. Last year this ratio changed to 70/30, as Dassault took orders for 72 business aircraft, including 26 Falcon 7Xs. Like other business-jet manufacturers, Dassault has been disappointed with the first quarter of this year, taking orders for just five aircraft. Company officials are hoping for an improvement in the business aviation market in 12 to 18 months. The company can take some consolation in the fact that fractional kingpin NetJets has not canceled any of the 120 Falcon 2000s/2000EXs it has on order. More than half of that number have been delivered so far.

Development of a business jet smaller than the Falcon 50EX–a topic for discussion last year–is “not a priority” for Dassault right now, according to Revellin-Falcoz, as the company concentrates on the 2000EX EASy and Falcon 7X.