NBAA Convention News

Socata’s Centenary Could See It Join The Jet Age

 - October 12, 2011, 8:50 PM
Socata traces its history back to 1911, when aeronautical engineer Raymond Saulnier and Léon Morane began developing monoplanes, rather than the biplanes that were more popular at the time. The centenary Socata TBM 850 wears a paint scheme designed by French studio Happy Design.

There is some real aviation pedigree gathered in Las Vegas for the 2011 NBAA show, but you won’t find a company with a richer heritage than France’s Daher-Socata, which this year marks its 100th anniversary in aircraft manufacturing. The company’s ancestor Morane-Saulnier was established in 1911–eight years after the Wright brothers took to the air for the first time.

French family-run industrial group Daher, Socata’s current owner, is 150 years old itself. At the end of 2008, it acquired a 70-percent stake in Socata from the EADS group. The anniversary has been marked with a series of special events throughout 2011, but most notably by the introduction of a special centenary edition of its TBM 850 single turboprop business and utility aircraft.

It all started in October 1911 when Raymond Saulnier, claimed to be the first aeronautical engineer to publish a scientific treatise on airplane flight, began to put his research into practice with Léon Morane, already a famous pilot. Together with Léon's brother, Robert, they developed monoplanes with trapezoidal wings with performance far superior to the biplanes that were more in vogue at the time.

The canvas and wooden structures of Morane-Saulnier’s aircraft offered unrivaled quality of flight for the era. Their logo, superimposing the M of Morane and the S of Saulnier atop each other inside a circle, symbolized their partnership and the creation of one of the world’s first aerospace brands.

Milestone Flights

At the time, one of the ways a company established a reputation and won business was to set prestigious records, which is what many early aviation pioneers set about doing. With their achievements, Jules Védrines, Roland Garros, Albert Fronval, Marie-Louise “Maryse” Hilsz and many others contributed to Morane-Saulnier’s success by using the company’s aircraft in their flights. Roland Garros gave his name to the famous Paris Open tennis tournament, but in 1912 he gained fame as one of the pilots who demonstrated the merits of Morane-Saulnier aircraft. After setting a new world altitude record of almost 17,000 feet, he made the first successful crossing of the Mediterranean Sea aboard a Morane-Saulnier-built airplane.

MS aircraft subsequently accumulated 1,000 miles of flight during a number of historic maritime crossings,  boosting the idea that aviation could become an effective transportation tool. Among these milestone flights were the first crossing from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, performed with a MS airplane piloted by Domingo Rosillo in May 1913.

Some manufacturers already had experimented with high-wing monoplanes, and Morane-Saulnier emerged with a state-of-the-art version. Known as “Parasols” because of their unusual configuration, they were designed initially for reconnaissance missions. During World War I they were assigned to combat duties in 1915 and became the first fighter aircraft.

After the war, Parasols were designed as trainers that subsequently were used by pilots the world over. Parasols also acquired a reputation as highly capable aerobatic platforms and combat aircraft.

In 1932, the company’s design office conceived the MS 325, its first low-wing metal aircraft, which launched the MS 405, a revolutionary new fighter aircraft designed around the Hispano-Suiza V12 engine The MS 405 featured retractable landing gear, wing flaps and a variable-pitch propeller. It became the first aircraft ever to be equipped with an ejectable sliding canopy, a patent adopted by many manufacturers.

In 1935, the MS 405 prototype, in its maiden flight, reached a speed of almost 260 knots, impressing the military pilots responsible for assessing the new aircraft. More than 1,000 MS 406 production aircraft were built during its manufacturing run but the aircraft suffered big losses against the more modern Messerschmitt Bf-109s it faced in 1940. During World War II Morane-Saulnier came under German control and built several German-type aircraft, including the Fieseler Storch, known after the war as the MS 500.

Develops the Paris Jet

The company’sinitial activity as an aerospace equipment supplier began in the 1940s with the construction of elements for the Dassault 315, followed by fuselages and wings for the Fouga Magister. In 1954 it developed the MS 760 (the Paris Jet), the first four-seat jet with two engines mounted on either side of a pressurized cabin. It quickly attained a speed of 340 knots. In the same year, Diomède Catroux, the new French secretary of state for aviation, used the MS 760 for a trip to Germany with the flight from Paris completed in under an hour–considered a revolution in intra-European transportation.

Four years earlier, the group started to provide services with the packaging of replacement parts for Dassault’s Super Mystère SMB2. Over the years this activity expanded to include packaging of complete aircraft for shipment, with the group developing innovative woven glass and polyester resin shuttle packs for the most fragile parts.

The first aircraft sold as a Socata–the French abbreviation for “Société de Construction d’Avions de Tourisme et d’Affaires” (business and leisure aircraft construction company)–was the “Rallye,” in 1959. The aircraft’s wing ribs were electrically welded to a skin made of large aluminum panels for a maximum industrialization of the assembly process that quickly achieved a production rate of 50 aircraft per month.

The product’s image was supported by an advertising slogan that stressed both the low cost and remarkable safety of this light aircraft, “Le kilomètre-sécurité le moins cher,” (the most effective for cost and safety per kilometer).About 3,300 Rallyes comprising 34 different models were exported to nearly 65 countries. To accompany these developments, the company established after-sales service, laying the foundation for future maintenance, repair and overhaul contracts.

Socata Born in 1966

In January 1962, Morane-Saulnier was take over by Potez and became SEEMS and, in 1966, its civilian models were spun off to form Socata. This company was subsequently purchased by Aérospatiale, one of the companies that later became part of EADS, which has retained a 30-percent holding in Socata.

Morane-Saulnier’s industrial activity developed with the production of airframe elements for other aircraft makers, marking the start of aerostructures manufacturing as an important component of its business. The business grew strongly to include, for example, production of Section 16 for the supersonic Concorde jetliner in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Daher, which previously had shipped engines for the early Caravelle jetliner, became very much involved with the newly created Airbus consortium, transporting rear sections of Europe’s pioneering A300 medium-haul widebody aircraft, as well the Concorde’s landing gear.

With the market for light business airplanes dominated by U.S. manufacturers, Socata’s single-engine turboprop TBM 700, designed to carry six or seven passengers in a pressurized cabin and capable of operating from relatively short runways, became the first European aircraft to penetrate this segment when it achieved certification in 1990. The announcement in 2005 of the introduction of Socata’s TBM 850–as the so-called very fast turboprop–built on the success of the TBM 700 to meet the challenge of the very light jet and gave the manufacturer a much-needed boost after a stagnation of its aircraft sales in 2003 and 2004.

The commercial success of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-66D-powered TBM 850 has sustained activity in Daher-Socata’s aerostructures programs. It may also have paved the way for Daher-Socata to enter the jet age,  a concept for which the French firm is currently evaluating its options.