The Dassault Aviation Story (Part 1)

Pioneers of innovative technology in Military and Business Aviation

Rod Simpson  |  22nd November 2016
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    Rod Simpson
    Rod Simpson

    Rod Simpson is a specialist freelance aviation writer and is the author of several aviation-related...

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    Dassault Falcon 7X Jet

    Rod Simpson reflects on the passion and technology of a unique aircraft company founded by Marcel Dassault, an industrialist who manufactured propellers for World War I fighters but had never been aloft until the conclusion of World War II.

    As you travel in the soft comfort of a cream leather seat in your Falcon 7X, high above the French countryside, it is hard to appreciate your connection with the helmeted Dassault Rafale pilot flying 10,000 feet above you.

    Dassault’sYet, your Falcon and his jet fighter are the product of 70 years of innovation from a design team that has little equal in the world of Business Aviation. Today, Dassault’s expertize encompasses the most advanced aerospace systems, but also ranges far from classic aviation to include 3D Printing, space technology, computerized design tools, unmanned aircraft - and much more.

    Let’s go back to the beginning. Company founder, Marcel Dassault returned from German wartime imprisonment to re-establish his aircraft manufacturing company that had been a successful pre-war builder of Bloch airliners, and before that, Bloch propellers. Not surprisingly, the first new products of Dassault were Flamant light transports for the French Air Force, but the company had experience of fighter design with its MB-152, 700 of which had been built in the early years of the war.

    Marcel Dassault was soon enthused by the opportunities offered by jet engines for fighter aircraft. 

    Dassault’s mantra was "effectiveness with simplicity", and the first fighter design—named the Ouragan—to come from his team had a fuselage just big enough to contain a Nene jet engine with a nose intake and rear tailpipe.

    The key to the Ouragan’s performance was its low-set swept thin-section wing - which meant that fuel had to be contained in wingtip tanks. The Ouragan was a great success, and it served efficiently with the French and Israeli air forces.

    Dassault’s team moved on rapidly with new developments of the Ouragan. Their follow-on design, the Mystére, was the result of much research into swept wings together with the use of ever more powerful engines.

    The immediate goal was to go supersonic - which the French designers achieved with the Mystére IIC, first flown by test pilot Kostia Rozanoff. Fitted with a Rolls-Royce Tay 250 engine, one of the Mystére prototypes broke the sound barrier in October, 1952. The subsequent Mystére IVA, which initially was fitted with the Tay but subsequently was powered by the Hispano-Suiza Verdon 350 variant on the Tay engine, had a new and thinner wing with a 38-degree sweep enabling the aircraft to achieve a top speed of Mach 1.2.

    The Mystere IVA went into production and positioned the French Air Force in the forefront of military aviation at a time when the Cold War was in everyone’s minds. Attendees at the 1951 Paris Air Show made special mention of the smooth finish of the aircraft resulting from Dassault’s extreme attention to detail and extracting top performance through meticulous manufacturing processes.

    Continued Progress

    The next challenge for Dassault was to produce an aircraft for the Aéronavale (French Navy) that would have supersonic performance - but suitable low speed handling to allow it to operate from the aircraft carriers Clémenceau and Foch. This requirement forced the designers to produce virtually a completely new model - although it borrowed much from the Mystére IVA and its many derivatives.

    By this time the Whitcomb-designed "area rule" or "Coke-bottle" fuselage came into vogue, and Dassault applied Whitcomb’s principles to its new Etendard fighter jet. This aircraft had a larger wing area than the Mystére, folding outer wing panels for carrier storage, a beefed up undercarriage and complex flaps to facilitate carrier operation.

    Once again, the Dassault team had come up with a winning formula, and the Etendard and its successor, the Super Etendard, served for many years, including operations with the Argentine Navy in the Falklands War, with the last Super Etendard only being retired in 2016.

    In 1969, Dassault and Breguet merged and from that date became the only combat aircraft supplier to the French military. By that time, Dassault had further refined its fighter products with the Super Mystére. Soon a brand new concept emerged with the Mystére-Delta.

    Again, it came from the company "religion" to achieve simplicity. 

    The Delta wing allowed a very high degree of sweep-back, reducing supersonic drag and easing the buffet at transitional sonic speeds, while maintaining wing area.

    The delta configuration also made it possible to eliminate the tailplane and fit elevator surfaces to the trailing edge. Overall, the concept allowed an elegant and lightweight structure while maintaining good stability and maneuverability. The end result was two aircraft - the Mirage III and the Mirage IV.

    The Mirage IIIA, which first flew in May, 1958 was able to fly at Mach 2.0 and made headlines by breaking the World closed circuit speed record at 1,100mph. Subsequent versions of the Mirage III raised the top speed to Mach 2.4, and numerous variants were sold to customers worldwide from more than a dozen countries.

    The other aircraft, the Mirage IV, which first flew in June 1959, was based on the same design philosophy. It was a larger Mach 2.2 twin-engined strategic bomber designed for France’s "Force de Frappe" and capable of delivering large 50-kiloton nuclear weapons.

    It is characteristic of Dassault’s flexible attention to innovation that the highly successful Mirage III should see constant modification and upgrading. For instance, the Swiss Air Force sought improved maneuverability for their Mirage III fleet, and Dassault responded by developing the Milan which featured retractable canard surfaces mounted in the forward fuselage ahead of the cockpit. These "moustaches" were successful in lowering takeoff and landing speeds, shortening takeoff distance and improving the load-carrying capacity of the aircraft. Fixed canard surfaces would be featured on several later Dassault fighters.

    Venture into VTOL

    As early as 1954, the French air ministry had been taking interest in vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) combat aircraft. Several companies came up with outlandish concepts that used a variety of techniques including tilting wingtip engines and tail-sitting aircraft. As it turned out, Dassault offered the most practical solution that was selected for further development, employing a combination of fixed lift engines and a separate turbojet for forward propulsion.

    To test the concept, the airframe of the Mirage III prototype was converted to become the Mirage Balzac V, which used eight Rolls-Royce RB.108 lift engines mounted in the center fuselage and a tail-mounted Bristol Orpheus for conventional flight. It flew in vertical mode in October 1962, with the first transition to forward flight the following March.

    The VTOL Mirage Balzac presented many challenges, not least that it was very difficult to control laterally, a characteristic that probably led to the aircraft crashing and killing its pilot in the following year. Although the design prototype was rebuilt, it suffered another fatal accident and the design was scrapped.

    However, Dassault did not give up, and its next VTOL experiment was the Mirage IIIV, two prototypes of which were tested. In many respects this was a successful design. In level flight the aircraft had a top speed of Mach 2.0, but the difficulties of development led to its abandonment - although Dassault had pioneered many new techniques that would be useful for future designs.

    Yet another cutting edge program was the development of swing wings for combat aircraft.

    In the United States the General Dynamics F-111 had flown in 1964 as the first practical application of variable geometry wings; at the same time Dassault was working with British Aircraft Corporation on the design of a swing-wing fighter (the AFVG) to equip the British and French navies and the French Air Force. As it turned out, the cooperation soured between British and French partners, and Dassault pulled out - but the project was to result in a new consortium that built the variable geometry Panavia Tornado.

    Despite this, Dassault pressed ahead on its own and, in 1967, built the Mirage G prototype, which had wings that would sweep to as much as 70-degrees, giving the aircraft a top speed of Mach 2.2. This program, which involved complex challenges related to the structure of the main wing box, progressed through several prototypes.

    By 1971 the Mirage G8 was in flight test. However, the French Air Force lost interest in variable geometry and the rest of Europe was committed to the Tornado.

    Sensing a New Market

    Up to this point, Dassault had been a strictly military manufacturer. Marcel Dassault, however, was well aware that the civil aviation market had promising opportunities and diversification would be a wise move in view of the uncertainty of large military orders. Back in 1954 the company had done studies on the Mediterranée twin jet liaison aircraft, but suitable jet engines were not available.

    In 1962, attracted by the emerging business jet market and with new jet engines such as the Pratt & Whitney JT12 becoming available, the company commenced studies of a new light transport, dubbed Mystére XX, which would use much of the technical knowledge gleaned from Dassault’s military programs.

    The decision was a gamble because this was a private venture without the safety net of French Government development contracts. As with Dassault’s fighters, the aircraft would have a flawless external skin and the lightest possible airframe using a combination of milled components and alloy box sections.

    On May 4th, 1963 the elegant Mystére XX made its first flight, laying the ground for the range of Falcons that we know today.

    For the design team, this was a new experience to produce a fail-safe structure with a fatigue life of more than 30,000 hours and without any life limited parts. It was to be designed to quite different FAR Part 25 certification conditions than military fighters and needed to be a luxurious aircraft with performance and comfort to attract a very discerning clientele.

    It would include a fully pressurized cabin, de-icing for the wings and tail, a sophisticated flight deck with integration of the latest avionics, and the ability to operate out of demanding airports. Dassault engineers also had to take account of the many roles the aircraft would fulfil - not just executive transportation but also as an air ambulance, cargo aircraft, feeder liner, crew trainer, airways calibration - and military tasks including weapons system training.

    In fact, the Mystére XX (soon renamed Falcon 20) was an outstanding design that was flexible enough to accept different engines when turbofans became available, could be converted as a freighter for Federal Express and be fitted with hardpoints for its military roles.

    New Era of Technology

    Back in the military design office, the pressure for a successor to the Mirage III was on. In the mid-1970s Dassault studied an "Avion de Combat Futur", but eventually returned to the drawing board with a new and less complex delta - the Mirage 2000. For the first time, the aircraft would have fly-by-wire (FBW) controls with electronic actuation replacing conventional control rods and wires.

    This concept took the design team into a wholly new area of technology - one that would be well adapted to the civil aircraft market. The Mirage 2000, which flew in March, 1978, would also be the first aircraft to have extensive use of glass-fiber composites in the airframe in order to reduce weight. The Mirage 2000 in its single and two-seat variants remains a key component of the French air defense line-up.

    At the same time the Mirage 2000 was getting into the air, the French government launched a new program entitled ACT (Avion de Combat Tactique). Once again, this effort was envisaged as a multi-nation cooperative project, but no agreement emerged between the different air forces concerned and Dassault went ahead with an aircraft that would become the Rafale.

    In 1984 a new design program was launched that took Dassault into entirely new territory. Gone were slide rules and drafting tables because Rafale would be the first aircraft to use the new CATIA computer aided design and manufacturing system (CAD/CAM) developed by Dassault. This was a quantum leap forward and, as we will see, established the foundation for the company diversifying into a completely fresh field of information technology-led businesses outside the aviation field.

    By the early 1990s, Dassault was involved in space exploration, flight simulators, engineering software development, stealth technology and much more. It was a far cry from the manufacturing of the 1940s but continued the dreams and philosophies established by the founder - Marcel Dassault.

    Benefiting from Heritage

    Business Aviation has been the beneficiary of Marcel Dassault’s embrace of technology and love affair with clean lines. Falcons were the first civil aircraft to use supercritical wing designs (Falcon 10), area rule (Falcon 50 and 900) and fly-by-wire control systems (Flacon 7X).

    Computer aided design was employed with the development of the Falcon 10 and all subsequent Dassault designs, and Dassault’s CATIA system was used broadly by other airframe manufacturers throughout the world. The aviation world owes much to a creative man who contributions are enduring.

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