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Icons & Innovations: Dassault: Aviation's Building Bloch

Michelle Seaton

Although Marcel Bloch never learned to fly, he had a pilot’s passion for the emerging science of flight. Bloch’s first job after graduating from the École Supérieure d’Aéronautique in 1913 was to design better propellers for several biplanes flying over the battlefields of World War I.
 
It was the ideal job for Bloch, who loved to hang around airfields and watch the pilots testing new planes.  Occasionally he would ride along with the pilots and encourage them to buzz treetops so he could watch the wildlife scatter. Bloch interviewed the pilots about each aircraft’s performance—its feel—and memorized the specs of every plane in production. Soon, he could look at a plane sitting on the ground and know how it would fly. He began to redesign the cockpits to make them more efficient for the pilot and gunner. In 1917, he developed his own design for a two-seater fighter, but armistice ended the French government’s appetite for warbirds.

After the war, civil aviation came to a halt in France. For the next 12 years, Bloch built and sold houses to support himself, while dreaming of airplanes to build. He saw the designs coming out of Italy and the United States, even Germany, and wondered why planes still were constructed on wooden frames covered by canvas. He longed to build an airplane out of steel, with heavy wings that could cut through turbulence and give pilots better control. Some would have become bitter by this waiting, but Bloch always said that it was this setback that ensured his success. “This period taught me many things that people who have the luck (or bad luck) to succeed too early and too fast are never able to learn,” he wrote in his 1969 autobiography, The Talisman.

In 1930, after he had assembled a team of engineers, Bloch received a contract from the French government to build a long-range mail carrier. His prototype awed the first pilots to fly it, but the Air Ministry never ordered a single one, asking instead for a new air ambulance. Bloch rented a factory and produced the ambulance prototype with his own money. Next he made a transport plane and then a small twin-engine commuter airliner. What he wanted to build was a fighter, but he could not interest the Air Ministry in such an aircraft.

When Paris fell in 1940, German pilots seized one of Bloch’s transport planes, the four-engine Languedoc 161. They flew it back to Germany, tested it, and reproduced it as a troop transport. Bloch learned that German aeronautical engineers wanted to hire him to design their fighters, and although he had escaped Paris and fled to unoccupied France, German government emissaries eventually found him. When Bloch refused their ultimatums, he was arrested and eventually deported to Buchenwald, where he contracted diphtheria and nearly died.

After the war, Bloch, still recovering from his illness, reestablished his business under a new name. He took the name Dassault—French for “the tank”—the alias that his brother Darius-Paul had used when he worked for the French Resistance during the war. As Marcel Dassault, Bloch began to envision airplanes again, this time with jet engines that could lift them to great heights and propel them at dizzying speeds. As always, the designs were in his head. From his home in Paris where he was convalescing, Bloch would send sketches to his factory in Merignac, near Bordeaux, to direct the engineers, who would send him photos of the planes as they were being built. After each test flight, Bloch would interview the pilots to learn from them exactly how the planes felt. In this way, he created the first French jet in 1949, then the first European jet to break the sound barrier in 1951, followed by the only jet ever to exceed Mach 2 in 1967. He created a family of fighters called the Mirage, an airliner called the Mercure, and a line of business jets called the Falcon series.

In his autobiography, Bloch writes about the luckiest moment of his life, when he found a four-leaf clover in Paris just before the city fell. Later, when he entered Buchenwald prison, his belongings were taken from him, including the wallet in which he kept the clover. After the war, he was summoned to a French government office, where his wallet was returned to him. To Bloch’s astonishment, it still contained the clover. “It was a favorable sign from Providence, to say the least,” he wrote.

That moment convinced Bloch that he had more to contribute. Although he was weak with post-diphtheria paralysis, he began to listen to his own ambition, something he called “the music of great tasks and endeavors.” It was a music he had first heard as a boy standing in his schoolyard. He remembered looking up at the buzzing and seeing a Wright brothers airplane circling the Eiffel Tower. It was a sound Bloch called “the singing of the future.”

The 7’s Up
the biggest concern that Dassault Aviation has about its new Falcon 7X is that it might become a victim of its own success. If all goes well and certification is granted as expected, the first customers will be receiving their airplanes by the end of this year. Unfortunately, the line for a new 7X is already four years long. Newly interested parties, those who wavered when the plane first was offered in 2004, those who initially balked at the $40 million price, or those just entering the long-range private jet market simply will have to wait. Dassault has more than 70 firm orders for the new 7X, which means that the earliest available delivery positions are at the end of 2009.
 
Jean Rosanvallon, president and CEO of Dassault Falcon Jet Corp., the business jet division of Dassault Aviation, worries about this wait. The company never has faced such a large back order so early, and Rosanvallon wonders if this will cause too much frustration for potential customers. “There is always some emotion in the purchase of an airplane,” he says. “To have to wait four years, even for an extraordinary airplane—that’s difficult.”
 
The 7X is indeed an extraordinary business jet. It has a range of more than 12 flight hours, and a maximum cruising speed of Mach 0.8. It has an active noise reduction system and soundproof galleys. The EASy flight deck, with its oversize screens and side joystick, makes pilots feel as though they are flying a fighter plane. The 7X is also the first business jet equipped with fly-by-wire technology; all of the plane’s hydraulics have been replaced by wires. The pilot flies the plane using the type of computer interface common on commercial jets. It smooths out the ride by making automatic corrections to fight turbulence.

The 7X also is extraordinary in ways that most owners may never appreciate. It was conceived and designed entirely on computer screens, as were the machine tools used to fashion the plane’s 50,000 individual parts. As a result, the electronic blueprints were so accurate that the company found only a handful of errors to correct when it built the prototype. Most manufacturers need to refine the production process continually, working out one bug after another while producing the first few dozen planes. However, Dassault engineers already have adjusted the blueprints to address all the problems so that the first airplane delivered to a customer is as perfect as it needs to be. This may be the key to solving the problem of delivery.

Rosanvallon says that the company plans to increase production beginning in 2008 from two to three airplanes per month. “But that’s pretty ambitious for a $40 million plane,” says Rosanvallon. No one at Dassault wants to sacrifice quality to serve ambition. Perhaps 7X customers will learn to appreciate anticipation.

Long Live the King
in 1960, business aviation was on the verge of dying in its infancy. The first generation of business jets, including the Sabreliner and Lockheed’s four-engine JetStar, were little more than modified troop transport planes with loud, slow engines and cramped interiors. As a result, corporations favored traveling on the less expensive and more comfortable commercial flights over owning private planes.

In France, Marcel Dassault (formerly Marcel Bloch), founder of Dassault Aviation, had a vision for an airplane that would be perfect for business travelers. It would have two powerful engines to give it speeds approaching Mach 1 and a range of more than 1,500 miles. It would have a fighter plane’s swept wing to bring maneuverability, and a commercial-style fuselage that would look beautiful on the outside while comfortably seating as many as eight passengers. It would be heavy enough to cut turbulence and fitted with enough insulation to muffle the engine noise. Dassault’s first sketch of this plane shows two additional innovations: club-style seating and a bathroom in the back.

At the same time Pan Am was hoping to launch a new business aviation division. The company enlisted Charles Lindbergh to find an airplane that corporations actually would buy. It was a long and frustrating search, but when Lindbergh came to Paris in 1963 to look at the Mystère 20, he sent a cable back to the home office that read, “We’ve got our bird.” Still, Pan Am executives urged Dassault to replace the Pratt & Whitney JT12 engines with the more powerful GE CF700s to increase the plane’s speed and range. Pan Am also wanted a longer fuselage and larger wings. Dassault readily agreed, and within 10 days, Pan Am had ordered 40 Mystères. Three months later, the company ordered 120 more.

However, the aircraft’s success was not certain. William Lear was rushing to market with a fighter plane he had reconfigured into a business jet, called the Learjet 23. It was fast, but it had a tiny, thin-skinned fuselage that made travelers feel as though they were strapped inside a rocket. And that early Learjet was infamously difficult to fly.

Nevertheless, in the American market, the key issue was speed. A successful business aircraft had to be faster than commercial jets and had to match the speed of the Learjet, which was rumored to be 500 mph. That question became moot when test pilot Jacqueline Auriol flew the first production model of the Mystère 20 in June 1965, in which she broke the world speed record, sustaining 534 mph for more than 600 miles (859 km/hr for 1,000 km). Days later she flew the second production model and sustained 508 mph for more than 1,200 miles, another record (819 km/hr for 2,000 km).

Next, Pan Am executives turned their attention to the name, which they felt was vague and difficult to pronounce. Someone suggested Baby Jet, but that fell flat. Jim Taylor, director of Pan Am’s business jets division, proposed the name Citation, but that seemed fussy. (Taylor later would find a use for the name when he became general manager at Cessna.) Finally, a marketing executive suggested the name Falcon, after the long-winged bird of prey. The Mystère 20 became the Fan Jet Falcon 20, touted in advertising copy as “the king of airplanes; the airplane of presidents.” Pan Am sold 300 of them in the U.S. market and pushed Dassault to create an entire family of aircraft, including the smaller and still faster Mystère 10, also known as the Falcon 10. By the end of the 1960s, the business aviation market was thriving, largely because of the popularity of the Falcon.

The original Falcon 20 is still a vital aircraft. About 100 of them have been refitted with new engines and new avionics and found a second life. Pilots love its maneuverability, its light touch. Passengers love the speed and smooth ride. Because Dassault began as a builder of military aircraft, its airframes are unusually durable. Federal Express flew the Falcon 20 in its first decade of business and put an average of 20,000 hours on each plane before the airframe began to show wear. Comparable business jets can endure just a fraction of that flight time. In 1969, Marcel Dassault marveled at the success of this one aircraft and remarked that the sun never sets on the wings of a Falcon 20. Perhaps it never will.

 

Dassault
www.dassault-aviation.com

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