• News
  • Europe: flying in formation

Europe: flying in formation

From Farman to Fokker, Messerschmitt to Matra, the list of EADS's forebears is a roll call of some of Europe's greatest names in aircraft manufacturing

EADS is the world's second-largest aerospace company and the largest in Europe. It is the outcome of a series of integrations, mergers and takeovers that occurred over decades, finally yielding the rationalisation of continental Europe's aerospace industry.

Its current success - revenues of €30.1 billion ($24.9 billion) in 2003 and forecast profits of €1.93 billion this year - might be attributed to the strength of a company that has its roots in every area of aviation and every corner of Europe. While the national industries of France, Germany and Spain that came together to create EADS each had their own rich aerospace heritage, the activities in which EADS is involved bring in the industries of Belgium, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK, plus Australia, Canada and the USA.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of powered flight, and the Wright brothers' success in the USA, but the true pioneers of aviation were European: the Montgolfier brothers took to the air in their hot-air balloon in 1782 and Leonardo da Vinci designed several flying machines in the late 1400s.

In July 1900 European aviation became a visible reality when Count von Zeppelin flew his LZ-1 rigid airship, a design that gave rise to the first airborne heavy bombers used against England and France in the First World War. But it was the search for fully controllable heavier-than-air machines that motivated pioneers such as Otto Lilienthal, whose glider flew a short hop in 1889, joining the Wright brothers at what was truly the dawn of aviation.


The first aircraft factory in France was founded by Louis Blériot and Gabriel Voison in 1905 and was followed by around 30 more in the years leading up to and following the First World War. Blériot's crossing of the English channel in a Blériot XI in 1909 not only broke a major physical barrier, but also led to the world's first series production of aircraft in large numbers.

In 1936 the French armament industry was nationalised and six state-owned aviation companies were formed out of the original 30, uniting many of the great names including Blériot, Bloch, Dyle et Bacalan and Nieuport Delage, the latter having produced thousands of the much valued Nieuport XI Bébé fighters.

After the Second World War, one of the group of six, SNCASE, took over Bloch's pre-war designs and later produced a family of turbine helicopters. They included the Alouette, Gazelle and Puma, built at its factory at Marignane in the south of France where today Eurocopter, an EADS company, has its headquarters.

Sud Aviation, created from four of the original six nationalised companies, became one of the three state-owned companies which were to form Aerospatiale in 1970. The other two were Nord Aviation and nuclear missiles specialist SEREB. Sud Aviation later came into the international limelight as industrial leader for France's stake in the Concorde supersonic airliner.

One of the most significant enterprises to be absorbed into Sud Aviation, in 1965, was Morane-Saulnier, which flew into the history books in 1913 when Roland Garros piloted a Morane-Saulnier H across the Mediterranean - from Fréjus in France to Bizerte, Tunisia - in less than 8h. The company built thousands of aircraft in the First World War, many of which remained in service with the French air force in 1939.

Nord Aviation's forebears included Potez, founded by Henri Potez in 1919, which built the fastest civil airliner of its time, the 150kt (280km/h) Potez 62, used by Air France on European and South American routes. Other companies absorbed into Nord Aviation included Pélabon-Les-Mureaux, CAMS, Latham and Farman, the latter responsible for thousands of fighter and reconnaissance aircraft between 1914 and 1918.

Another Nord predecessor, Arsenal de l'Aeronautique developed several record-breaking aircraft after the Second World War, including the ramjet-powered N1500 Griffon which reached 1,255kt (2,320 km/h).

The formation of Aerospatiale in 1970 created an entity of 40,000 employees with four divisions: aircraft, helicopters, tactical missiles, plus ballistic missiles and space transport systems. From here, co-operation became the norm, not only on Concorde but through the ATR regional aircraft consortium formed with Italy's Alenia. In 1992 Eurocopter was formed with Germany's Dasa. Euromissile was founded with Dasa forerunner MBB in 1972, and Eurosam was formed in 1989 with Thomson-CSF and Alenia to develop the Aster missile system.

Besides its satellite interests, Aerospatiale was also a founder member of the international Arianespace consortium responsible for the Ariane satellite launcher. Significantly, the 1970 formation of the Airbus consortium paved the way for the incorporation of the civil aerospace industries of France, Germany and Spain into EADS.

The second major element which France bought to EADS, via the Matra-Aerospatiale alliance, was privately owned Matra. Founded in 1945 by Marcel Chassagny, the company became a major supplier of air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, developing the world's first infrared seeker head and a range of highly successful missiles, including the Magic and Mica. Matra also pursued international alliances, including Matra BAe Dynamics in 1966. Teaming with Aerospatiale led to development of the Apache stand-off missile, forerunner of the Franco-British Scalp/Storm Shadow, Europe's first cruise missile.

In space, Matra specialised in satellites, forming Matra Espace in 1986 and merging with Marconi Space systems in 1989 to form Matra Marconi Space, Europe's first integrated space company and, after acquiring British Aerospace's space activities in 1994, its largest satellite manufacturer.

In the early 1990s, Matra merged with Hachette and was integrated into the Lagardère Group holding company, from which Matra Hautes Technologies emerged in 1995 and was merged in 1999 with Aerospatiale to form Aerospatiale Matra.


The story of Germany's aerospace industry is also one of famous names associated with the dawn of aviation being gradually absorbed into ever-larger enterprises.

One of the oldest German aerospace companies, Dornier, is now a corporate unit of EADS producing military and civil training systems. Following its birth as a department in the Zeppelin airship factory, established in 1914, Dornier's focus shifted to all-metal flying boats, built and launched on the shores of Lake Constance. The company was closely controlled by founder Claude Dornier and steadfastly declined to join the trend for partnerships and mergers following the post-war rebirth of the German aerospace industry. Among Dornier's claims to fame was the 12-engined Do X flying boat. Built in 1929, the largest aircraft then flying, it carried passengers in ultimate comfort. Dornier also built the world's only vertical take-off and landing jet transport, the Do 31, and later the highly successful 16-seat Dornier 228 commuter and utility aircraft.

In 1962 Dornier expanded into systems technology, through the creation of Dornier System, and entered its first major international partnership by joining in development of the Dassault-Breguet Atlantic maritime patrol aircraft. The two companies then co-operated on the Alpha Jet trainer. A majority stake in Dornier was acquired by Daimler Benz in 1985 as part of the consolidation of the German aerospace industry.

The main vehicle for consolidation was Messerschmitt Bolkow Blohm (MBB), which arose from the merging of four groups of aviation and other companies. The two most significant were Flugzeug-Union-Sud, comprising Messerschmitt, Heinkel and Junkers; and Vereinigte Flugtechnische Werke (VFW), which included companies such as Albatros, Focke-Wulfe, Rohrbach and Weserflugzeugbau.

Another famous European name, Fokker, resulted from Dutchman Antony Fokker's decision to establish his first factory in Germany, in 1912, which soon became the country's largest aircraft manufacturer. Fokker moved to Amsterdam after the First World War, producing many successful aircraft. Dasa took a majority share in Fokker in 1993, but the company fell into bankruptcy three years later. Elements were taken over by Stork Aerospace, a subsidiary of which, Stork Fokker, became a major supplier to EADS and Airbus.

Consolidation of the industry continued with the formation in 1989 of Deutsche Aerospace (Dasa) as a subsidiary of Daimler-Benz, bringing together MBB, Dornier, engine manufacturer MTU and two divisions of AEG.

MTU had itself been taken over by Daimler-Benz four years earlier, its Munich-based turbine engine division having formed partnerships with other engine companies, notably with Japanese Aero Engines, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce in the International Aero Engines venture, which produces the V2500 powerplant for the Airbus A320 series of aircraft.

Another important contributor to German aerospace was Telefunken Systemtechnik (TST), which dates from 1903. The company set up one of the first worldwide telecommunications networks and later, as a 100% subsidiary of AEG, developed new radar technologies and produced the ubiquitous type RV 12 receiving tubes. In 1985 Daimler-Benz acquired a majority share in AEG, which was later incorporated into Dasa.

The German component of Airbus was formed in 1969 between MBB, with 60%, and Dornier and VFW with 20% each. On its 1970 formation, Airbus Industrie was a 50-50 Franco-German joint venture, although Spanish and British partners later joined as minority shareholders.

Daimler-Benz's merger with the US Chrysler corporation in 1998 created DaimlerChrysler Aerospace, which finally merged with Aerospatiale Matra and CASA to become EADS. MTU, however, remained part of DaimlerChrysler.


Spain's aviation industry and Construcciones Aeronauticas Sociedad Anonima (CASA) are synonymous. CASA was formed in 1923 by a group of aviation pioneers, a year later beginning licenced production of the French Breguet XIX.

The formation of CASA is linked to aviation pioneer José Ortiz de Echagüe, known as Don José and the first Spaniard to fly military aircraft. CASA's first factory was built at Getafe, near its Madrid headquarters, where an initial 26 Breguet XIXs were produced for the Spanish air force, followed by contracts for a further 177 up to 1934.

In 1926 CASA acquired a licence to produce the Dornier Do J Wal seaplane, building 28 aircraft for the Spanish air force, navy and civil operators at its Cadiz site, which today produces components for Airbus and Eurofighter. CASA also licence-built the British Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bomber, powered by the Hispano-Suiza HS600 engine.

CASA began producing its own designs in the 1930s and continued licence-building others, including the Russian Polikarpov 1-15 and German Bücker Bu131, Junkers Ju2 and Heinkel He 111.

The company's most successful aircraft is the C-212 light transport, followed by the larger CN-235. The company also assembled 75 Northrop F-5s for the air force and, after joining the Airbus consortium in 1971, built up considerable experience in composites.

Today CASA has around 8,000 employees and, besides designing and manufacturing major components for Airbuses and the Eurofighter, has a significant role in European Space Agency programmes, international telecommunication satellites and European military spacecraft. CASA also produces 3% of every Ariane launcher. The company will host the final assembly line for the A400M European military transport.



Related Content