In 1947, the French government launched a competition to design the first jet fighter for the French Navy’s air arm, L’Aéronavale. This was to be a fast interceptor, capable of 900 kmph maximum speed and a climb rate of 25 meters per second. It was to be able to make low-speed short take-offs and landings for carrier duties.
The competition resulted in the adoption of three designs: NC-1080, Nord 2200 and Arsenal VG-90. All were single-seaters and single-engined. They had slightly swept wings and were to be equipped with machineguns, bombs and missiles.
Unarmed prototypes were ordered of each design. All were equipped with the Nene 102 engine, of 2,270 kg thrust.
The NC-1080 was the first of the contestants to reach the flight line. Built by the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Centre (SNCAC) at its Issy-les-Moulineaux plant, the NC-1080 was designed by the company’s chief engineer Charles Pillon. It was 12,9 m long, with a 12 m wingspan, weighed 4,840 kg empty and 7,800 kg ready for take-off. Its side intakes, ahead of the leading edge, were euipped with a laminar flow control through suction. It incorporated triple-curve flaps and airbrakes but with spoilers replacing ailerons.
Rolled out at the Issy-les-Moulineaux plant, the NC-1080 registered F-WFZK was trucked to the airfield of Toussus-le-Noble, in early March 1949 where company chief test pilot Fernand Lasne began taxi trials on 23 June 1949 and made the first runway hop two days later.
These early test runs uncovered a certain degree of lateral instability, which made engineers elongate the rudder and fit endplates to the wingtips.
In July, this aircraft was ferried to the test base of Réau-Villaroche for its first flight, after the initial taxi trials and static runs had been consummated. Ironically, that month SNCAC merged completely with Nord, who allowed the project to continue.
In the morning of Friday 29 July 1949, Fernand Lasne made the first full take-off of NC-1080, France’s ninth jet-powered aircraft. The take-off, on Runway 29, was normal, but Lasne was shocked to discover, once airborne, that the spoilers were completely useless and that no action on the stick could swerve the aircraft left or right. The aircraft was not equipped with radio and Lasne could not inform ground control of his predicament. Fortunately, the flight test center (CEV) of Brétigny lay ahead and Lasne managed a safe landing on its Runway 30 despite some air turbulence, eight minutes after take-off. The fact that Lasne managed a safe landing at all is a tribute to his superlative piloting skills. To reach Runway 30, he had to make two 20° turns in an aircraft that could not be swerved.
As a result of this incident, the aircraft was grounded at Brétigny where spoilers were replaced by conventional ailerons and the air intakes laminar flow system was deleted.
With the modifications completed, Lasne flew the aircraft back to Villaroche on 16 December 1949. There he made five flights in January 1950, nine flights in February and five flights in March. Modification work had continued between flights and on 31 March, (Flight 20) when Lasne flew the aircraft to Brétigny for tests by the government’s test pilots, it was equipped with servo controls, making the ailerons entirely satisfactory.
At Brétigny, a CEV program was drafted and included familiarization flights and minimum speed investigations, stalls, handling and compressibility investigation flights at 6,000 m by government and contractor pilots. A Junkers Ju-88 and a SIPA S-11 were to be the chase aircraft.
Jean Sarrail made the first CEV flight on Thursday 6 April 1950. Test pilot Pierre Gallay, from Nord Aviation (with which SNCAC had merged) took off next, in the evening of Friday 7 April, on Flight 22, for a mission of familiarization and low altitude display. Fifteen minutes later, while at 3,000 m altitude, the NC-1080 went into a spin. The anti-spin parachute was deployed but was torn off. Some witnesses said the aircraft seemed to shed some pieces in flight. It crashed to destruction in the Sablière forest, in Ballancourt, 10 km south-east of Brétigny. Pierre Gallay was killed.
As no other NC-1080 prototype had been built, for economy reasons, the project was terminated. Total flying time was approximately 14 hours.
The next prototype to take to the air was the Arsenal VG-90, of which two were built. It was designed by Vernisse and Galier.
The VG-90 was of slightly bigger dimensions than the NC-1080, but was the most complicated of the three designs. It weighed 5.2 tons empty and 8.1 tons fully loaded. Built of thin metal monocoque, the VG-90 was remarkable for its clean lines, sleek fuselage, mid-mounted wings and wide landing gear. It had a heated and ventilated cockpit, and its Nene 102 engine was fed from crescent shaped shallow air intakes on the fuselage sides behind the wing leading edge.
Rolled out at the Châtillon-sous-Bagneux plant of the Arsenal de l’Aéronautique company, VG-90-01 was trucked to Melun-Villaroche.
Chief test pilot Modeste Vonner made the first flight on 27 September 1949, escorted by a German Ju-88 flown by test pilot Pierre Decroo. During the 15-minute sortie, the landing gear and flaps were not retracted. The same configuration was maintained for the second flight, also by Vonner, on 2 December. During the third flight, Vonner reported that the airbrakes extended by their own initiative, which made the company change their shape. Some time later, Vonner was seriously injured in the crash of a Ju-88, which killed his flight engineer. Arsenal’s other test pilot Decroo had not yet trained on jet flight, and the CEV was asked to send a pilot. Major Paul Boudier was seconded to Arsenal and made 6 flights between 14 March and 5 April 1950. Ferried to CEV Brétigny on 10 May, the aircraft was flown by Jacques Sarrail who achieved the highest speed of the aircraft: Mach .845, at 5,500 m altitude. Meanwhile Pierre Decroo had completed his jet initiation and now took up the completion of the contractor test program.
On 25 May 1950 in the afternoon, Decroo took off from Brétigny on an envelope expansion flight on the VG-90. At 1,500 m, near the end of the flight, the aircraft spun seven times and crashed, the right wing hitting the ground first, at Harolles-en-Hurepoix. Decroo did not use his Martin Baker ejection seat and was killed. It was Flight 48 of the aircraft, and total flying time was 35 hours. It was surmised that the airbrakes actuated spontaneously during a high-speed run, were torn off and struck the horizontal tail assembly, causing the loss of control.
The second VG-90 was almost complete when the first aircraft crashed.
VG-90-02 began test hops in August 1950 and made its official first flight in June 1951. It came close to achieving Mach 1, when it went faster than 900 kmph in level flight.
On 21 February 1952, at 12:24, Claude Dellys took off from Melun-Villaroche, escorted by the Ju-88, to transport the VG-90-02 to the main CEV base at Istres to continue tests started at Melun-Villaroche. Flying at 800 kmph, Dellys radioed at 12:40 that all was well. Minutes later, due to compressibility-induced violent flutter, the aircraft broke up in mid air. Dellys tried to eject but his seat apparently failed and he was killed. The aircraft crashed near the village of Cipsy. The VG-90 project was terminated.
Nord 2200, the third prototype, was designed by engineer Alain Buret. It was equipped with a low cantilever wing and its Nene 102 engine was fed by a nose air intake. Only one Nord 2200 was built. Rolled out at the SNCAN plant at Issy-les-Moulineaux, F-WFRD was ferried to Melun-Villaroche. The first static engine run was carried out on 29 October 1949. The first taxi test was carried out by Pierre Gallay, on 10 November 1949. The first flight was made on 16 December by Claude Chautemps, the company’s flight test director. This flight lasted 25 minutes, with the landing gear remaining in the extended position. Only one more flight was made that year, on 21 December. It lasted 43 minutes. The landing gear was first retracted during Flight 3, on 6 January 1950.
The aircraft put up a flying display for French and British officers on 6 February 1950 and Pierre Gallay made his first Nord 2200 flights on 6 and 15 March. The aircraft was taken to CEV Brétigny on 31 March, and Captain Roger Carpentier made the first CEV flight on 7 April 1950. The aircraft was tested at the CEV in April-May, and it exhibited generally acceptable flying qualities and could achieve 930 kmph (Mach .82) in a dive but only 815 kmph in a level run, due to its size and excessive drag, and was found to be underpowered. Its maximum climb was 15 meters per second.
Returned to Villaroche on 5 June, the aircraft took part in the Orly Air Show on 11 June 1950, in the company of other French prototypes, such as the SO.6000 Triton, SO-6020 Espadon, SO-M2 and Leduc 010.
On 24 June, the aircraft was taking off on its Flight 56 when an accidental fire and an explosion in the aircraft filled the cockpit with smoke and forced the pilot to abandon take-off. The fire was put down quickly but the damages forced the aircraft to be grounded for several months. Repaired, it flew again in April 1951, but it could never go faster than Mach .85. It was grounded from July 1951 to March 1952 for modifications that included the installation of a servo-control system as well as the redesign and enlargement of the vertical tail. An AI radar scanner was installed in a swollen lip above the nose intake. Flight trials resumed on 12 March 1952 with Flight 75 and the aircraft was used as a flying testbed for aerodynamic control surfaces. Nord 2200 had logged 96 flights by the end of 1952..
CEV pilot Major Marcel Perrin made Flight 100 on 25 February 1953. Other flights were made by CEV pilots Michel Marias and Roger Carpentier. RATO tests were initiated on 22 June 1953 with Cheautemps at the controls (Flight 107). The aircraft took part in the flying display at Le Bourget that year, making RATO take-offs. Returned to Villaroche, it flew sparsely, its last flight of 1953 being Flight 115 on 13 November. Flights 120 and 121 were the last flights and were made by Claude Chautemps, on 16 June 1954.
By early 1951, it had become clear that none of the three naval fighter contestants could be made into a successful operational type with reasonable expenditure of money and effort. Consequently, a license built version of the British de Havilland Sea Venom was chosen. It was designated Aquillon, and 101 aircraft (including 5 prototypes) were built.
Advanced versions of the VG-90 were considered but remained paper bound. These include the VG-90 ground support variant, the VG-91 Naval version with SNECMA ATAR 101C of 2,800 kg thrust, the VG-92 with the Nene II, the VG-93 with Nene II plus ramjet, and the VG-94 which was a VG-90 with afterburner.
© Henry Matthews 2012
Picture credits: Jacques Noetinger, Philippe Ricco, Jean Lacroze