The world’s first regional jet

France’s first foray into manufacturing jetliners, the Sud Aviation Caravelle also happened to be pioneering in a completely different way, as Key.Aero reveals 

While the rest of the world was still swooning over the de Havilland Comet, French airframer SNCASE was keen to produce a passenger aircraft that used the new-fangled jet propulsion technology but focused on the short- to medium-haul market. 

Thai Airways Caravelle
Thai Airways International operated a fleet of 15 examples which were leased from SAS. Wikimedia Commons/Lars Söderström

Development of what would become the Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelle began in the early 1950s after the manufacturer began making future Airbus-style alliances with international partners such as de Havilland and Rolls-Royce. 

The former provided the designs and components it had used for its own jet-powered airliner, while the latter supplied the Caravelle’s Avon turbojet engines. 

Setting the Precedent 

Being the world’s first regional jet meant that the Caravelle was responsible for carving out what one should look like. The distinctive rear-mounted engines and clean-wing design were some of its most notable benchmarks. 

The curved triangle-shaped windows were a distinctive aspect of the jet's design. Wikimedia Commons/Pedro Aragão

The design standards for the category of aircraft have remained largely the same since the Caravelle’s inception in the 1950s, with all the most successful examples mostly retaining the core design concepts pioneered by the French-built jet.  

SNCASE’s design for the aircraft licensed several fuselage features from the de Havilland Comet including the nose area and cockpit layout which were copied directly. The window shape was another distinctive design element as they were shaped as curved triangles, which were smaller than conventional ports but gave the same field of view downwards.

The rear-mounted engines and clean-wing design set the standard for future regional jets. Wikimedia Commons/Pedro Aragão

Instead of a T-tail design, which would become prevalent in later regional jets, the Caravelle featured a cruciform horizontal stabiliser which placed the surface above the jet blast created by the placement of the engines.   

The aft-mounted engine arrangement meant that in the event of engine failure, there was low asymmetric thrust. The clean-wing design was also ideal for high-lift devices. 

First Flight 

The first prototype, F-WHHH (c/n 01) was rolled out at Toulouse/Blagnac on April 21, 1955 and made its maiden flight five weeks later on May 27. Following an extensive flight test programme – which included general handling and more than 100 stalls in every configuration – the type was given its certificate of airworthiness on May 23, 1956. 

Swiss Air Caravelle
Swissair operated a fleet of nine Caravelles between 1960 and 1971. Wikimedia Commons/Lars Söderström

Even after receiving approval, authorities required 1,500 hours of route proving before the aircraft could enter service. On May 6, 1956, the second prototype F-WHHI (c/n 02) flew for the first time and immediately joined the first example on the test programme. 

At the time, Air France was the only airline to have committed to purchase the Caravelle – it ordered 12 of the type and options for a dozen more were taken out the following year. Despite this initial success, no more orders came its way until 18 months later – which was surprising, as it had no jet competition and it nearest rivals were the slower Vickers Viscount and Convair CV-440. 

Vickers Viscount
Although it didn't have any jet competitors, the Caravelle's main rival was the British-built Vickers Viscount. Wikimedia Commons/RuthAS

In April 1958, the type set out on a 67-day sales tour, first to South America then criss-crossing the United States, becoming the first production jetliner to land at New York/Idlewild (now JFK). Both the Comet and Boeing 707 were banned at the time – being deemed too noisy. 

Disappointingly for Sud Aviation, as it was now known after the 1957 SNCASE and SNCASO merger, no orders immediately came from the tour, but in July 1958 SAS Scandinavian Airlines got the ball rolling and ordered six aircraft while Air France firmed up its 12 options to double its commitment. Orders then flooded in from Brazil’s VARIG, Finnair, Air Algerie and Royal Air Maroc. 

SAS Scandinavian Airlines was the launch customer for the type. Flickr Commons/SAS Museum, Norway

By the end of 1958, Sud Aviation had racked up 49 orders and 18 options and planned to build 75 airframes reaching a rate of four per month by April 1960. 

Airline Service 

The Caravelle was introduced by Scandinavian Airlines on April 26, 1959. Over the next four years, a total of 172 examples were sold. This success was attributed to the fact that it had few competitors and effectively no jet-powered rivals for several years following its introduction. 

By 1963, there were six different variants of the jet in production, designated III, VI-N, VI-R, 10A, 10B, and X-BIR. In total, 11 separate versions of the Caravelle were produced all of which, apart from the 11R, 10B and 12, had capacity for 80 passengers. The main differences were the powerplants which increasingly got more powerful, enabling higher take-off weights to be achieved. 

The Spanish flag carrier Iberia utilised the jet between 1962 and 1987. Wikimedia Commons/Steve Fitzgerald

Produced between 1958 and 1972, a total of 282 examples were built, which were eventually operated by 92 different airlines in 47 countries. The jet was used by some big international carriers including United Airlines, VARIG and Lufthansa. 

The last of the type was retired from service in 2005. Flickr Commons/Robert Sullivan

So, not only was the Sud Aviation Caravelle the world’s first regional jet, it also set some of the common design elements which have been carried through to today’s generation of short-haul aircraft. So, every time you now see a Bombardier CRJ or Embraer ERJ series aircraft, a Sud Aviation Caravelle may come to mind.