The Super-Caravelle: Concorde’s Forgotten Predecessor

Last weekend, we covered the story of the Sud Aviation Caravelle. This aircraft was one of the pioneers in jet aviation in the 1950s, allowing for new heights to be reached. Interestingly, it also had a part to play in the formation of the Concorde.

British Airways Aerospatiale BAC Concorde on final-approach at sunset
Even though the Sud Aviation Super-Caravelle program did not take the skies, it played an influential role in the progress of supersonic travel, leading to the launch of the Concorde program. Photo: Getty Image

Keeping the momentum going

The Caravelle was a popular aircraft that could be seen all across the continents. 282 units were built in total, flying with some of the world’s most recognizable airlines. Its supersonic successor was publicly announced only two years after the original was introduced with SAS in 1959.

The new plane would focus on shorter ranges to replace the existing Caravelle. This was unlike other exciting supersonic programs emerging, such as the Boeing 2707, which were targeted for transatlantic missions.

As the 1960s approached, political and economic worries in France spurred an SST design contest, and Sud Aviation’s proposals were victorious. However, the company had already been working on designs in previous years.

In January 1958, Sud Aviation published a brochure describing an aircraft that would carry 60 passengers at Mach 1.8 that would have a range of 3,000 km (1,865 m) potentially backed by four powerplants. There were several developments and tweaks to the design, with a nuclear propulsion version spoken of in March 1958 that would carry 120 passengers to a range of over 3,500 km (2,175 m).

Sud Aviation was working on preliminary designs of the Super-Caravelle even before the SE 210 Caravelle entered service. Photo: Getty Images

Dialog with the neighbors

Contact with the United Kingdom’s BAC was made at the turn of the 1960s. Those across the English Channel were in agreement that its French counterparts were designing a notably similar plane.

The two companies agreed on several aspects. Importantly, Sud Aviation conceded that they had no available modern large jet engines at their disposal. So, they concluded that they would need to take on a UK design in this department.

Notably, in October 1960, Sud Aviation made tweaks to its supersonic design by removing canards that interfered negatively with vertical tail surfaces at the high angles required. The new shape was backed by a new fuel management system, which, according to Key.Aero, had British input.

Sud Aviation Caravelle Getty
Announced at the 1961 Paris Air Show, the Super-Caravelle wouldn’t have looked like the SE 210 Caravelle. Photo: Getty Images

Evolving the concept

The Super-Caravelle was initially touted to perfect Air France’s routes between Europe and Africa. However, the French started to agree with the British in terms of markets and were now warming to the idea of a transatlantic solution. Subsequently, in November 1961, Sud Aviation issued another brochure, this time sharing details of the Super Caravelle IIID that would carry 92 passengers.

This variant had extended range and had a revised “gothic” wing. It also was billed to come with new Bristol Olympus 593/3 engines. The range of this model would have been 6,022 km (3,250 NM), and the maximum speed would have been Mach 2.2 at 14,785 m (48,500 ft)

In the same month, France’s Council of Ministers gave the go-ahead to a research program to support a civilian supersonic jet. The project was given a budget of 1,400 billion francs and would begin the following year.

As a result of the constructive communication between the UK and France, an international treaty was negotiated between the two countries. A draft treaty was signed on November 29th, 1962, and the foundations were laid for what would become the Concorde program.

Air France Concorde
If built, the Super-Caravelle would have looked like a smaller version of Concorde as it was similar in shape, using its successor’s ogive wing planform. Photo: Getty Images

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A rapidly-changing industry

The collaboration between the British and French throughout the 1960s and beyond did wonders for the overall European aviation market. Even though the Concorde didn’t meet initial expectations, the building of new bridges opened up new doors across the continent and helped it become less reliant on American productions.

“Until this point Europe’s aviation industry had remained strongly rooted in nationality. The British had built the Comet, the BAC1-11 and the Trident, among others. The French had produced the Caravelle. Together the two countries had built the world’s first supersonic airliner, Concorde. But Concorde was the product of a political dream,” Airbus shares.

“It was never going to be the saviour of the European aircraft industry because it was highly expensive to build and operate and catered for relatively few people. The idea behind the short-haul European airbus, on the other hand, was to capitalise on the dawning of a boom in popular air travel. More people wanted to fly, and for less.”

Sud Aviation merged with Nord Aviation under Aerospatiale in 1970. Then, for the remainder of the decade, the Airbus A300 program joined Concorde as a focal point of France’s aviation scene.

American Airlines Airbus A300
The Airbus A300 dawned a new era of European commercial aviation, allowing the continent to compete well against those across the Atlantic. Photo: Getty Images

Time for another go

The Concorde hasn’t flown since 2003. Even before its demise, it didn’t reach its full potential amid high costs and social pressures in a constantly evolving industry. Nonetheless, a new wave of supersonic travel is emerging, with numerous nations’ aviation programs working on ambitious projects.

The scene will be returning on one of the same routes that Concorde flew. United Airlines is purchasing 15 Boom Overture units, which will be seen on flights between New York and London. The proposed jet is expected to carry passengers by 2029.

Like the Concorde, many countries are partnering up to introduce a new transport. For instance, Australia is aligning with Ukraine and Russia is collaborating with the United Arab Emirates. So, the process of combining resources continues into the new era.

What are your thoughts about the Sud Aviation Super-Caravelle and its potential? What do you make of the early days of supersonic innovation? Let us know what you think of supersonic travel and its prospects in the next chapter in the comment section.