By: Rob Mulder
One of the most interesting airline companies of pre-War Europe was the Air Bleu. It was formed as an airmail carrier and started up as a private venture. Its history forms an important part of French civil aviation.
One of the main advantages of the aircraft was its high speed compared with the automobile and later also train. The first idea after the Great War was to set up European airmail service that should be operated by the military. Gradually the civilian airline companies managed to take over the service and soon air services were established all over Europe. France was one of the leading countries on the field of airmail transportation and French airline companies operated the longest international airmail services. Despite this early start, the domestic market was for some reason neglected. There were some sporadic combined passenger and airmail services, but these could not be compared with the impressive international network operated by the French airline companies. As early as 1927 the Administration des Postes (Postal Administration) and the Direction des Voies et Communications Aériennes (Directory of Railway and Air Communication) made a study with regard to the establishment of airmail services in France. But for the time being the train was regarded as the fastest mean of mail transportation from Paris to the other French cities. The situation had not change in the beginning of the thirties, but the importance of airmail had increased rapidly. The regularity of the air services had improved as well and fast and modern aircraft stood on the breach of been taken in use by the airline companies. The airline companies merged in 1933 into Air France SA and the company started a study of internal airmail service by visiting several countries in Europe and the USA. The conclusion was that internal airmail network should be established in France as well, but Air France SA was not interested in operation this network. Air France director Didier Daurat had made the study and he asked his friend Beppo de Massimi if he was interested in the project. Beppo de Massimi was not an unknown person. He had been managing director of Aeropostale until it went bankrupt in 1933 and was taken over by Air France SA.
But a company could not be started until a request was officially made. On January 15, 1935 the Chambre des Députés (the French Parliament) passed a law about the organisation of the internal airmail network and on April 1 a agreement was signed between the Commission des PTT, Ministre de l’Air, général Denain and Air Bleu (under foundation), represented by Beppo de Massimi. The agreement gave the Société Air Bleu the exclusive right to carry the airmail within France. After the signing of the agreement, Beppo de Massimi founded on May 23, 1935 the Société Anonyme Air Bleu with a stock capital of 5 million French Francs. The shares were divided 10,000 shares of FFr.500 each. Among the shareholders we find one of the initiators Louis Renault owner of the Société Anonyme des Usines Renault. Other shareholders were Messageries Hachette and the Compagnie des Chargeurs Reunies. It opened a Parisian office at the 6, boulevard des Capucines. Beppo de Massimi became the manager director of the company and found fellow Aeropostale Director of Exploitations Didier Daurat prepared to accept the same function. The reason for use of the company name Société Air Bleu was that airmail letters were on blue paper, popular called les petits bleus (the small blue ones). The company received a subsidy from the Ministre de l’Air and the Ministre des PTT and the customer had to pay FFr 2.50 per 10 grams. This amount was later increased to FFr 3.
Société Air Bleu ordered at the Société Caudron-Aéroplanes twelve Caudron C.630 Simouns, which were delivered between May and July. The Caudron C.630 Simoun was a four-seat single-engine low-wing monoplane powered by a 220hp Renault Bengali-Six air-cooled engine that had made its first flight in October 1934. The Sociéte Air Bleu was the biggest civil user of the aircraft. It could carry a crew of two and well 200kgs of airmail. The single-engine aircraft had a range of 1,250km and a cruising speed 280kmh. With its aircraft in place, the company started to employ personnel and the first pilots were Georges Libert and Roger Déglise.
As will be clear later on, the history of Société Air Bleu should be divided in two different periods. The company ran an internal postal network from July 1935 to August 1936 and than discontinued the services. Its network was re-opened later that year and operated again until the outbreak of the Second World War and German attack on France (May 1940).
It was scheduled at first to inaugurate the network of Société Air Bleu on May 15, but this was not possible to achieve and the opening was postponed until July 15. The final date could be set at July 10. At the platform of Paris main airport Le Bourget, the Caudron C.630 Simouns stood lined up awaiting the opening of the network. The first four services were inaugurated and the following crews were assigned to the different services:
- Paris – Tours – Poitiers – Angoulême – Bordeaux. Crew Raymond Vanier (pilot) and Victor-Michel Beaufol (radio and mechanic) and aircraft Caudron C.630 Simoun, F-ANRI;
- Paris – Rouen – Le Havre. Crew Henri Darqué and André Brun;
- Paris – Arras – Lille. Crew Georges Delage and Lucien Pauzié; and
- Paris – Nancy – Strasbourg. Crew Georges Tixier and Joseph Reichart.
They all started on their respective air service with three minutes interval guarded by a score of French nobilities that included Beppo de Massimi, Didier Daurat (all from Société Air Bleu), Georges Mandel (Minister of the PTT), general Denain (the Air Minister), Louis Renault and many others. The air services were operated daily in each direction and with great regularity. At the end of the year a regularity of well 99 % could be achieved. According to the official schedule the six aircraft started at 11.30 am for their daily flight. Six aircraft, because two other airmail services were inaugurated later (July 25): Paris – Le Mans – Angers – Nantes (by Raymond Vanier) and Paris – Bourges – Limoges – Toulouse, home of the firm Latécoère and starting point of the south Atlantic airmail route. Paul François Dhé and Victor Beaufol had the honour of making the first flight here. The network of Société Air Bleu was now at its peak.
The resort village La Baule was interested in a seasonal airmail service and on July 29, a Caudron C.630 Simoun, made a trial and propaganda flight from Nantes to La Baule carrying 108 letters to La Baule and 80 back to Nantes. After the successful flight, Société Air Bleu decided to open the extension Nantes – La Baule on August 5 and operate the service until September 14. Another resort village, Deauville experienced the same fate. The airmail service Paris – Le Havre was extended between August 5 and 31 until Deauville. One week later a high-speed train connecting Luchon with Toulouse secured a connection on the Paris – Toulouse service. This was operated until September 14. After this date the six regular airmail services were operated again.
The last change of the network in 1935 was made on October 7, when the airmail services were linked together and the following services were established: Le Havre – Rouen – Paris – Tours – Poitiers – Angoulême – Bordeaux, Lille – Arras – Paris – Bourges – Limoges – Toulouse and Nantes – Angers – Le Mans – Paris – Nancy – Strasbourg.
The year ended with a brutal loss. On December 4, the loved and experienced pilot Georges Tixier was killed during an accident with the Caudron C.630 Simoun, F-ANRK near Tours. His radio-operator Victor-Michel Beaufol was severely injured. The aircraft had hit an oak tree and although Tixier tried to reach a save haven he crashed into a wall. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair. But more bad news was to follow: The results for the year 1935 were devastating. The twelve aircraft had flown 592,380km and carried a mere 410kgs of airmail! This was a bad result.
In the first month of 1936, Société Air Bleu made some small modifications in its network. As from January 27, Cambrai replaced the landing at Arrat, while the Paris – Toulouse airmail service was discontinued. In stead the route was changed in Angoulême – Toulouse, where a connection to Paris existed. Unfortunately for Cambrai the city lost its connection just three months later. In the spring (from April 1) a new kind of service was offered upon arrival of the Caudron Simoun in Strasbourg. Here a motorcyclist awaited the aircraft to take and deliver the mail to and from Metz. Another change was the landing at the city of Vichy on the Paris – Bourges – Clermont – Ferrand airmail service from June 15. Also in the summer of 1936 Société Air Bleu operated the seasonal airmail service between Nantes and La Baule and Le Havre – Deauville. The services were to be operated between July 1 and August 31.
Finally, on May 28 Air Bleu could start with the transportation of packages on its aircraft. This was possible after on April 2 an agreement had been reached with the Air Ministry. Despite the technical success, the services offered by Société Air Bleu turned out to be unpopular with the general public due to high surcharge one had to pay for the transportation of a letter. The number of letters and packages was not satisfactory at all. On August 3 Société Air Bleu discontinued all airmail services and grounded all aircraft. A new company had to be established that had to work under new conditions. France used the winter of 1936-37 to form the new lines along which it would set up a new airmail network.
Société Anonyme Air Bleu (1937-1940)
It was not until May 1937 that an agreement about the new Société Air Bleu could be reached. But on June 1, the French State, the Ministry of Finance, the Air Ministry and the Ministry of PTT could finally agree upon a convention with the Société Air Bleu. The stock capital was first to be reduced from 5 to 1 million French Francs, after which 4 million of fresh capital was put into the company. At the foundation of the new company on July 23, the shares were divided in accordance to this key:
|L’Etat (1)||52 %||FFr 2,600,000|
|Air France SA||24 %||FFr 1,200,000|
|(Old) Air Bleu||24 %||FFr 1,200,000|
(1) L’Etat = The French State.
Mr Quenot (from the PTT) now headed the Board of Directors, but Paul Routy succeeded Beppo de Massimi as general manager. Also Didier Daurat was taken over as Chef d’Exploitation (Head of Exploitation). The new Société Air Bleu took over aircraft and personnel previously used by Air Bleu and on July 7 re-opened the network with the next airmail services:
- Paris – Bordeaux – Mont de Marsau – Pau, opened by Raymond Vanier and Lucien Pauzié;
- Paris – Toulouse – Perpignan by Georges Libert and Victor-Michel Beaufol;
- Paris – Clermont – Ferrand – Saint Etienne – Lyon – Grenoble by Henri Darqué and Jean Sire.
As can be seen none of the previously operated airmail services were re-opened again. Only latter service had been operated before, but was now extended to Grenoble in the Alps. Also the airmail services to the western cities were not re-opened. They were regarded as too short. All aircraft departed daily between 8.15 and 8.20 am and returned to their nest at Le Bourget between 4.50 and 5 pm. On the first flight from Paris to Grenoble, the aircraft carried by exception two passengers: Mr Dugés from the PTT and Didier Daurat from Société Air Bleu.
And the results for the same period compared with 1935 were amazing. The same number of aircraft and the same personnel was used, but the utilization was much better. The two Société Air Bleus nearly flew during the same period (July – December), but the new Société Air Bleu flew 604,159km and carried now 70,874kg of letters.
The beginning of the year 1938 was marked by the loss of the Caudron C.630 Simoun F-ANRI at Paris/Le Bourget. It crashed on January 22. Michel Vanier and Henri Darqué were the pilots on this flight. The aircraft was destroyed beyond repair, but pilot and two passengers miraculously walked only with slight injuries away from the crash.
A new and more suitable type of aircraft was introduced as well. The Société Air Bleu purchased two Caudron Goéland aircraft. The first Caudron C.444 was owned by Société Caudron owned the first delivered Caudron C.444 Goéland and transferred it in March 1938 to Société Air Bleu as F-AOMR. The second aircraft was delivered directly to the Société Air Bleu and registered as F-AOYS. Both aircraft had two 220 hp Renault 6 Q-engines. They were soon used on the network of Société Air Bleu.
The only change in the network in 1938 was the opening of the airmail service Marseille – Nice in connection with the new airmail service of Air France: Paris – Lyon – Marseille that was operated with the beautiful lined Bloch 220. The first flight between Marseille and Nice was made on February 16. Until 1939 this network was operated by Air Bleu and without any major problems. In 1939 a third Caudron Goéland was purchased: The Caudron C.445M Goéland, F-AKID that was purchased via L’Etat (the French State), who passed the aircraft on to Société Air Bleu in February 1939. It was the third aircraft of that type obtained by the company. A new aircraft type Caudron C.445M Goéland was delivered on May 16, 1939. By November a fifth aircraft was delivered, the C.445M, F-ARTA that in July 1940 transported Maréchal Pétain to several locations. It later went to SCLAM Marignane and was seized by the Italians in 1943, which handed it over to the Germans.
With the aircraft on place, the Société Air Bleu was now able to open the first airmail night service, running from Paris to Bordeaux and Pau. The Caudron C.633 Simoun was regarded as not suited for the night service as it was a single-engine aircraft. The Caudron Goéland had proven itself as a reliable aircraft and was liked by its pilots. On May 10 the Société Air Bleu inaugurated the first airmail night service when the Caudron C.445M F-AROV departed for Bordeaux and Pau. The Chief Pilot Michel Vanier was the first pilot on this flight and Lucien Pauzié as radio operator joined him. They left Paris/Le Bourget at 10.45 pm after a speech by Jules Julien, who was the director of the PTT. A number of other celebrities had come to Le Bourget to wish the crew all the best for its first night flight.
In Pau the return aircraft started just one hour and thirteen minutes later. On board of the Caudron C.445, F-AOYS was the pilot Georges Libert and radio operator Victor Beaufol. The landed at 00.33 am at Bordeaux, where Vanier arrived just fifteen minutes later. Didier Daurat had flown with the F-AROV to Bordeaux and now changed aircraft and returned with F-AOYS to Paris. The airmail night service was the first airmail night service ever operated in France. The route was illuminated all the way from Paris to Bordeaux and Pau in order to lead the aircraft safely along the route.
Late 1938 or early 1939 the company received two Potez 630 aircraft. These were strictly modified military aircraft. They were powered by two 640hp Hispano Suiza 14 AB02/03 and was originally built as a fighter-bomber. A special mail carrier was constructed and delivered for trials to the Société Air Bleu. The prototype (F-ARIR) had made its first flight on October 4, 1938 and was shortly afterwards delivered. The second aircraft (F-AREY) entered service a little bit later.
But on September 2, the start of the Second World War interrupted the development of any new airmail services and the Société Air Bleu had to discontinue its airmail network. The general mobilisation also led to a restructure of civil aviation in France and the Société Air Bleu now became part of the Section Long Courier Escadrille 1/110. It operated the airmail service from Paris to London. After the Armistice (June 1940) it was decided to keep life in the Société Air Bleu but only aircraft of the type Caudron Goéland were used. In September 1940 the remainder of the fleet was transferred to Air France SA and the company dissolved. Paul Routy led the liquidation of the Société Air Bleu, while Didier Daurat started to work for Air France SA in charge of the airmail services.
For details about the fleet please go to: https://www.europeanairlines.no/doc/AirBleu_081004.htm
Another interesting website about Air Bleu: http://eisenbei.club.fr/airbleu.htm
The picture of the Caudron Simoun, F-ANRO comes from the website of the Museé d’Air in Paris. A picture of the aircraft in service can also be found on the website: http://henri.eisenbeis.free.fr/FANRO.jpg
Technical information of the aircraft used can be found here:
Caudron C.444 Goéland