Pre-production Vautour

As one of the countries that pioneered aviation, by the end of WW1 the French aviation industry was one of the world leaders, however, by the end of WW2 little remained of their aviation industry – what factories the Allied bomber fleets hadn’t destroyed had been converted to supply armaments in support of the German war effort. Consequently in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, as France struggled to recover from the devastating impact of the damage done to the country, the re-emerging French Air Force (FAF) had no alternative but to look to British and American manufacturers to supply them with new jet aircraft. The French aviation industry was keen to try and re-establish itself and be in a position to supply the FAF with French designed and built aircraft and two government owned companies; SNCASO and SNCASE, were quick to emerge, followed soon after by Dassault and Breguet and others. SNCASO and SNCASE later merged to form Sud Aviation.

In the late 1940s SNCASO began studying a French government requirement for an advanced all-metal jet powered tactical bomber known as the S.O. 4000 project. A couple of half scale models were built and flown to provide some background data for the prototype aircraft, now known as the Vautour. However, the French aircraft engine industry lagged even further behind their airframe manufacturing base and, as a result, the second prototype aircraft was fitted with two under-powered Rolls-Royce Mk 102 Nene jet engines, built under licence by Hispano-Suiza, which resulted in the aircraft that weighted 16,850 empty being dangerously underpowered and unstable. It was obvious that more powerful engines were required before the aircraft could be put into production and gradually more powerful Rolls-Royce R.A.14 Avon, A.S. Sapphire and French ATAR 101B/C/D/E engines began to deliver the necessary thrust required. Nevertheless, although the Vautour had some good features, it does not come out particularly well when compared with a number of similar aircraft produced at around the same time, such as the English Electric Canberra, the Blackburn S.1 Buccaneer and the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior, all of which remained in active service much longer.

Vautour IIN in FAF service

At the end of 1955 the FAF issued an initial order for 480 Vautours II aircraft, split into three difference versions. Rather than just employing the aircraft in the tactical bomber role for which it had been designed, the FAF had by now decided that the Vautour could act as a multi-role aircraft and replace a wide variety of different types currently in service. The 300 Vautour IIA versions were tactical attack aircraft that would replace all the fighter-bombers currently in service. The 40 Vautour IIB aircraft would replace the propeller driven A-26 Douglas Invader and become the FAFs main long-range bomber with both nuclear and conventional capabilities. Finally the 140 Vautour IIN aircraft would replace the Gloucester Meteor N.F.11 night fighters in the all-weather air-defence role, carrying air-to-air guns, rockets and missiles. However, the Americans were keen to try and build up their own jet manufacturing base and offered the FAF 200 North American F-84 Sabres (150 fighter bombers and 50 RF-84F reconnaissance aircraft) and very low prices, which the French government accepted. This sale was later followed the purchase of 100 North American F-100 Super Sabres (88 F-100Ds and 12 F-100Fs) which precluded the need for the French to manufacture a new strike aircraft. Consequently, the production order for Vautours was cut to first 160, then finally 140 aircraft (30 Vautour IIAs, 40 Vautour IIBs and 70 Vautour IINs). The Vautour was retired from FAF service between 1978 - 1979 when it was replaced by the Mirage F.1C.

Vautour IIA '29' in IAF service

By the mid 1950s the Israeli Air Force (IAF) were keen to replace a number of propeller powered aircraft and, as their approaches to purchase American or British aircraft had been rebuffed as politically too sensitive, they turned towards the French who were keen to establish their new jet manufacturing industry and were not too bothered about the continual arms build up in the middle east or to which country they exported arms. By 1954 the IAF had already stated an interest in acquiring a number of Vautours and in1956, after preliminary discussions had taken place, the IAF were invited to evaluate the Vautour in France. On 23 Apr 56 one of their test pilots, Danni Shapira, flew two of the prototype Vautours at Mont de Marsan before he and other members of the Israeli delegation visited the SNCASO production factory at Saint Nazaire. The visit of the Israelis was kept secret to avoid alerting the USA and UK.

IAF Vautour IIB 33 Big Brother

Although the IAF were keen to get their hands on the Vautour, they were also well aware that the aircraft was still under development and was not yet operational with the FAF. Nevertheless, after considerable negotiations regarding delivery dates, specifications and price in Apr 57 Israel placed an order for 28 aircraft (17 Vautour IIAs, 4 Vautour IIBs and 7 Vautour IINs). As the Vautours destined for the IAF came off the production line they were delivered to Tour AFB where the IAF crews were trained alongside crews from the FAF and then later ferried an aircraft to Israel. In total 31 Vantours were delivered to the IAF, the original 28 ordered plus one more Vautour IIN and two additional Vautour IIAs that were delivered later.

IAF Vautour IIN 70 Fantomas

One IAF Vautour, the first aircraft produced to the N specification, was nicknamed “Phantomas” and was fitted with two ECM ‘Yabelet’ pods, one under each wing, and used to jam enemy radars. This aircraft also carried a camera in the nose and took part in many covert missions during the Six Day war and later the War of Attrition – Phantomas is now on display at the IAF Museum at Hatzerim Air Base along with examples of an A and B model. A number of other IAF Vautour IIB aircraft were also fitted with cameras and undertook PR sorties as necessary, but they were mainly used as fighter bombers. The Vautour was retired from IAF service between 1970 – 1972.