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It is often said that aviation is the passion of a lifetime that slowly conquers the depth of one's soul*. This statement could never be truer when it comes to the life of René Couzinet, the Father of the "Arc-en-Ciel" (The Rainbow), the three-engine airplane, which in 1933 crossed the South Atlantic Ocean round trip from Paris to Argentina.
The story, or rather, the stories about Couzinet, the aeronautical engineer who graduated from the famed "Arts et métiers" school in Angers deserve an in depth study. Fascinated from adolescence by the flight of the birds from which he would adopt their gracious shapes to most of his airplanes, he rapidly harvested the fruit of his labor when at the age of 23 he built his first airplane, the Couzinet 10, the first of the three Arc-en-Ciel built before the Second World War.
The Couzinet 10, which René completed while serving as an Officer for the 34th Aviation Regiment based at Le Bourget possessed some revolutionary technical innovations for its time, such as excess reserve power, or the accessibility of the engines in flight. Those innovations however were not sufficient to convince the official service of the Air Ministry, and the certification of the airplane would be denied for a long time.
The Arc-en-Ciel number 1 crashed at the Orly airdrome on the 8th of August 1927. The crash resulted in the death of the pilot Maurice Drouhin and his mechanic. When about ready to leave the assembly line, the number 2 model ended up in ashes on the evening of February 17 1930 after a fire consumed the Meudon factory that industrialist Emile-Louis Letord had put at the disposition of Couzinet.
The number 3 model designated the Couzinet 70 by the company was completed at the beginning of 1932. Jean Mermoz the famed French pilot would fly it to Buenos Aires a year later with its inventor at his side. Upon their return in France, they would be welcomed and greeted as heroes. At the age of 29, René Couzinet was at the apogee of his glory.
Examples: the Couzinet 33 Biarritz (above), the airplane that Baron Charles de Verneilh flew to New Caledonia in 1932 - the Couzinet 40, a high performance tri-motor built in 1934 but which had a short life - the Couzinet 100 (below), a light, general aviation airplane which was bought by the Spanish Republicans in 1936 but disappeared leaving no trace - and, the Air Couzinet 20 B4, a bomber studied by that the German during the 1940 invasion. More than one hundred projects are referenced in the SA ARC and transoceanic archives. However, less than twenty of those projects were realized.
A man of character with a large ego, Engineer René Couzinet constantly fought the aeronautical establishment during his career (especially Engineer Suffrin-Hébert). It must be recognized however that the establishment did not spare him either. A lack of understanding, and sometimes-harsh battles left scars in both camps. For Couzinet, the consequences turned out in his favor, his last creation, the Air Couzinet 101 (below), a twin-engine airplane destined for the French Postal service flew in 1937, less than five years after its triumph over the South Atlantic.
In the early forties, even with business affairs established in Brazil, where President Gétulio Vargas had put him in charge of the entire National technical new aircraft production, René Couzinet banned from America, and ignored by the Free French would never regain his financial health. His return to France after World War Two would not improve his situation either.
His rare projects of airplanes that could have flown felt into oblivion, as well as his hydrofoil projects. As for his "flying saucer", the multi-wing flying machine, it would never go beyond the wood model stage.
Those setbacks perhaps somewhat explain the end of his tragic life. On Sunday the 16th of December 1956, René Couzinet ended his life along with his wife Gilberte who was Jean Mermoz's widow. It had been a terrible destiny for this visionary man with a burning desire, who dreamed of leaving his mark, but who in the end left a legacy of an enormous waste from an unfinished career.
A precursor of modern aviation
The aviation historians, praising his visionary talent and his "gutsy" daring, often call René Couzinet a genius. Perhaps he was not a genius, which is a vast and abstract misnomer, but it must be recognized that this French Engineer was a precursor in the days when his airplane builder peers were still stumbling. Certain of his theories and applications, such as excess reserve power for performance were fine-tuned during the XXème century and are still valid today, but forgotten by most of the world.
When the Arc-en-Ciel number 1 came out of the factory in 1928, the news media issued the most complimentary, and perhaps even "over done" reports. The journalists constantly bragged about the merits of this three engines, cantilever low wing monoplane, weighing 16 tons, and with a wingspan over 27 meters. The Couzinet 10 was equipped with several fuel tanks having a total capacity of over 6,000 liters and providing a range of 10,000 kilometers. Finally, this revolutionary airplane not only made the biplanes and other types antic machines, but it had a wing loading of 100 kilos per square meter whereas the official norm for the period never exceeded 50 kilos!
Up until 1937, the year when his last prototype the Air Couzinet 101 flew, René Couzinet very seldom deviated from his original concepts, those on which his reputation was built, and which were adopted by other manufacturers such as Germany's Claude Dornier. It was without doubts one of his major errors.
If he had been more receptive to the suggestions of his companies' technicians and the official services, Couzinet could have brought important improvements to his airplanes, and those improvements would have eventually permitted him to keep up the advance that he had gained in the twenties.
Ex test pilot Jacques Lecarme whom wrote several reports after flying the Couzinet airplanes is totally convinced: "An avid achiever, Couzinet should have had more confidence in his team, and if he had listen to the flight test center as did Marcel Bloch (Alias Marcel Dassault), he could have kept his advance with better airplanes because they could have been upgraded at the cost of very little work".
The Man with grandiose dreams
During his career, René Couzinet did not just build airplanes. Back in 1928, he applied for a patent that contained a detailed description of a machine rarely thought of by his contemporaries: the hydrofoil. Nonetheless, after World War Two, he introduced in Brazil his best known model, the RC 125. It would never be accepted, no more than the following models (with a very few exceptions), despite a relative but lukewarm interest for this mean of transportation by the French Government. Why? Couzinet's hydrofoils were expensive, not only in construction costs, but in maintenance costs as well. As for the potential sales of Couzinet's concept in Africa or South America, it also failed, because the poorly maintain rivers of those faraway countries could not permit safe operations.
Another area investigated by Couzinet was the multiple wing aircraft or RC 360. This bizarre machine had the shape of a flying saucer. Back in France, and without support from the State for eventual airplanes of his conception, Couzinet became interested with the problems of vertical takeoff (it was the fad in the fifties). In his factory of l'Ile de la Grande-Jatte at Levallois-Perret, he built a wood 3/5-scale model of the RC 360, which was introduced as the future of aviation. But, René Couzinet's flying saucer never flew, because the administration had estimated that investing in such "far out" project would be fool hardy.
The hydrofoil and the multiple wing aircraft were two of René Couzinet's grandiose dreams in which he believed with great conviction. His disappointments would be that much more painful.
Jean Mermoz, a friend and an accomplice
It could not have been further from the truth. The airplane manufacturer and the pilot had met for the first time in August of 1932 and quickly became friends. It is true however that the Father of the Arc-en-Ciel who was looking for a pilot to cross the South Atlantic, did not want at first a pilot with Mermoz's outstanding reputation and renown, to outshine his "child". Couzinet would soon change his mind. A true complicity was born.
In truth, René Couzinet and Jean Mermoz soon understood that they had common goals on many points. They only had one thing in mind: better airplane performance and qualities, and thus improved flight safety. How? By convincing once and for all the Air Ministry and the technical services, that even above the seas and oceans, the airplane because of its better performances was superior to the seaplane which was favored by the administration for the over water routes. This would not be the case, and in December of 1936, Mermoz would be lost aboard a Latécoère seaplane.
René Couzinet would never truly get over the premature lost of his friend whom was his best personal supporter and at Air France as well. It is also because of loyalty to his friend that he would marry Jean Mermoz's widow, Gilberte Chazottes in October 1939. It would be a union for the best, and unfortunately for the worst.
Text: Emmanuel Caloyanni
Translation: Mike Leveillard
© Aérostories, 2001