Corvette to Toulouse - June 2009
F-GILM landing at Toulouse June 24th 2009
This wonderful opportunity arose from my interest in the classic early corporate jets that came to the market in the 1960s and 1970s. The Aerospatiale Corvette SN601 project emerged in the early 1970s as a small business jet, but was never a successful product in terms of numbers sold. It faced tough competition from Dassaults Falcon series, Cessnas Citation, Hawker Siddeleys HS125 and North American/Rockwells Sabreliner. The French aerospace company built one prototype which first flew in July 1970, and only 40 further production airframes were built between 1974 and 1979. A few were operated as small feeder jets by commercial operators for a while with limited success, but the majority of the airplanes found domestic corporate customers, and most spent the majority of their active years in France or French dependencies.
In early 2009 I contacted the flight department at Airbus Industrie in Toulouse, France. Since 1981, the giant commercial airframe producer had been using a fleet of Corvettes as corporate transport airplanes to ferry Airbus Industrie personnel between various manufacturing facilities in France, the UK, Germany and Spain. At the time their fleet numbered five airplanes which were based at the companies main Toulouse headquarters in their own flight department hangar. But by this time the operation was under review and alternatives under investigation to replace the ageing fleet and its increasing operating costs. Only a handful of Corvettes remained operational worldwide by 2009, and Airbus was flying most of them.
The Airbus flight department put me in touch with a Corvette first officer called Bernard Vignault, and thanks to his patience, understanding and efforts on my behalf, I was granted permission to join him on an scheduled Airbus Industrie Corvette flight, and so in June 2009 I joined Bernard and Captain Jean-Maurice on a 3 day return trip from Bristol to Toulouse.
F-GILM on the ramp at Bristol-Filton - June 23rd 2009
Passing the Brest peninsula at flight level 270 routing south towards Toulouse
The Corvettes sparse but very comfortable cabin with seating for 9 passengers, who would book their reservations through the Airbus staff travel booking system. The flight crew would take turns in providing the light refreshment service once established in the cruise
Captain Jean-Maurice (on the left) and first officer Bernard (on the right) share the flying duties by handling alternate sectors in the Corvettes rather cosy flight deck. The ageing airplanes carried TCAS, but were not RVSM approved and so were restricted to FL290 or below. In contrast to the latest generation Airbus-manufactured commercial airplanes, the 1970s era Corvette sports an all analogue flight deck - no EFIS or magenta lines to follow here.
The Airbus flight department hangar at Toulouse housing 4 of the 5 Corvettes. The Operations office was located in the back of the hangar, and was home to Bernard, Jean-Maurice and the other 7 crews who operated the fleet.
F-GLEC was the first of the 5 Corvettes to be withdrawn from service. It suffered a cracked windshield a few weeks before my visit, and with future of the operation already uncertain, was considered un-economic to repair. The airplane is now preserved and on display within the main Airbus Industrie facility at Toulouse.
F-GFDH receives some routine line maintenance between flights. All Corvette maintenance was performed in-house as with so few airplanes still operating there was no other facility with the equipment or experience to deal with the Corvette airframe and its Pratt and Whitney JT-15D engines.
F-GKGA landing at Toulouse June 24th 2009
This was the middle day of my 3 day trip and Bernard was on flying duties that afternoon, whilst I sought photo opportunities at the airfield. Bernard is shown here returning from the days trip to Getafe in Spain. F-GKGA is now preserved and on display at the Aeroscopia museum at Toulouse
Only a couple of months after I was granted this unique opportunity, Airbus announced the closure of their flight department and all the Corvettes were retired. Airbus Industries staff travel requirements were put out to contract and awarded to UK-based British Midland Airways, using Embraer E-145 equipment. All 5 Corvettes were preserved and either donated to museums, or put on display at various Airbus manufacturing facilities in France.
The airfield at Bristol-Filton was closed in 2012, though there are plans for a museum to be built on the site, opening in 2017. This is after all the airfield where the British Concorde flew for the first time, and where all the subsequent British manufactured airplanes were built. Concorde G-BOAF was flown here in November 2003 and will be the centre-piece on the new museum displays.
I am forever grateful to my friend Bernard for his kind assistance in making my trip possible. Following the closure of the Airbus flight department, Bernard joined Airbus A320 operator Wizzair and soon attained a command. In 2017 he is now an A320 captain with Easyjet based in Portugal.
Bernards excellent photography can be viewed on his flickr page - search for "Bernard VIGNAULT flickr"
Thanks also to Brian Duxbury and Pierre Parvaud for their contribution to this piece.
The Airbus Corvette fleet - Where are they now ?
F-GKGA sn 11 - Preserved at the Aeroscopia Museum, Toulouse (pictured below)
FGFDH sn 13 - Preserved at the Airbus Industrie, Saint Nazaire
F-GLEC sn 30 - Preserved at Airbus Industrie, Toulouse
F-GJAP sn 31 - Preserved at the Musee de l'air Le Bourget, Paris
F-GILM sn 32 - Preserved at Airbus Industrie, D'Albert-Picardie