Avions Fairey Gosselies & Sonaca:

 a Tips of genie.


Amongst the talented inventors trying to create the ideal flying machine before 1914 was E.O. Tips and his brother Maurice. Both were practical mechanics always searching new solutions. Ernest Oscar Tips was born in 1893 in Tielrode near Temse. As soon as 1909, the two brothers started working on a biplane equipped with a rotor (some kind of VTOL). Their experiences with this machine were not successful but E.O. Tips was recognised by his pairs as a talented engineer. The Tips brothers were more lucky when acquiring the lisence of the Gnome engines for Belgium and Netherlands.


In 1914, as many other Belgians, E.O Tips evacuated to Great Britain. The highly skilled Belgian industrial labour was much appreciated in the various British industries working for war. In 1916, another highly talented engineer started his company after a short but successful career with Dunne and Short Brother. Charles Richard Fairey was a self made man. He acquired a truck manufacturing company where the Fairey Aviation Company worked on her first contract, the license production of Short biplanes. Amongst the peoples working for the truck company acquired by Fairey were many Belgian refugees. Fairey first employee was E.O. Tips.


The first Tips aircraft although a failure, the first step to success

In 1917, another Belgian arrived in the UK. Marcel Lobelle was born in Kortrijk. He was heavily wounded when serving with the Belgian army at the battle of Tervaete. He was discharged and as his family was in occupied Belgium, he crossed the Channel. Lobelle first worked with the Tarrant Company who designed the first giant British bomber, this mammoth never left the ground…


After the war, the Fairey Aircraft company had the same difficult times as other British aircraft manufacturers with very few orders coming the RAF. However Fairey succeed in becoming one of the regular suppliers of the British naval aviation. Lobelle joined Fairey in the drawing department and E.O. Tips occupied various functions with the Company: test pilot or responsible of the delivery and the erection of the FAIREY IIIF used by the Portuguese’s for a South Atlantic crossing.


In 1923, a young Belgian contacted Commandant Fernand Jacquet, the ace of WW1, asking him counsels how to enter a career in aviation. Amongst the possible solutions listed by Jacquet in his answer, he mentioned Fairey in Great Britain were some Belgians were employed.


In the middle of the twenties C.R. Fairey was impressed by the performances of the Curtiss Racers during the Schneider Cup competitions. C.R. Fairey and Marcel Lobelle worked on both the Firefly and the Fox directly influenced by the Curtis racers. The two aircraft were technical successes, however the RAF preferred the Hawker Fury and Hart. The Belgian air force was then in search of new aircraft. After many years of limited budgets, General Gillieaux, obtained the needed funds to replace the antiquated fleet of the Aéronautique Militaire. The heads of the Belgian Air Force were not happy with the last aircraft produced by SABCA for them. Critics focused on the prices higher than if the aircraft were purchased directly to their producers. SABCA had acquired the rights to produce the Jupiter engine and strongly support the purchase of aircraft equipped with this motor as the Dewoitine D19, the Avia BH33 or the Renard Epervier .


Gillieaux and the officers of his staff attended the Hendon Display where Chris Staniland performed aerobatics on a Fairey Firefly IIM. The Fairey commercial staff proposed to send the Firefly to Belgium to be tested by Belgians pilots. The Firefly toured the Belgian air bases in July 1930 and was much appreciated. A contract was signed between Fairey Aviation and the Belgian government for the delivery of 12 Firefly IIM produced in the UK and 33 machines to be build in Belgium with deliveries starting in November 1930. Tips was sent in Belgium to settle a Fairey subsidiary. He found the right location on the Gosselies airfield near Charleroi where skilled labour was available. Commandant Jacquet was then director of the SEGA company also established at Gosselies and acting as a flying school and a small production facility. Jacquet joined the new Avions Fairey company created in August 1931.


The Avions Fairey factory in the thirties

Avions Fairey received further contracts for Fireflies followed by orders for Fairey Foxes in January 1931 to replace the Breguet 19’s then in service in Belgium. The Fox was the main combat aircraft of the Belgian air force until May 1940 being used for reconnaissance, fighting, bombing and training. The last Belgian produced Fox left the Gosselies plant in 1939. Many small companies of the Charleroi area worked as subcontractors for Avions Fairey.  The company was so an important economic plus value for the region.


A Firefly IIM ready to leave the production line in Gosselies in the years thirties

E.O. Tips was always interested in light civil aircraft. As soon as the Firefly and Fox production permitted him, he concretised his ideas in the Tipsy aircraft family. The first Tipsy flow in 1933 motored by a Douglas Sprite 16HP. 19 exemplars of the following models, the S2 with Sarolea 32 HP or Train 40 HP engines, were sold, some abroad. The Tipsy B was a side by side two seat training aircraft which evolved in the BC model produced in 14 units. The most promising Tipsy was the M model, a tandem training machine designed to answer the needs of the Aéronautique Militaire. The aircraft performances and comportment was close to those of modern fighters. However the Aé. M. preferred the SV4b. The Tipsy were successful in Belgium but also abroad. License rights were sold in the UK and South Africa.

The tipsy : From left to right and : T Tipsy S2, the Tipsy B, The Tipsy junior and the Belfair. In the middle the Primer 

Avions Fairey existence mostly depended on military contracts. Thanks to strong contacts with the Aeronautique Militaire the technical teams of Fairey in the UK and Avions Fairey developed new versions of the Fox and proposed the Fantom as a successor to the Firefly. The Fantom first flow in June 1935 equipped with a Hispano Suiza HS12ycrs engine. What is still considered as the most beautiful biplane ever build was not ordered by the Belgian Air Force. Two of the three Gosselies assembled aircraft were sold to the USSR and later to Spain. The Fantom was renamed Feroce and the third one joined the RAF for test purposes.


Maybe the most beautiful biplane ever build the Fairey Fantome

The Aéronautique Militaire ordered 12 Battles in 1936 to replace a first batch of Fox. Production of further Battles was planned in Gosselies, but no orders followed. In 1938, Richard Fairey proposed to the Air Ministry to produce Spitfires at his Gosselies plant, but this idea did not receive a positive answer. At last, with the order for Hurricanes by the Aeronautique Militaire, Avions Fairey had plans for future. On May, 10th, 1940, the first Hurricane produced in Gosselies was ready for delivery when the factory was heavily bombed.


E.O Tips assembled the company personnel and all the materials to evacuate to France. The convoy arrived in St Nazaire just in time to load on a cargo sailing to the UK. On leaving the harbour, the ship was sunk by German bombers. Most of the material was lost and a few employees were killed but most of them were rescued and joined Fairey in the UK where they worked for the parent company during the war. Tips occupied some managing functions at Fairey during the conflict.


As Tips and his employees returned home the can find the Gosselies installations had been destroyed by the retreating Germans. Everyone took his part to build new facilities. As soon as 1946, Avions Fairey was again in the business maintaining C47’s of the Belgian Air Force. Works extended to the maintenance of T6’s, Spitfires,  Ansons, Mosquitoes of the Air Force and JU 52’s of the civil aviation administration.


In 1950, large plans were draw to produce Meteor’s F8 for both the Belgian & Dutch air forces. Avions Fairey co-operated with Fokker to build under license 240 aircraft, the first one being delivered on July 1st 1951. The F8 EG151 to EG180 and EG224 to 260 were assembled at the Gosselies factory.


The first program after the war was the Meteor procurement. Here a view of the production line in Gosselies

Tips had not stopped the Tipsy developments. His two sons had now joined him at the company and every evenings they worked on new projects. In 1946, they designed the Tipsy Junior a small one seat monoplane motored by a Walter Mikron. Two were produced (and still extent). Later, one of the test pilot of Fairey landed a Junior on one of the Royal Navy aircraft carriers as a publicity.


The Tipsy Belfair followed as a new version of the pre war BC. The Belfair won the world record on long distance flight for aircraft of least of 500 Kg with 945 km in 1950 and 2632 km in 1955. However Tipsy sales were low mainly because very low cost surplus Piper Cubs, Austers or Stinsons were available for half the price of a new high performance Tipsy.


In 1953, Avions Fairey joined the Hunter program to produce 256 fuselages for Dutch and Belgian air Force. The first Belgian produced Hunter first flew on December 14th 1955. The production occupied the company until 1958. To help the delivery of spare parts between the companies involved in the Hunter program and for liaison duties, Avions Fairey acquired some transport aircraft as a Dragon Rapide or a Bristol Freighter. The business sense of the Tips family quickly realised it was possible to transport aircraft spare parts on a flight and other goods on the returning trip.


A Hunter awaiting delivery amongst Meteor T.7's

In 1957, Tips presented the Tipsy Nipper, a light one seat aircraft. In the minds of Tips the Nipper was designed as the VW of the air. The cost was very low at 115000 BEF par aircraft. The Nipper was also available in kit to be assembled by the customer at 50.000 BEF. The aircraft received a 25 HP VW engine. 62 Nipper were produced in Gosselies before the production rights were sold when E.O Tips retired in the years sixties.


The last of the Tipsy family : The Nipper appeared after the war

Between 1957 and 1963, Avions Fairey maintained F84F Thunderstreaks of the Belgian air force.


The next big acquisition of the Belgian air force was the Lockheed F104G Starfighters. Many companies in Europe joined their forces to produce the new fighters for Dutch, German, Danish, Norvegian, Italian and Belgian air force. Avions Fairey and Sabca constituted a joint venture to build the Starfighters. The first Belgian Starfighter left the production line in January 1962, the last one being delivered in June 1965.


With the strong international experience, Avions Fairey proposed the company production facilities to other European companies. Avions Fairey took part in a NATO VTOL transport project which never flow or produced elements for the Breguet Alantics


Between 1964 and 1971, F104Gs of the Bunde Luftwaffe were maintained in Gosselies.


In 1968, Avions Fairey took part in the Belgian air Force Mirage 5 project continuing to produce various equipments for Avions Dassault at the end of the Mirage 5 production in Belgium.


In 1972, the Fairey company in the UK bought the very successful Britten Norman company. Fairey Gosselies also participated in the production of Islanders and Trislanders. The Belgian army acquired 12 Islanders in 1976. Although both the Islanders and Trislanders were best sellers, Fairey UK went in deep financial difficulties in 1977. With the F16 production due to start in 1979, the Belgian government bought Avions Fairey to preserve the F16 project and to avoid social difficulties.


The SONACA company was created on June, 1st 1976 replacing Avions Fairey. The first F16 left Gosselies on January, 26th 1979. The production of 160 F16 for the Belgian air force and 60 more for the Danish air force ended in April 1991.


In 1979, Sonaca joined the Belairbus consortium, responsible for the production of Airbus parts in Belgium. Sonaca took part in Belgian Air Force F16’s midlife update program.


In the middle of years 1990’s Sonaca went back into difficulties with the reduction of military contracts. The rescue came from the Embraer ERJ135/ERJ145 program. With her strong multinational experience Sonaca convinced the Brazilian company to be the right partner for the production of the new airliner.


The spirit of pioneer of E.O. Tips is still alive in Sonaca in many Tipsy still flying.


 Yves Duwelz

References :


  • La Conquête de l’air
  • Mach
  • Rêves et obstination de l’industrie aéronautique belge Sabca 1920-1990
  • Une maitrise certaine du ciel – 60 ans d’expèrience aérospatiale
  • Aeronews ASA Antwerpen
  • La société aéronautique Fairey/Sonaca des origines à nos jours – M. Boesmans  


Last Updated : 02/04/13 07:58 by Daniel Brackx