80 years of expertise in aircraft construction.

At the end of the first world-war, companies active in aircraft production before the war were not able to restart their activities. During the war, Georges Nellis, commanded the aviation depot in Calais Beaumarais. His unit was responsible to accept, maintain
and repair the aircraft of the Aviation Militaire. Many specialists were trained at the depot and if the aircraft in use were not always the top of the technology, the unit achieved a good level of technical support for the operational squadrons. Georges Nellis also succeded in grouping a small team of engineers who would be active in the aircraft industry after the war. 

From his experience during the war, Nellis concluded that it was an absolute priority for Belgium to have its own independent aircraft industry at its disposal. To permit such an economically viable activity, Nellis idea was to create both a state backed civil transportation company and a aircraft construction company. The aircraft factory would provide both the army and the national transport company with the needed aircraft. He summarised his theories in “L’expansion belge par l’aviation” published with the support of the Aeroclub in 1919. Georges Nellis had also the support of the King Albert. As there were already projects to experiment air transport in Congo and some needs of air travel for the King and members of the government taking part in peace talkings in Versailles, the SNETA, forerunner of the Sabena was founded

The second step was the birth of SABCA (Société Anonyme Belge de Construction Aéronautique), on December 16th 1920. Industrialists, the Belgian government and the major banks of the country provided the initial funds. The new company was housed in recently constructed buildings at the Haren airfield near Brussels, then the major operation platform for SNETA and one of the principal bases of the Military aviation. SABCA received the exclusivity to provide aircraft to the army and SNETA. Production started with 20 Morane-Saulnier MS35 for the initial training of military pilots. Further contracts followed for Handley Page W8, Fokker FVII assembled or produced under license. SABCA tried to diversify its production by producing ships for use in Congo or by developing its own designs but the main activity remained the production under license of aircraft for the domestic market.

The SABCA workshop in Haren during the twenties with Avia BH21 and Ansaldo A300’s under construction

Others companies entered the market during the twenties. Jean Stampe, an Antwerpen born pilot of Word War I fame associated with René Vertongen, another  Great War pilot to start the Stampe & Vertongen company at Antwerpen. Alfred Renard, joined them to produce light- and trainer aircraft under the Renard Stampe & Vertongen name. Later Renard left the company to start his own businesses as Atelier Alfred Renard. Other small companies entered the aircraft industry. SEGA in Gosselies started operations in 1921 as a flying school managed by Word War I ace Fernand Jacquet. The company operated as ab initio training school for the military pilots. The firm produced  a small batch of Avia BH21 fighters under license. ACAZ in Zeebrugge produced a few prototypes. Orta St Hubert build the designs of Jef Guldentops, who served in Beaumarais during World War One. The Guldentops machines were pleasant small training and touring aircraft but the production stayed limited.
Comparing with aircraft industries in other countries, the Belgian aircraft builders were not very successful working mainly on small series for the local needs. The Belgian government did not support the home aeronautical industry as others countries did. 

At the end of the twenties the apparition of Avions Fairey in Gosselies create a healthy competition but also some problems for SABCA as after the delivery of the last Breguet 19, military contracts reduced dramatically with the adoption of the Fairey Fox and Firefly. Sabca survived with the license production of Fokker FVII and Savoia Marchetti tri-engined passenger aircraft for Sabena. 

The loss of SABCA's monopoly for military contracts permitted Renard and Stampe & Vertongen to obtain small orders from the
Aéronautique Militaire for delivery of trainer- and combat-aircraft as the SV5 or the Renard R31.

Although the general opinion in Belgian aviation circles was that it was better to buy original new designs from manufacturers (build by foreign companies…), the activity of the Belgian aircraft industry during the twenties and the thirties continue to focus on construction under licence.
Sabca, Renard and Stampe & Vertongen also build their own designs but very few of these new machines reached production. In most of the cases, the lack of interest by the public authorities in sustaining the emergence of prototypes in Belgium is a good explanation. Some aircraft with great commercial potential such as the Renard R35 or R36 where abandoned after the first accident. If the US Government had applied the same attitude towards the Boeing prototypes, neither the B-17 nor the B-29 would have been produced. Even more critical was the situation in the aircraft engine industry. Sabca build an engine production plant but the activity did not generate benefits. Renard and Sarolea produced promising small engines but on a general point of view, Belgium depended on foreign supply for aircraft engines.

SABCA  S40 trainer of 1938

Since 1938, the government decided to look for new aircraft in order to replace the obsolete machines of the Aeronautique Militaire. Several precious months were lost negotiating with foreign constructors. The then major foreign manufacturers were already producing at full capacity to fulfill their national needs and could not divert aircraft for Belgium. Some local prototypes were also developed as SABCA S40 & S47. Finally Hurricane, Breguet 693 and Caproni Ca313 production rights were acquired to be build under license by Sabca

Some strange arrangements were concluded. For example Sabca prepared the production of Koolhoven FK53 fighters for the French Armée de l’air and a part of the Breguet 693 to be produced in Belgium was intended to be delivered to France. There was also some good news during this obscure period. Stampe & Renard succeeded in exporting the SV4 to France and the same country expressed great interests in the acquisition of some Renard R36 family of fighters, SABCA S47 fighters and SABCA S40 trainers. 

In May 1940, the first locally produced Hurricanes was ready to leave the Avions Fairey factory. Plans were to dispose of modern hardware for the spring of 1941. The dependence of foreign supply for engines was then critical, with Hurricanes waiting their Merlin at the factories. The attack of May 10th 1940 stopped this process in its tracks. That morning, the airfields of Deurne, Evere and Gosselies housing Stampe & Renard, SABCA and Fairey were bombed. The personal of the various companies evacuated to France, losing some precious equipment as the prototype of the Renard R38 during the trip. In Bordeaux, some specialists worked for a short period with the local aeronautical companies. 

The most successfull Belgian aircraft : The Stampe & Vertongen SV4

The Germans tried to use the limited aircraft production facilities located in Belgium to their own advantage. The Stampe & Renard facilities in Deurne were used to repair Messerschmidt fighters. In Brussels they tried to restart the activities of SABCA by appointing a German administrator. However faced with resistance of the administrators of the company they used the SABCA installations only for limited repair work under full German control as wa the case at Deurne.

Back to work 

In September 1944, when the country was liberated, the Stampe & Vertongen plant was totally destroyed. The SABCA installations were severely damaged and the usable workshops were requisitioned by the RAF to be used as transit hospitals. More dramatic was the fact that most of the machine tools were destroyed. The Renard workshops were miraculously preserved and Stampe joined his former associated to start a new business under the Stampe & Renard name. They quickly restarted negotiations for the sale of SV4's to France which were stopped by the outbreak of the war. As production was almost impossible in Belgium, they associated with the French company Farman to produce 700 SV4's in France. The company would survive until 1970, its last prototype being the Farman Monitor, a small beautiful training and acrobatic aircraft. To the end of the activities, Alfred Renard studied numerous projects. The SV4c remains today the most significant aircraft ever produced in Belgium.

SABCA went back to business very slowly, disposing of only limited facilities, the company assembled Jeeps for the national market. In 1948 the Belgian air force acquired Gloster Meteor IV's in the UK while Sabena acquired Douglas airliners in the USA. There were no projects to build these aircraft locally as the market was saturised with cheap aircraft made available after the war. 

The start of the cold war changed the situation. Ambitious plans were draw to reinforce the Belgian and Dutch air force. The Gloster Meteor F8 was selected as the standard day fighter to be subject of  mass-produced. As the UK industry was not able to fulfill all the needs, Fokker and Fairey received contracts to produce the Meteor under license. Stampe & Renard was contracted to maintain the various light aircraft operated by the air force: Tiger Moth, Auster and later new build SV4.

The Belgian Air Force learn the lesson of the thirties and an aircraft engine industry was started in Liège at the renowned FN (Fabrique Nationale d’armes) company. Jet engines were produced and maintained for aircraft by the NATO air forces.

The Meteor F8 contracts were followed by others for Hunters F4 and F6. This time SABCA was involved in the project. As the USAF presence increased in Europe SABCA was also contracted to inspect and repairs various US aircraft as HSS Choctaw helicopter or the F84F Thunderstreak. Since 1953, SABCA owned additional installations at Gosselies.

The SABCA Factory at Gosselies at the end of the fifties.

In the late fifties, SABCA was associated with various NATO studies and projects including V/STOL transports or rocket engined fighters. Finally the only project who led to a full production was the F104G Starfighter which was constructed by a consortium including Belgian, Dutch, German and Italian companies under Lockheed leadership. The first Starfighter left the Belgian production line on 4th December 1961. 

In 1960, SABCA studied a jet powered trainer, the S-60, who never left the drawing board.


In the Sixties, the SABCA ownership was acquired by Fokker and Dassault. SABCA was more and more involved in multinational projects such as the Fokker F28 Fellowship or the Breguet Atlantic. The company was also implicated in the production of Mirage 5 and F16 for the Belgian Air Force. Work for the Ariane consortium started in 1973 and still consist an important activity for SABCA. In the seventies and eighties, SABCA participated in the production of the Alphajet trainers and the Agusta A109 helicopter.

The Starfighter was a major program for the Belgian aircraft industry. A Belgian Air Force Starfighter is seen in front of the SABCA plant at Gosselies.

SABCA is also a partner of Airbus Industrie since the early day of Europe's most successful airliner. With the rapidly declining military budgets, Ariane and Airbus are more and more important for the company. Ageing over seventy, SABCA is one of the rare aircraft manufacturers still wearing its original name.

Yves Duwelz

References :

La Conquête de l’air 
Rêves et obstination de l’industrie aéronautique belge Sabca 1920-1990

Last updated 06/11/11 15:56 by  Daniel Brackx