A short history of Sabena

The beginning

Belgian interest for the aviation started early. Many private constructors began to create aeroplanes from the beginning of the century. A Belgian military air branch was created in 1910. King Albert I himself was fond of new techniques and his government was always found prepared to support initiatives helping the development of the aviation.

The fast and surprising progresses of the aerial weapon in the Ist WW pushed some pioneers to launch a national air company. One year after the end of the war, the SNETA (Société Nationale pour l'Etude des Transports Aériens) came to life. The beginning was really "heroic", the first aircraft being mainly ex-war-machines, souvenirs of the conflict such as the De Havilland DH-9 which served on the London, Amsterdam or Paris routes, taking off from Haren airfield, close to Brussels.

But Belgian territory was not limited to Europe... At that time it also included the colony on African soil: Belgian Congo. The connections with the colony were mainly maritime and it took many weeks to travel from Antwerpen to Goma and Leopoldville! The plane was, without doubt, the future for the liaison Europe/Africa. In 1920, using a few seaplanes (such as the tri-seat Levy-Lepen), the LARA (Ligne Aérienne du Roi Albert) could assure internal liaisons in the colony, covering the important distance between Leopoldville and Stanleyville by flying along the Congo river.

Development of the national airline

A tri-engined Fokker F VIIb/3m of Sabena photographed at Haren in the early 30's.

All those attempts (SNETA & LARA) were concretized when, on 23 May 1923, SABENA (Société Aérienne Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne) was born. The capital of the company was in the hands of both private interests and the state. The new airline expanded quickly, each year new links being created:

1924: to Switzerland (Brussels-Strasbourg-Basel). 
1925: using a Handley-Page W 8, the crew Edmond THIEFFRY (one of the greater Belgian aces of Ist WW), Léopold ROGER (co-pilot) and Joseph "Jef" DE BRUYCKER (engineer) made the first daring flight between Brussels and Leopoldville (in 51 days ... but only 75 flight-hours!). 
1926: Brussels was linked to London. 
1927: first regular flight in the Belgian Congo: from Boma to Elisabethville via Léopoldville. 
1928 and 1929: Germany, the ex-enemy, saw the Belgian civilian planes at Köln (Cologne), Düsseldorf and Hamburg. 
1931: first flight to Copenhague. 
1932: Berlin. 
1935: Lille (France) and Stockholm were the new landing places. At that time, King Leopold III (another Belgian sovereign interested in new tecnics) had married the Swedish princess Astrid and Sweden was nearly a part of Belgium in the heart of many inhabitants of that country. 
That year, a regular flight Brussels/Leopoldville war inaugurated, the first Fokker F-VII receiving very normally the honourable name "Edmond THIEFFRY". 
1937: Prague. 
1938: Vienna... and so on ....

Belgium is a little country but Sabena started links between Brussels and Antwerpen. A more uncommon service was the weekend flights between Brussels, Antwerpen and Knokke enabeling businessmen to rejoin their families for the Friday evening. The return trip on the Monday permitted to be at the office at 9 o'clock.

The equipment followed the civil aviation development. The Belgian national company bought the best planes for the period. The time of using ex-military planes was finished. Sabena used the Dutch Fokker F VII, the Italian SM S-73 and S-83, the German Ju 52 (very useful in the harsh conditions of the colony!), the American DC-3,.... Some of these machines were locally produced by SABCA (Société Belge de Construction Aéronautique) under license.


Sabena ordered nine Junkers Ju 52/3mge in 1936. OO-AGV as shown here at Haren, was the second Ju 52 delivered to Sabena.

The end of the growing

Sabena activities were suspended at the beginning of WWII. DSuring the phoney war, civilian planes were mainly painted in orange wearing in great black letters the words "Belgique-België" proving that those planes were neutral. By chance, there were no incidents from September 39 to 9 May 40. However, operations were limited, Belgium being surrounded by belligerents. For example, the terminus of the Congo route was temporally moved from Brussels to Marseilles. 

On 10 May 1940, the Belgian airfields were bombed but the Sabena machines could "escape" to Hendon. After a very surprising contract with the Sabena attaché in London, the transport planes (with their crews!) were "hired" to the RAF and ta ken on charge by British Squadrons (such as N° 24 Sq.).

Sabena DC-3-227B OO-AUH seen at Shoreham in May 1940. Later that same month it entered service with N° 24 Squadron RAF.

They mainly flew supply missions from England to the mainland, some of the aircraft being destroyed by the German Flak or fighters, civilian crewmen being killed or captured. A mission to Merville on 23 May turned into disaster, when three Sabena planes (two Savoia and one DC-3) were lost. Many crewmen decided then to "desert" and operate for the Belgian military schools evacuated in French Marocco. Those crews continued to fly after Belgian armistice (28 May 40) but had to stop all activities after the fall of France (18 June 1940). Aircraft which were operational were therefore devided between the victors, the Italians receiving the Savoias, the Germans at least a DC-3. This American plane survived the war as the personal plane of General CHRISTIANSEN (who, for the anecdote, was in 1918 a well-known pilot in the German airbase of Zeebrugge, on the Belgian coast).

But, in the Colony, the planes still in service continued to operate for the Allied cause, Belgian Congo having joined Great Britain and the Commonwealth. So, regular flights existed between Leopoldville and London (via Lisabon). For the annecdote, Sabena inherited some Ju52's of British origin, their previous operators finding it too dangerous to continue to operate German aircraft in Europe. Fokker F.VII's were still used until the arrival of more modern hardware in the form of a few Lockheed Lodestars.

After 2nd WW

On 10 July 1945, a Lodestar coming from Congo in Sabena livery landed on Haren airfield after five years of hostilities Eevrythingl had to be rebuilt and crewmen to be recruited. Many pilots having served during the war in the RAF or the SAAF were asked to become civilian pilots. It was a difficult choice for many of them who didn't want to become "truck drivers" but those who decide to return to civilian life (such as; A. GENDEBIEN, G. HALLEUX, J. ESTER, G. JASPIS, ....) did never regret their decision.

A Sabena Douglas DC-7C being prepared at Melsbroek.

During WWII development of the aircraft continued and saw the first steps into the "jet age". Sabena started operation on the Atlantic with DC-4 followed by DC-6, links with Belgian Congo were improved... Commuters planes (Convair 440, Dove, Heron Bristol 170,...) were bought by the Belgian Company which expanded its European network and inside of Congo. Haren airfield became to small and a new Belgian airport was built and developed at Zaventem. During the Korean war some Sabena airlners took part in the air-bridge from Europe to Asia carrying troops and cargo loads under contract for the USAF.

In the fifties, Sabena was also of the first company to operate helicopters for town to town linking Brussels with Paris and Köln. In Brussels the Sikorsky S55 operated from the centre of the town.

The Brussels' World exhibition in 1958 signified new challenges for Sabena. Belgium expanded its main airport at Zaventem and Sabena ordered Boeing 707's and leased Lockheed Constellations to carry the thousands of visitors coming in Brussels.

The 707's were extensively used during the troubles following the Congo independence in 1960 to evacuate Europeans out of the colony. It would not be the last time because every new crisis in the new independent country would signify the mobilisation of Sabena for humanitarian flights and this up to the end of the eighties. 

All along the last thirties years, new types entered service with what was then called the Belgian World airline: Caravelle, Boeing 727, 737, 747. The technical department of Sabena acquired some expertise maintaining the company fleet. Some other companies contracted Sabena to maintain their fleet. It was the start of a new success story. Sabena technical Dept maintaines and upgrades the Hercules fleet of the Belgian air force based on the other side of of the Zaventem airport in Melsbroek. 


In the 60's and 70's, choices had to be made and some mistakes were made. Sabena lost money and had to find new ways to finance its operations amids a general economical crisis.

A link with Swissair was one of the possible solutions to take on the new millennium, but unfortunately Sabena could not avoid bankruptcy and this also meant that one of the oldest airline companies in the world disappeared in this very turbulent business


Sabena A340-300 as it nears Runway 25R at Zaventem Airport for takeoff. 


Yves Duwelz

Last updated 06/11/11 15:51   Daniel Brackx