Monday, February 7, 2011

What Ever Happened To The Air France Latecoere 631

Latecoere 631

The headlines in the Pottsville Republican August 2, 1948 read:

Would be worst disaster on Atlantic Run is the 52 persons aboard are not found.
U.S. Ship Speeding Into The Search Area
August 2, 1948

Paris, August, 2, 1948 (U.P.) Sea and air units searched the mid Atlantic some 1,400 miles west of Africa coast today for a huge, six engined French Flying boat missing with 52 persons.
The plane, the largest commercial airliner in the world, was last heard from 8 P.M. EDT Saturday. It disappeared on a flight from Fort De France, Martinique, in the French West Indies, to Port Etienne, French West Africa.
The missing plane carried 40 passengers and a crew of 12. No passenger list was available in Paris.
French Naval authorities ordered a warship and naval planes from Dakar to the search area and ships at sea were notified to be on the lookout.
Air France sent two long range planes to join the search, one a Latecoere 631, a sister ship to the missing plane, and the other a long range Air France Constellation.
The U.S. coast Guard cutter Campbell, on patrol duty in the mid Atlantic, notified that U.S. embassy that it was steaming to the last known position of the giant sky queen.
The missing plane left Martinique at 10:50 a.m. (EDT) Saturday and was scheduled to arrive at Fort Etienne at 9 p.m. It was last heard from at 8.p.m. when it gave its position and said all was well.
The position given by the plane was about 1,400 miles short of its destination in an area some 850 to 900 nautical miles northwest of the Cape Verde Islands.
The U.S. Embassy notified Air France that an American radio station in the Azores had picked up a distress signal. The time of the message was not known.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the Campbell was 420 miles away from the last reported position and was expected to arrive in the general area of the search at 6 p.m. (EDT).
American planes are stand9ng by to join the search if the French request it.
Should all aboard be lost, it would be the worst disaster on the Trans Atlantic run and the third worst aviation disaster in history.
The giant flying boat is the largest commercial airliner now in use with a takeoff weight of some 83 tons. (332,000 lbs). It is 141 feet long and has a wingspan of 786 feet. It is powered by six 1,600 hp engines giving it an effective range of about 3,000 miles at cruising speeds of 200 miles per hour.

The 631....She had beautiful lines

As with all disasters , especially aircraft that are missing, the rumor mill runs wild. Just like the story printed on August 5, 1948.

August 5, 1958
Pottsville Republican

Paris, Aug. 5 (U.P.) The French press agency said today that Air France had received a dispatch saying the Latecoere 631 flying boat missing in the South Atlantic since Sunday had been found with all 52 aboard alive.
After its dispatch reporting the discovery of the plane, the news agency circulated another from Dakar saying the search had been futile. The possibility was seen, but not confirmed, that it was delayed and had been superseded by the discovery report.
The agency dispatch reporting without immediate confirmation the discovery of the big flying boat was from Marseille. It said Air France the national air line which operated the plane, had been notified.
Air France headquarters in Paris said it had no information tending to confirm the Marseille dispatch.
The press agency itself cautioned that the report should be “Treated with reserve”.
According to the unofficial report, the craft was found 120 miles south of the point from which it last reported all well about midnight Sunday.
It was flying from Martinique to West Africa with 40 passengers and a crew of 12.
The last radio report was sent from a point some 1,400 miles west of the African coast and 800 to 900 miles northwest of the Cape Verde Islands.

Five days after the ill fated aircraft left Martinque, aircraft debris was spotted floating on the surface of the ocean by the U.S.C.G. Campbell.

The massive flight deck of the 631

AUGUST 6, 1948

New York, Aug 8…Charred seat cushions and other debris found in the South Atlantic near the last reported position of a missing six engined Air France flying boat indicated that the craft exploded killing all 52 persons aboard, the Coast Guard reported today.
However, the captain of the Coast Guard cutter Campbell radioed from the scene, 1,200 miles west of Dakar, that search for survivors would be continued in the hope that some might yet be found alive. The plane disappeared Sunday.
There is no doubt that the plane was stricken by fire either before or after an explosion” The Campbell reported
The report from the cuter said, that the sea in the area, only 65 miles from the normal course of the French airliner, was covered with debris. Among the items picked from the water were leather trimmed, rose upholstered seats, bits of plywood tabletop and a locker door.
“There is little doubt that the wreckage and debris seen today by the crew members of the Campbell came from the plane.” Captain Beckwith Jordan reported. “The Campbell has changed course to the leeward pursuing the theory that any survivors who managed to escape the airliner by raft would have been driven in that direction by the steady wind.”
The plane seats, built on painted aluminum frames, were still joined together and were hauled aboard the cutter with grappling hooks.
The floating wreckage was first sighted by a B-29 which guided the Coast Guard cutter to the scene.
The 73 ton airliner, the Latecoere 631 disappeared Sunday on a routine flight from Fort –De- France, Martinique, French West Africa. The passengers were mainly Britons, Frenchmen and Colombians.

According to the article the 631 was lost 1200-1400 miles west of Port Etienne or 850 to 900 miles NW of Cape Verde Islands.
The aircraft left Fort De France, Martinique at 10:50 a.m. (EDT) and was due to arrive at 9:00 p.m. (EDT).

The total distance of the trip is 2370 nautical miles. According to the newspapers the total flight time was 10:50 minutes, which if calculated correctly gives a rough ground speed of 219 knots.
The charts show a rough course of 075 and the area where the Campbell would have spotted wreckage or as close as possible with the info available.

From Flight Global: 1947

Air France announce that the Latecoere 631 will go into
service on the route to the West Indies for which three have
been ordered. On July 25th an initial flight started from
Bordeaux, calling at Port Etienne and flying on to Fort de
France, Antilles. On the schedule the journey from Paris to
Bordeaux is to be made by train and takes six hours. The
rest of the journey is to be completed in just over twenty-four

The French have for many years appreciated
the inherent qualities and future possibilities
of the large, long-range commercial flying-boat.
Unlike ourselves, they already possess a few machines ot
this class which, though falling short of the standards
which will be set in two years' time by the SR45 (span
220ft, flying weight 120 tons, cruising speed over
300 m.p.h., range 5,000 miles), do at least approach the
massive Saro in dimensions. One of these boats, the six-engined
Latecoere 631-04, fourth machine of its class, was
flown over last week from Biscarrosse to the B.O.A.C.
base at Hythe, and was made available for flying experience
and examination The visit was arranged by Commercial
Transocean (London), Ltd., the British representatives
for the Office Francais d'Exportation de Materiel

The basic design of the 631 dates from 1938, when the
first prototype was ordered by the French Air Ministry to
a specification calling for a flying-boat to operate on
North and South Atlantic routes, carrying forty passengers
for 3,700 miles against a 37 m.p.h. headwind.
Between 1939 and 1940 construction was interrupted, but
was put in hand again after the German occupation, and
the first machine flew in November, 1942. Thereafter
it was confiscated by the Germans and taken to Friedrichshafen,
on Lake Constance, where it was eventually sunk
by bombing. Flights have already been made over the
South Atlantic to Latin American countries, and it is
understood that Air France will shortly make a proving
flight over the same route.
A considerable number of these flying-boats have been
ordered. Nos. 2, 3 and 4 will go to Air France, Nos. 5, 6
and 7 to the Mexican Government, and 8, 9 and 10 to Air
France. It is possible that Air France will ultimately order
three more. The price, incidentally, is in the region of
Everything considered, the Latecoere is a most creditable
achievement. She is remarkable not only for her overall
size and the spaciousness and arrangement of her interior,
but for her graceful line's and very clean aerodynamic
design. Points worthy of special notice are the lateral
stabilizing floats, which retract into the tail fairings of the
outboard nacelles, and the tail unit, with a dihedral tail plane
carrying unbraced fin and rudder assemblies totally
above it at its extremities.
As demonstrated last week, the 631-04 is laid out to
carry forty-six sleeping passengers on the North or South
Atlantic route and for short-range operation, e.g., 1,000
miles, will seat a hundred. The wing span is 188ft, the
aspect ratio 9.4, and the gross wing area 3,760ft. At an
all-up weight of 157,300 lb this gives the moderate wing
loading of 41.5 lb/sq ft, which is particularly desirable
in view of high power loading of over 16 lb/h.p. The
six Wright Cyclone GR 2600 A5B units at present installed
give a take-off output of i,6oo h.p. each and allow cruising
speeds of up to 185 m.p.h. at 1,500ft. From boat No. 5
onwards Wright engines giving 1,890 h.p. will be installed.
We are assured by M. Castex, of O.F.E.M.A., that the substitution
of Bristol Hercules would increase the cruising
speed by as much as 40 m.p.h. With the present engines
the maximum speed is 246 m.p.h. at 6,000ft, and it is
claimed that, at a weight of 45 tons, flight is possible with
three engines stopped on one side. Ratier 14-ft 3-blade,
fully feathering, electrically controlled airscrews are fitted.
The claimed take-off time of 66 seconds, at a speed of 97 m.p.h.,
can well be believed, for with a heavy fuel load
and carrying sixty-odd passengers for a demonstration flight
over London (take-off weight 65 tons) the machine seemed
to unstick in about 54 seconds. In the evening, with fewer
passengers, the time was reduced to no more than 40
The most critical passengers on flights last week seemed
to be even more impressed by the interior appointments
of the boat than by her external dimensions. The sensitive
eye of Mr. Lonsdale-Hands found little fault. Aft of the
entry door is a large kitchen with a Butane gas cooker,
and in line with it are toilets. Moving forward along the
central corridor one passes eight cabins, each containing
two convertible armchairs, a bedding locker, and a wardrobe.
These are screened from the corridor by curtains.
Further forward are four more cabins, each seating four in
convertible armchairs, and next comes a really spacious
restaurant bar. This, being in line with the engines, is
somewhat noisier than the other compartments, and the
tables are inclined to vibrate. As in the other compartments,
the ports are insufficiently wide, though this is a
fault shared by many other large commercial aircraft of
much later design. Here criticism of the bar must end Moving forward again
(by this tune the bow window is
becoming distinctly visible in the distance)
one discovers
a baggage hold and another toilet, and further on still are
two more blocks of cabins, one for eight and one for four
passengers. Finally, immediately aft of the bow mooring
compartment, is a cosy nook for two passengers. Through
a large window in the extreme bow a view of the land or
seascape immediately ahead is obtainable.
During most the flight from Hythe up to Mortlake, over
London, and back by way of Shoreham, we were on the
upper deck with the pilot, M. Prevost, who handled his
huge charge with true French finesse. The crew compartment
is austere, but everything seems to work well. One
feature to which it is difficult to become accustomed, having
been used to flying in Short boats, is the immense length
of the bow, sloping away forward of the windscreen. This
suggests the deck of a large cabin cruiser, an impression
which is heightened by the mast amidships. On the London
trip the ground speed was about 165 m.p.h. The altimeter
reading is, perhaps, best left unrecorded.
In the evening M. Prevost paid his respects to Calshot,
the Saunders-Roe works at Cowes, and the bases at Hum
and Poole. Passengers included General Phillipe, Chief
Engineer, French Air Ministry; Dr. Ricardo; Capt. Dudley
Travers; Capt. Alger; and—taking an evening off before
making the initial flight in the Saro jet fighter—Mr. Geoffrey
Tyson. We engaged in conversation a gentleman who was,
perhaps, more impressed by the 631 than anyone else.
By name Mr. R. F. Little, he was the flight engineer in
the Dornier Wai, in which Frank Courtney made his westeast
Atlantic bid in 1927.

Editors Note: Other Latecoere 631’s crashes

Latecoere Boat Lost
April 6, 1950
TEN lives were lost when, on March
28th, a Latecoere 631 six-engined
flying-boat crashed in the sea off Cap
Ferrat while on a test-flight.

September 10, 1955

The Latecoere flying boat had been based in Africa to fly cotton from Lac Lérè in Chad to Douala. On a flight to Biscarosse, France for routine overhaul the aircraft entered a tropical storm. The wing broke, probably as a result of winds hear, and the aircraft crashed. This was the last active Latecoere 631 flying boat. Plans to convert some stored 631s for cargo transportation were not carried out; all remaining planes were scrapped.


clem clements said...

Fabulous post for my all-time favorite airplane. And one I consider the most beautiful flying boat bar none. Thank you for the historical discovery!

Hans von Meijenfeldt said...

Very interesting. I remember flying Douglas Dakota and such, but I sure would have liked piloting one of these "cruise ships".