Monday, 28 September 2009

Marcel Dassault (Bloch) 1892-1986

Marcel Bloch, the youngest of a doctor's four children, was born on January 22, 1892, in Paris, France. His precocious interest in technological innovation in general - and electricity in particular - became rapidly apparent. "One sunny day in the school playground", he once recalled, "I looked up at the sky and saw the Count of Lambert's Wilbur Wright passing the Eiffel tower for the first time. I had never seen a plane before. There and then, I knew that aviation had become a part of my heart and thoughts". After high school and a spell at Breguet School of Electricity, Bloch joined Ecole Supérieure d'Aéronautique, a school of aviation, whence he graduated in 1913.
He first contributed to France's aviation industry during World War I. He used the engineering skills he had acquired at Chalais Meudon Aeronautical Laboratory to design a propeller, called the Éclair (1916), and a twin-seater fighter, the SEA 4 (1918), working alongside Henry Potez and Louis Coroller.

Bloch married in 1919, and had two sons, Claude and Serge. After dabbling in real-estate and, to a lesser extent, cars, throughout the 1920s, 1930 saw him gather a new team together and return to aviation. He remembered that occasion, in his own terms, as "One day - or indeed I should say one evening - I was at Le Bourget airport and saw Lindbergh land the Spirit of Saint Louis after flying over the Atlantic. I understood something had changed in aviation, and that civil aviation would be born. Wilbur Wright's plane first drew me to aviation. The Spirit of Saint Louis brought me back."

The Front Populaire, the political party in power at the time, nationalized Bloch's firm in 1936. He founded another one, Société Anonyme des Avions Marcel Bloch (SAAMB) on December 12 that same year. From a legal standpoint, that was Dassault Aviation's foundation date. He was concurrently managing director of another firm, Société Nationale des Constructions Aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest (SNCASO), in charge of serially manufacturing his aircraft.
World War II broke out and those planes were used to defend France's skies in 1939 and 1940. Bloch's refusal to collaborate with the invading army after the Armistice led to his incarceration in Montluc Fort in Lyons, along with his wife and children, at the hands of the Vichy Government. He was then sent to Drancy concentration camp before spending eight months in Buchenwald. Post-diphtheria paralysis from 1945 to 1953 did not stop Bloch resuming his aeronautical endeavors after the war.

In order to shed the somber souvenirs of war, Marcel Bloch and his family decided to change names. Dassault was the alias his brother, General Paul Bloch, had used in the Resistance, and the name Marcel adopted in 1949. He diversified into newspapers (at the head of Semaine de France then Jours de France) and, in politics, was to become senator for the Alpes Maritimes department and representative for the Oise department. And Dassault was the name that came to be known around the world for outstanding jet-powered aircraft.

Besides being the French Air Force's first jet aircraft, the MD-450 Ouragan (1949) pioneered the French postwar aeronautical industry's steps into the export market (selling in India and Israel). The Mystère IV (1954) earned endorsement for the company's expertise when the United States ordered 225 planes as part of an agreement with NATO. The 1967 Six Day War between Israel and its neighboring Arab nations provided conclusive evidence of the quality of Dassault aircraft. Other initiatives, like taking part in France's efforts to develop strategic nuclear power after the 1956 Suez expedition through the Mirage IV program (1959), were later to further cement Marcel Dassault's prominence.

Superior civil aircraft also held much of Dassault's interest. And here, again, it was the United States that provided consecration for the company's planes. In this case, Pan Am was the first airline to place a large-scale order and thereby open the doors to the American market.

Besides his work in aviation, newspapers and politics, Dassault was keen on architecture, cinema, banking and the stock market. His services to his country earned him France's highest honor, the Legion of Honor's Grand Cross.

Marcel Dassault died on 17 April 1986. France's government, top-ranking officials, and local and international media paid him an extraordinary tribute. His was the first funeral celebrated at Invalides for a French industrial businessperson.