Just over 51 years ago, France’s answer to the Boeing 737 first took flight. The Dassault Mercure was supposed to be the ultimate short-haul airliner with performance that the Americans couldn’t match. But by the end of its production just 12 ever took to the skies. Here’s the story about an airliner that came and went so fast that you may not know about it.
The 2020s are marking the half-century anniversaries of some awesome pieces of aviation history. Among those aircraft are the deadly, but sexy Bede BD-5, the advanced Lockheed L-1011, and even the introduction of the Boeing 747. In 1971, Dassault Aviation launched its first-ever commercial airliner with the promise of beating Douglas and Boeing.
During the 1960s, air travel was expanding and in response, airlines were asking manufacturers to build aircraft to fit different roles. Marcel Dassault, the founder of French manufacturer Dassault Aviation, noticed that there was a hole in the market. A number of routes were under 540 nautical miles (1,000 km), but they were being served by the likes of the Boeing 737, Douglas DC-9, and BAC One-Eleven. These aircraft worked for the role of short-haul flights, but they weren’t really optimized for it. For example, a Douglas DC-9 flying a short route still had to haul tanks large enough for range more than double than what was needed.
Dassault felt that short-haul routes were ripe for a plane designed just for them, and in 1967 the company set to build a highly specialized aircraft.
But the aircraft manufacturer immediately faced one problem. Dassault was a well-known aircraft manufacturer, but the planes that it built were the likes of the famous Mirage fighter and the Falcon family of business jets. It had never built a commercial airliner in its history, making the Mercure a completely new venture. As luck would have it, the French government was also watching the market and it, too, saw an opportunity for a specialized short-haul airliner. The French Directorate General for Civil Aviation wanted in, and suggested for the Dassault aircraft to seat 140 passengers, more than a Boeing 737-200 in a max seating configuration of 130.
The DGAC wanted to see the aircraft reach production so much that it loaned Dassault 56 percent of the development cost. According to a 1971 issue of Flight International, the cost of building two prototypes, two static test airframes, and obtaining certification ran 75 million Pound Sterling. Dassault threw in 10 million Francs of its own cash and the French government was to get its money back by levying sales of the aircraft. Development started in earnest in 1969.
The Mercure would be advanced for its day, employing computer design for its wings. And under those wings sat two Pratt & Whitney JT8D-15 low bypass turbofans producing 15,500 lbf thrust each. These were the same engines that could be found slung under a 737 of the day. On the flight deck, pilots got to enjoy a heads-up display and the plane could even land itself in foul weather. And its name called to mythology. Mercure translates to Mercury, or the only figure that Marcel could think of that had wings on a helmet and ailerons.
[Editor’s Note: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a depiction of Mercury with “ailerons” but maybe he meant the foot-wings? – JT]
Another way that the aircraft would be different is with its size and fuel capacities. The Mercure was bigger than its proposed direct target. A Boeing 737-100 is 93 feet long with the 737-200 being around 100 feet. The Mercure, with its larger seating capacity, stretched just a little over 114 feet from nose to tail. In addition, while the heavier 737-200 of the day came in at 65,300 pounds empty, the Mercure weighed in at 70,100 pounds.
And of course, it carried less fuel. The 737-200 could carry 5,970 gallons of fuel to get it around 2,600 nautical miles. The Mercure flew with up to 4,900 gallons of fuel onboard, getting the larger plane just 1,125 nautical miles on a single fill.
But for what the Mercure lacked in range it made up for in performance. Its design enabled it to climb twice as fast as the competition while also achieving a similar cruising speed.
The Mercure had its first flight on May 28 1971.
The government and Dassault expected the aircraft to be such a success that four factories were built to manufacture the aircraft. And it was expected that by 1980, perhaps 300 units would be flying. The Mercure was a multinational effort, too. ADAP (Belgium), Canadair (Canada), CASA (Spain), Fiat (Italy), and FW of Emmen (Switzerland) were all contracted to help with production.
Government-backed French airline Air Inter placed an order for 10 Mercures in 1972. A year later, the production version of the Mercure would take to the skies. And in 1974, the plane would get its civil certification with Air Inter as the launch customer. The production aircraft would bear the designation Mercure 100.
Unfortunately, Air Inter would end up being the only customer for the Mercure.
Dassault had proven that the Mercure was an exceptional aircraft for short-haul flights. It was fast, it carried a bunch of people, and promised to be a cheap airliner to run. In theory, airlines should have been begging for something like this. According to Flight International, airlines could purchase them for 6 million Euro each. But while there was some interest from other airlines, none of them followed through.
In a rather surprisingly honest review of the demise of its own aircraft, Dassault Aviation has laid out why this plane failed:
Four external events came as hammer-blow to the Mercure program:
the first oil crisis which diminished the margins of airlines, restricting their ability to purchase new aeroplanes;
devaluation of the US dollar;
a higher rate of inflation in Europe than in the United States which was to the advantage of Boeing and Douglas;
a preference on the part of the airlines for a versatile aircraft capable of providing short- and medium-haul service.
As you’ve seen written time and time again on your favorite sites, that pesky oil crisis tightened the belts of airlines. They had less money to buy new aircraft. And on top of that, a poor economy, inflation, and devaluation of the U.S. Dollar made the aircraft more expensive. But perhaps the biggest hurdle that the Mercure had to overcome was its own design.
While the 737 and the DC-9 weren’t optimized for short routes, they still did the job. And when the airline needed to use the same aircraft on longer routes, they could do that, too. On the other hand, the Mercure 100 could do only short flights. It simply didn’t have the range to be able to be used on longer routes without refueling. As Dassault itself admits, airlines preferred aircraft that could serve multiple roles fine enough over a plane that could do just one thing really well.
Still, it’s a bit amazing that Dassault found nobody outside of Air Inter bothered. According to transportation YouTuber Mustard, Dassault needed to sell 125 to 150 Mercures to break even. In an effort to give airlines what they wanted, Dassault began development of the longer-range Mercure 200. According to France’s Le Conservatoire de l’Air et de l’Espace d’Aquitaine (an air and space conservatory), the French government was willing to loan Dassault 200-million French Francs to build the Mercure 200. The government would make its money back after the sale of the 201st sale. However, costs began to balloon due to Air France’s requests for new engines and supercritical wing. Eventually, the government decided that Dassault had to pay for half of the new plane.
Of course, since the Mercure 100 had sold just 10 units, that money wasn’t there.
Further efforts to market and sell the Mercure failed, and just 12 were ever built, including prototypes. One prototype was entered into service, making Air Inter’s total 11 aircraft. They went on to have successful careers. The aircraft flew some 44 million passengers, racking up 360,000 flight hours and a 98 percent in-service reliability. The last Mercure made its last flight in spring 1995.
The Mercure may have been a failure, but it was really only the start of French aviation. Dassault went back to doing what it did best, and today offers some seriously attractive business jets. And France-based European multinational manufacturer Airbus builds planes that compete with America’s best, and even hold their own in the airline sales dogfight.
The French have definitely built some pretty airliners, especially the Sud Aviation Caravelle .
Ah, Dassault Mercure. This was in fact a highly advanced machine. It had dimmable, polarized cabin windows (not seen again until 787) and it had a gust suppression system called Dispositif Anti Rafale Dassault (DARD for short). It was let down by poor range. They were i talks to build a CFM56-equipped version, but Dassault lost faith in what was to become the CFM56 and so it came to nothing. Too bad.
I had heard of the Mercure before, had missed before that the BOW was another 5000lbs more than a 737-200, that’s not a help either, but a factor that is also worth mentioning, if you as an airline use the 73 for that route you have a large existing pool or spare a/c, parts and crew already trained on the aircraft. To get into the niche they aimed for they needed something not only cheaper but lighter and more efficient. I had seen a post on an avgeek site that claimed the a/c would have been perfect in the late 90s early oughts for regional carriers but with that BOW and MTOW it would have been simply too heavy for any of them to be able to fly it under union contracts (Part of what has killed the MRJ/SpaceJet from Mitsubishi as of late)
The thing about designing an airplane specifically for short-range flights is that you don’t have to max out the fuel tanks every time you take off. So if you only need half the range, you can fill that longer-range aircraft halfway up. You’ll likely get similar fuel burn economics, and you’ll gain the flexibility to send the aircraft on longer flights if the need arises.
That’s the reason why the smallest airplanes in a given aircraft family are niche players at best. You’ll hardly ever see the 737-600; the Airbus A318 is somewhat more common but still rare compared to the A319, A320, and A321; and the 787-3 never got off the ground (sorry, I couldn’t help but to employ that bit of wordplay there), never making it past the conceptual design phase. The bigger siblings of these airplanes offer more capacity and range (which translates to more operational flexibility) for similar fuel burn.
That’s also much of the reason the A380 is so uneconomical. The wing and much of the structure was really intended for the “stretch” version that never got built. The short version that did is too thirsty for it’s size, but is still too big to reliably fill with passengers. The big version would be great if you could reliably fill it, but that’s a big IF. Another example where the market didn’t do as predicted – fewer big planes to huge hubs, more smaller planes on direct flights.
Great post, thanks, Mercedes!
Sounds like the Mercure was a heavy, and more importantly, a very thirsty pig. They were lucky to get out when they did; fuel prices were only going to exacerbate the weight and fuel consumption in following years.
I’m generally fascinated when there’s a product failure of a large scale not because the product itself is bad, just that between conception and production, the market forces change things so it’s not nearly as viable as it looked in the initial planning stages. I can see why there is so little competition in commercial aircraft these days. I wish there was more, but at the same time if we agree with the statement that making cars is hard and see it play out with the struggles of automotive startups, what must the challenges of an aircraft startup look like?
Another factor not mentioned: airline procurement extends way beyond the initial aircraft purchase with spares, upgrades, and wear items. Adding another major source to their purchasing is a lot of work and you know that Boeing was making very sweet package deal discounts to discourage another fox visiting the henhouse.
This short video from Mustard is an excellent overview of this aircraft’s history:
“France’s Answer To The Boeing 737”
In my mind, France’s Answer will henceforth always be… the Franswer.
“Airbus builds planes that compete with America’s best, and even hold their own in the airline sales dogfight.”
Did you mean “Airbus is killing Boeing ever since the 737 Max fiasco”?
Airbus is a different Cat ( or Dog, or Pony… pick your prefered animal ).
It started as the reunion of various French companies ( Sud Aviation/Aérospatiale, Nord Aviation and more ) and then built with European companies on top of it.
And while the 737 Max fiasco is well… a FAA Fiasco, there’s been enough improvement in planes and traffic demand that both the A320 Serie ( from A318 to A321, Neo or not ) and the 737 one ( even if it’s allegedly on it’s last leg with the Max ) to thrive.
The only thing that might change the airline game is is airports worldwide starts doing, on a permanent basis what Heathrow implemented for the summer : Passenger number limitation.
Mmm… my (mis)understanding is that Boeing is delivering 737 Max at the rate of a couple dozen a month and has a few thousand orders. They lost ground to Airbus, of course, and they might have gone ahead with a Dreamliner-tech 737 and/or a true 757 replacement rather than the bridge-too-far Max, but I wouldn’t say they’re being, much less have been, killed.
To this date, there are 4911 737Max orders and 8115 orders for the A320Neo. That’s a huge gap.
More worrying is that if Boeing wanted to make a new aircraft to be on par with the A320, they’d have to start with a blank slate design as the 737 is already way too long in the tooth, as evidenced by the MCAS fiasco which is only one of the band aids used on that plane (flattened engine nacelle design, extending landing gear…).
That comes after the cancellation of the NMA program (which must’ve cost them a lot of cash in R&D) and slow sales for the Max. So they are low on cash and not exactly surfing on a wave of confidence from the airlines, which limits their ability to develop a plane where they have to show their work if they hope to sell it.
They basically painted themselves into a corner.
Boeing’s problem is that it has major customers who simply have no interest in an all-new airplane. They wanted, and still want, a more fuel-efficient 737 with the same type rating and minimal cost to retrain pilots – recall that SWA famously made Boeing develop digital cockpit screens that emulated the old steam gauges for that reason when the NG737 came out. And SWA alone is probably going to buy ~1000 Max’s by the time they are done refreshing their fleet.
Boeing is doing just fine. Both companies are in the enviable position of having more demand than they have production capacity. At least assuming the pandemic and the Green movement don’t kill the market in general.
Minor quibble – there’s no way the difference in length between the 737-100 and 737-200 is less than two feet.
As a Canadian that has subsidized Bombardier through some projects, I get a real rinse and repeat vibe from this. Perhaps Mercure was the wrong name and Icarus would have been a better fit.
Also, I am assuming this is the same Dassault that is now a software powerhouse. If so, something good did come of this history.
Sort of. According to the dreaded Wikipedia it was spun off as a subsidiary in 1981. At the OEM I worked for, engineering modelling was done in Catia V5, and production surfacing done in ICEMsurf, both part of the Dassault Systèmes suite of CAD software. It all came out of the use of CAD in aircraft design in the late sixties.
As an American, the secret is you call it “defense spending” and all politicians will fall over each other to cut you a bigger cheque than the last one. Even in relative lean times, e.g., Boeing trying their hand at light rail after Vietnam wound down, these folks are coming from such a relative position of taxpayer funded strength, that no traditional venture will be able to compete for long.
Dassault was never really in the airliner market… the Mercure was their only foray there.
Dassault is deep in warplanes and BBJs.
They know better than to try to go against Airbus and Boeing… just loonk at how messy is the cooperation between Dassault and Airbus on the FCAS. ( and that’s a warbird )
I had no idea I would be interested in this. But for some unknown reason, I am!
I get what you’re saying. That’s why I dig this site. I’m not a gearhead or a mechanic (though I am somewhat mechanically inclined and can perform a little beyond first echelon maintenance on my rides), but I have become interested in deep dives on vehicles. Why? Because of the writers here. Mercedes, JT, DT, and the others give to us history, tech tips, adventure stories, opinions, and other information that is interesting, relatable, fun, and without condescension. And there are some great commenters here, too! I get much info (and laughter!) from fellow readers. I’m really digging this new site and the community.
Fingers crossed that Mercedes or anyone in the know can school us on big GE locomotives (or other big iron).
This was also the era when the 737 itself was in trouble – the -100 was discontinued after only a few years, and the -200 was selling so slowly that Boeing was talking to a consortium of Japanese companies over possibly selling them the design and tooling and washing their hands of it. That was going on just as the Mercure was entering commercial service, the mid 1970s was just not a good time to be selling small jet airliners
How were the prices mentioned in the article determined?
The Euro wasn’t a thing back when this plane initially flew and for pretty much all of its service. I get that French francs wouldn’t mean much now for value comparison, but noting if the price was in 1970’s equivalent of euros, or francs compared to USD then and converted from there to euros, or something else.
Basically I’m confused. 😀
That is actually my fault, I apologize The cited article used Pound Sterling to note pricing, not the Euro. But my eyes apparently saw a Euro and didn’t question it. I’ll have that fixed. Thank you for pointing it out!
Sure thing! Thanks for taking a look.
This s great: an obscure modern airplane. And, given your audience, I bet someone here has flown in them-or even worked at an airport while they were in service.
E & E indeed
Apparently excellence in jet fighters does not cross over into jet airliners
The only one to sell lots of both was McDonell Douglas plus an honorable mention for De Haviland.
…and for that matter, most of the fighters from about the last 60+ years came from the McDonnell side. I think Douglas was pretty much out of the fighter business after the mid 50s, though a well handled A-4 could famously turn around and bite an opponent, and they made an unsuccessful proposal for a subsonic missile truck for the outer defense of the fleet in the late 60s.
I’d give Lockheed half a point — the L-1011 was a superb plane, though the Grey Poupon shortage or whatever it was that kept Rolls Royce from supplying their engines on time let the DC-10 steal a march on it. And maybe Convair too — the 880/990 was an impressive technical achievement, if a bit late to the party and not quite aligned enough with what customers needed.
The only reason McDonnell Douglas sold a lot of both is because it was a merger of two companies, one that sold passenger jets, and one that sold fighter jets.
Douglas>McDonnell Douglas> Boeing.