The Amiot 143 – Function over Form

The Amiot 143 was a French bomber and reconnaissance craft first developed in 1928 that was heavily involved in the early stages of World War Two. Perhaps the most hideous aircraft ever made by a nation known for its fine forms, the Amiot 143 was not only ugly but a distinctively mediocre performer in the battlefield, where it achieved some success only after it was exclusively allocated nighttime missions.

The Amiot’s underwhelming impact was largely due to its elongated developmental cycle of 7 years, which meant by the time it was rolled out it was already seriously outdated.


Origins and Development

In 1928 it was announced that the French Air Force were on the hunt for a four seater aircraft that could act as a bomber, escort, and reconnaissance craft. Vying for the contract were a range of airplanes including the Blériot 137, Bregeut 410, and SPAC 30, but it would be the Amiot 143, equipped with a pair of 18-cylinder W-shaped water-cooled Lorraine 18 Gad Orion 700 hp engines, that was declared the winner.

The Amiot however did not get off to a flying start and experienced a few major setbacks right from the beginning. The engines of the second prototype, know as the Amiot 140-02, failed to pass certification, meaning that when it was presented at the Paris Air Show between November and December 1930 it hadn’t even flown.

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As a result the first prototype, the Amiot 140-01, was stripped of its Lorraine powerplants and dual 12-cylinder V-shaped water-cooled Hispano-Suiza 12Nbr engines were temporarily installed while developers desperately scrambled for an alternative propulsion system.

18 KD W18 engine.
An 18 KD W18 engine from Lorraine.

It was with this overhauled prototype that the Amiot 143 took to the skies for the first time at Etampe on April 12th 1931 without incident. Even so, developers still felt there was room for improvement, and so soon the two-bladed Rathier propellors were replaced with a three-bladed version to reduce the gearbox vibrations that had emerged during its flight debut.

With the Amiot seemingly optimized, in mid-June she was flown to Villacoublay to be examined by representatives of the Air Force Technical Service, leading to the commencement of official flight evaluations on May 31st 1932 following a few minor tweaks.

In October 1932 the Amiot 140-01 was once again returned to the factory so that its wheels, shock absorbers, and brakes could be redesigned after a couple of inadequate performances. Fully revamped, the new components made a big difference, reducing its takeoff roll to 100 meters when its gross weight was more than 5.9 tonnes.

Amiot 140 prototype.
Amiot 140 prototype at the International Air Show in Paris, 1930.

The Amiot was next handed over to the New Aircraft Group for more trials that took place at Casot and concluded in July 1933. Afterwards, the Amiot took part in a series of more advanced tests; performing night maneuvers in Nancy and making 200 landings in Istra.

In contrast to the Amiot 140-01 which was going from strength to strength, the Amiot 140-02 was lagging behind. Reworked so that its fuselage was slightly longer, by February 1933 the 140-02 had been fitted with the same Hispano-Suiza 12Nbr engines that propelled the 140-01, but since this first prototype had already been successfully flight tested it was agreed that there was no point in repeating the exercise. Consequently, the Amiot 140-02 never flew.

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On November 23rd 1933 the Amiot 140-01 was found to meet all the requirements, and Order 1336/3 for was placed for 40 aircraft that were all to be equipped with brand new 900 hp Lorraine 12 Q engines. On the other hand, the Amiot would have to be redesigned again to meet fresh specifications released a month prior that put more emphasis on the bombing capabilities and flight performance than ever before.  

Amiot 144 prototype.
This Amiot 144 prototype is fitted with retractable landing gear.

Spearheaded by its creator A. Dutartre, the lower segment of  the Amiot’s fuselage was enlarged to provide greater visibility and ample room for the crew to operate their weapons effectively, while the bomb bay was moved to the left so that the passage between the front and rear compartments was more accessible.

In addition, the crew was now to comprise of 5 people including a commander, co-pilot navigator, nose gunner, top gunner, and radio operator.

Three experimental editions of the Amiot, each with different engines, were proposed: the Amiot 141 with Lorraine 12Q engines, the Amiot 142 with Hispano-Suiza 12 engines, and the Amiot 143 with Gnome-Rhone 14 Kirs engines. By the beginning of 1934, one Amiot 142 and two Amiot 143s were selected for final comparisons.

Amio taking off.
Amiot 143 take-off, 1934.

In August 1934 the flight test program for the Amiot 143 was conducted, showing promising results. At a demonstration in front of the 22nd Squadron in Chartres in September the Amiot further impressed, and after being further reinforced structurally and installed with lighter engine nacelles as well as a nose turret with a single 7.7 mm Lewis machine-gun, weapons testing was carried from mid-April to mid-day 1935.

It was during this period that the first production version of the Amiot 143, after 7 years of development, finally left the assembly line and was delivered on July 6th 1935.

The Amiot 143

18.26 meters in length, 5.68 meters in height, and with a maximum takeoff weight if 9,700 kilograms, the Amiot 143 was a lumbering ugly beast of a plane made entirely of metal that featured a distinctive two-deck fuselage.

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Its wings, which were 24.53 meters in span and 100 meters squared in area, were so deep they housed all of the fuel receptacles, and so voluminous that the flight engineer could access the engines mid-flight. Furnished with a fixed non-retractable undercarriage, it also had unusually large aerodynamic fairings covering the wheels that were 2.13 meters long.

Amiot 143 flying in formation.
Amiot 143 fitted with 14 cylinder radial engines.

The Amiot 143 was propelled by a pair of Gnome-Rhone 870 hp Kirs 14-cylinder radial engines which gave it a top speed of 310 kilometers per hour, a service ceiling of 7,900 meters, and a maximum operation range of 1,200 kilometers.

It was also augmented by four 7.5 mm MAC 1934 machine-guns located in the nose and dorsal turrets as well as fore and aft in a ventral gondola, and could carry an internal and external bomb load of up to 800 kilograms.

Operational History

By March 1938 a total of 178 Amiot 143s had been produced and delegated to various squadrons of the French Air Force. At the end of summer 1935 the 22nd Squadron at Chartres began receiving Amiot units, in October 1936 the 12th semi-brigade at Murmelon started to replace their aging fleet with the new bomber, and the 21st Squadron at Nancy started to swap its Leo 20s with 143s from early 1937.

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In late 1936 the Amiot 143 took its first international trip to French Indochina, where experimental Gnome-Rhone 14N engines were tested in tropical conditions, while in April 1939 17 Amio 143s were transferred to the 63rd squadron based in Marrakesh in Morocco.

143 gondola position.
Gunner position at the rear of the Amiot 143’s gondola.

The French Air Force had 126 Amiot 143s in their fleet on the eve of World War Two. The 143 was first used as a reconnaissance unit between September 3rd and September 22nd by the 34th squadron, who undertook 20 nighttime and 4 daytime surveillance missions. The night of the 15th and 16th of October witnessed one of the earliest casualties, with one Amiot 143 shot down by anti-aircraft fire south of Maen.

Between May and June 1940 Amiot 143s conducted a series of bomb raids against German airfields in Munich, Bonn, and Wittlich lasting a month. By June 5th they had dropped 153,600 kilograms of explosives over 197 sorties at a loss of just 4 units, illustrating the Amiot’s high survivability and better suitability to nighttime operations. In fact, by the time the Franco-German armistice had been signed in June 22nd dividing France into two zones, less than 50 Amiot 143s had been lost.

On the other hand, the Amiot 143 was only effective as a nighttime operator and was extremely vulnerable if being flown in daylight hours. For example, on May 14th 1940 during a daytime bombing of bridges, 12 out of 13 143s were shot out of the air by German forces. 

Amiot 143 destroyed on the ground.
An Amiot 143 that has been destroyed on the ground in France, 1940.

Its disadvantages now more apparent, for the rest of the war the Amiot 143, which by that time was outdated and being increasingly outclassed by other aircraft, was reassigned to a transportation role, most notably serving in the 15th transport regiment in Syria as part of the French Vichy Air Force that was collaborating with the Nazis, and used during the campaign there that raged between May to July 1941.

Elsewhere around this time, 52 Amiot 143s could be found in the ‘Free Zone’ governed by French authorities, while 25 remained in North Africa.

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On the other hand when the Free Zone was invaded by Germany in November 1942, only 11 units were discovered by Nazi forces, with only 3 in flightworthy condition. Completely outperformed and outgunned by a new generation of fighter craft, in February 1944 the last Amiot 143 was retired after less than a decade of service.