You know any aircraft is going to be weird when it’s French and from the early Cold War. The NC.1071 is no different, this little thing is extremely odd, looking like a squished P-38 Lightning.
But while it may have resembled the P-38, it certainly wasn’t as successful. This experimental carrier plane had a slightly concerning tendency to start falling apart while flying. Oh, and its landing gear didn’t work very well either.
This is the – short lived – history of the NC.1071.
Development of the NC.1071
After the liberation of France from Nazi occupation in 1944, the nation embarked on a large-scale modernisation and “catch-up” program for its military and industry. France had essentially paused its military projects in 1939, so it had a long road ahead to re-establish itself as an equal to nations like the UK and US.
This game of catch-up also applied to the French Navy, which sought to design and build aircraft carriers. However, they didn’t have any aircraft to carry, so the SNCASO design office (abbreviated from Société nationale des constructions aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest) began the development of a modern carrier-based multi-role aircraft.
It was designated SO.1070.
At this point the SO.1070 was a conventional twin piston-engine aircraft with two vertical stabilisers at the rear. However in 1945 the design was transferred to the SNCAC design office (abbreviated from Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Centre) and redesignated NC.1070.
Despite the similar names, the NC.1070 was a very different machine. The rear of the fuselage was cut down significantly, with the tail now only a few feet behind the trailing edge of the wings.
The rear of the fuselage contained a gunner’s position.
The NC.1070 was still powered by two Gnome-Rhône 14-cylinder radial piston engines, but they were to be housed in huge nacelles, one on each wing. The nacelles were almost equal in size to the fuselage itself, giving the aircraft an incredibly strange, stubby appearance.
A prototype was built and took to the skies for the first time in May, 1947. It was found to be underpowered.
A second prototype was desired, but by this time jet engines had essentially made piston engines obsolete, so SNCAC chose to replace the NC.1070’s piston engines with Rolls-Royce Nene turbojets for the second prototype.
This updated version was designated NC.1071.
On March 9, 1948 the NC.1070 crashed at Toussus-le-Noble Airport in France and was heavily damaged. However, with this version expected to be inferior, SNCAC chose to focus its efforts on the jet-powered NC.1070 instead of fixing the NC.1070.
The NC.1071 first flew on October 12 1948, and was found to be much faster than its piston-powered sibling.
The NC.1071’s Weird Design
As typical with many French prototypes of this era, the NC.1071 is an extremely weird looking aircraft.
Retaining the NC.1070’s layout, it had a short fuselage that sat between two huge engine nacelles.
The NC.1071’s wings were mid mounted and slightly swept. Vertical stabilisers protruded from the rear of the engine nacelles, as they continued almost as far back as the fuselage itself. The stabilisers were connected by a large, high-mounted horizontal stabilizer.
In many ways, the NC.1071 resembled a squished and extremely squat P-38 Lightning. It is often considered a typical twin-boom design, but the NC.1071’s fuselage protrudes further forward and back than the nacelles.
Its fuselage measured 10.75 meters (35 ft 3 in) in length, and it had a wingspan 20 meters (66 ft 7 in). Maximum take-off weight was 10,850 kg (24,000 lbs).
It sat on a tricycle landing gear, which was still fairly novel at the time. Interestingly, the NC.1071’s nose wheel is off-centre.
The defensive tail-gun position was removed, reducing the NC.1071’s crew to just two (pilot and bombardier), compared to the NC.1070’s three.
No armament was fitted to the aircraft, but it was planned to eventually carry a pair of 20mm Hispano cannons in the nose, and up to 800 kg of bombs.
Power came from two Rolls-Royce Nene turbojets, which were licence-built by Hispano-Suiza. These engines produced 2,350 kg of thrust each, and greatly improved the top-speed of the aircraft from the piston-powered version, from 360 mph to 500 mph.
The use of jet engines also enabled a respectable maximum altitude of 43,000 ft. However, they also significantly reduced its available range, from the NC.1070’s 2,113 miles (3,400 km) to just 620 miles (1,000 km).
This was quite typical for jet engines of the era though, which were still in their infancy. France expected to work around such issues via strategically positioning their aircraft carriers.
An Embarrassing Test Program
The NC.1071 first flew on October 12, 1948. Immediately, it proved much, much faster than the piston-powered NC.1070, bringing a 30% increase in top speed.
But test pilots disliked the aircraft, noting that it was sluggish, unstable, and most terrifyingly, at risk of disintegrating. It reportedly had a tendency to loose rivets at high speed, and the landing gear would frequently drop on its own in flight.
Also, despite the jet engines, NC.1071 was considered underpowered.
By 1949 it had gained the nickname “stool” among pilots, and was clearly not going to be accepted into service. Mid-way through that year, the NC.1071 suffered its first accident and was grounded for a year and a half.
Tests resumed in December of 1950, but this time were carried out with a French Navy pilot and two engineers on board, unlike the previous single-pilot tests. In May of 1951 the NC.1071 was conducting a test flight, when the two engineers, situated in the fuselage, noticed that the airframe was severely distorting.
The aircraft quickly landed and an inspection was carried out. It was found that the NC.1071 was terrifyingly close to disintegrating on that flight.
With its poor performance, desire to destroy itself, and low capabilities, the NC.1071 project was cancelled the following month, and the aircraft itself was scrapped.