10 European aircraft manufacturers you may not have heard of
When it comes to European aircraft manufacturers, Airbus is the undisputed king. However, there are still plenty of smaller and perhaps lesser-known aircraft makers on the continent, including ATR, Dassault, Fokker, Saab and Piaggio.
There are also manufacturers that, although once big and important, have either been relegated to the past or transformed into something different over time. This includes companies such as Messerschmitt, Aérospatiale, CASA and those that eventually merged to become Airbus.
Finally, there are the once notable manufacturers that appear to have disappeared, leaving no discernible trace, and can be considered all but forgotten. Unsurprisingly, given Europe’s long and diverse history, hundreds of these manufacturers have existed.
So, to mark Europe month, where our journalists explore aviation across the continent, AeroTime takes a look at 10 European aircraft manufacturers you may not have heard of.
It is worth noting that we have only selected one manufacturer from each country, making this list just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to overlooked plane makers. AeroTime has also decided to skip larger countries, such as Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, because each nation could fill a list of its own.
AB Thulinverken (Sweden)
The company was founded in 1914 by Enoch Thulin, a man who single-handedly kickstarted Sweden’s aircraft and automotive industries.
During and immediately after the Second World War the company had been building licensed copies of French and German military aircraft until Thulin started working on his own designs. Several dozen of his reconnaissance and trainer aircraft served with the Swedish Air Force between 1916 and 1920. However, none of these were particularly successful.
After Thulin’s death in 1919, the company began to focus on building automobiles. In the 1920s and 30s other, more prominent and prolific manufacturers were established in Sweden, and Thulinverken never returned to its roots. Nevertheless, its early biplanes can be considered predecessors of Saab’s well-known airliners and military jets.
Thulin E, Thulin’s first design. Note the large “T” on the underside of the wing for Thulin. (Image: Axel Blomgren / Wikipedia)
Eidgenössisches Flugzeugwerk (Switzerland)
The lengthy German name translates simply as ‘Federal Aircraft Factory’. Under the slightly underwhelming name hides a whole slew of fascinating and often rather unconventional designs, developed and built for the Swiss Air Force (SAF).
Switzerland’s first attempt at developing a domestically manufactured fighter jet is particularly notable. The EFW N-20 Aiguillon was a four-engine behemoth conceived in the 1940s when the idea of what a jet engine fighter was supposed to look like had not yet been established.
The N-20’s prototype was eventually built in the early 1950s, but never took off. Eidgenössisches Flugzeugwerk also worked on several piston-engine and turboprop designs and maintained foreign-made jets for the SAF until eventually merging with Swiss conglomerate RUAG in the 1960s.
The C-3605 target-towing aircraft, built by Eidgenössisches Flugzeugwerk in the 1960s. It was a re-engined and upgraded version of the C-3603, Switzerland’s only domestically made mass-produced combat aircraft. Also, thorium was used in its engine, leading to the aircraft being radioactive. (Image: 46aviation / Wikipedia)
ANBO was a brand of military aircraft designed by Antanas Gustaitis in the 1920s and 30s. A pilot and engineer as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the Lithuanian Air Force (LAF), Gustaitis was a major driving force behind the small country’s aviation industry, in addition to being a prolific aircraft designer.
Right before the outbreak of the Second World War, almost a quarter of the Lithuanian Air Force’s 200-strong aircraft fleet was composed of domestically manufactured ANBO reconnaissance airplanes, trainers and light bombers. However, the brand ceased to exist in the 1940, swept away with the rest of the country following the Soviet invasion of Lithuania.
The ANBO-41, the most common aircraft in the series. Several surviving examples saw service with both the Soviet Air Force and Lufwaffe as what remained of the Lithuanian Air Force changed hands during the Second World War. (Image: Plieno Sparnai)
Throughout its history, Czechoslovakia, later Czechia, had no shortage of successful aircraft manufacturers. Avia remains somewhat known for its Second World War-era designs, while Aero Vodochody gained prominence during the Cold War for its jet trainers.
Despite being prominent in pre-war European aviation, ČKD was forgotten. In the 1930s, the plane maker lost several competitions to manufacture a fighter for the Czechoslovak Air Force. However, it still produced hundreds of trainers. The most common of these, the E-114, was built under license in the United Kingdom as Hillson Praga.
After the Second World War, ČKD moved away from aviation, diversifying into other fields.
The Praga E-210, one of several attempts to make an ’air taxi' in the late 1930s, a predecessor of modern business aviation. (Image: Les Ailes / Wikipedia)
RWD (an acronym of the company’s main designers Rogalski, Wigura and Drzewiecki) was a major aerobatic aircraft manufacturer in the 1930s. Throughout two decades of activity, the company built several hundred sport, trainer and touring airplanes.
In contrast to other pre-war Polish aircraft manufacturers, RWD focused mainly on civilian aircraft, although the company also built trainers. One of the company’s most popular aircraft, the RWD 8, received many export orders and became the most mass-produced Polish aircraft at the time.
However, like many Central and Eastern European manufacturers, RWD disappeared without a trace following the Second World War.
The RWD 13, a touring and utility airplane, was also used by LOT Polish Airlines (Image: Ltosnar / Wikipedia)
Interwar Romania boasted several successful aircraft manufacturers. IAR, which built a range of military aircraft for the country’s air force between the 1930s and 60s, is the most prominent.
However, there were also several others, one of which, the Societatea Pentru Exploatări Technice (SET), competed with IAR and built a series of interesting and unusual trainers and reconnaissance aircraft.
By the late 1930s, the company was partly merged into IAR, before disappearing several years later after the war.
The SET 7 trainer and reconnaissance aircraft. More than 100 of these aircraft were manufactured (Image: SET / Wikipedia)
Kjeller Flyfabrikk (Norway)
Between the 1910s and the 60s Kjeller aircraft factory was mostly building licensed designs for the Norwegian military.
However, it was also developing its own aircraft, ranging from early biplane fighters to helicopters. While none of these were particularly successful, it wasn’t for want of trying. The Norwegian Air Force did not field domestically designed aircraft on any significant scale, although the Norwegian Navy was somewhat more successful in this regard.
All of Kjeller’s designs were abandoned after initial trials in favor of imported alternatives. By the 1950s the factory was transformed into a repair workshop, before it was eventually closed.
The Kjeller PK X-1, Norway’s attempt to produce a utility helicopter in the 1950s. (Image: Paaln / Wikipedia)
Stampe et Vertongen (Belgium)
Probably the most known manufacturer on this list, Stampe et Vertongen began to produce trainers and touring aircraft in the 1920s. Some of these were used by the Belgian Air Force, while others became popular among aviation enthusiasts.
The company struggled during the Second World War and was liquidated shortly after. However, some of its aircraft, especially the most common model, the Stampe-Vertongen SV.4, gained a cult-like status, manufactured under license across the world, and remaining popular with enthusiasts to this day.
A formation of SV.4s flying in 2015. Almost 1000 of these aircraft were manufactured worldwide under the license. (Image: Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons)
Valsts elektrotehniskā fabrika (translated as ‘State Electrotechnical Factory’) manufactured everything from flashlights to cars during the 1920s and 30s. This included airplanes.
The company’s trainers were used by the Latvian Air Force and, by the late 30s, the company set its sights on building fighters and twin-engined utility aircraft.
The work did not move beyond prototypes and was ultimately cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. While the company continued to exist under the Soviet regime, its aircraft-building ambitions vanished.
VEF J-12, advanced trainer built for the Latvian Air Force (Image: Latvian Efficiency / Wikipedia)
Valtion lentokonetehdas (Finland)
Just like many other European countries, Finland had a state aircraft factory in the 1920s and 30s called Valtion lentokonetehdas (VL). In addition to repairing imported aircraft and building licensed copies, VL worked on a wide range of domestic designs ranging from trainers to fighters.
Limited numbers of these aircraft saw service with the Finnish Air Force during the Second World War but were overshadowed by imported models in terms of both numbers and performance.
After the war, VL was merged into Valmet, a Finnish technology conglomerate that still exists (although does not manufacture aircraft) today.
The Viima, VL’s trainer built for the Finnish Air Force in the 1930s. (Image: Htm / Wikipedia)
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