SNCASO SO.8000 Narval; Terrible Beauty

May 8, 2024

With the end of the Second World War, the previous international order was a little disrupted, to put it mildly. Most of the old European colonial powers had, somewhat ironically, suffered occupation and seen their home country’s ravaged and this inspired in them the desire to recreate a world that…well, let’s be honest, they wanted it back to how it was before the Germans and Japanese had peed all over their respective barbecues.

And for France, there was a lot of face and honour to be restored, as they saw it. The quick collapse of the French military in the face of the German blitzkrieg in 1940 left the newly liberated French with a strong desire to reestablish themselves as a great military power once again. The most notable effect of this was nearly twenty years of brutal warfare in their prewar colonial possessions, notably Indo-China and Algeria.

But in the immediate post-war period it was expressed by the wish to be at the forefront of new weapon development, in particular aircraft. This policy would actually pay handsome dividends, as France became essentially the main supplier throughout the Cold War for those nations not wanting to be entirely beholden to the United States or the Soviet Union for their aircraft acquisition.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing when it came getting to that position, and the subject of today’s video, the SNCASO SO.8000 Narval, is an example of where overly ambitious design ideas can lead you down dead ends.

The Narval is also a great example of that old aeronautical expression “if it looks right, it is right” being completely wrong, because though the SO.8000 was “damnnnnnn” good looking, it was, in fact, utterly terrible.

In 1946, with the joint aim of reestablishing their old empire and their prewar aeronautics industry, the French decided to build a new carrier aircraft to equip their rebuilt fleet, which had just taken delivery of a brand new aircraft carrier loaned to them from the British, the Arromanches. This came along with a bunch of British Seafires, which to be fair wasn’t ideal.

The perceived need to build their own was such that the Société Nationale des Constructions Aéronautiques du Sud-Ouest (SNCASO, more commonly known as Sud-Ouest) was given the job of creating the new carrier fighter. This company was at the forefront of France’s plans to reestablish itself as a builder of cutting-edge aircraft, and was at the time busy creating the Triton, France’s first jet.

So, it might seem a bit odd that with the Narval the French Navy specified that the aircraft be powered with a piston engine! After all, everyone else was rushing headlong into jets. One suspects that the Aeronavale, an organisation that was, after all, undergoing both a recreation and major expansion, decided that a bit of conservatism wouldn’t be amiss, and as the Narval was to act as interceptor, fighter and ground attacker, relying on established technology for the powerplant might be a good idea.

Initially it was requested that the Rolls Royce Griffon be employed in the Narval, but apparently these couldn’t be sourced (not really sure why, there were plenty of them about at the time) so instead the Arsenal de l’Aéronautique was assigned to design a French powerplant.

Which they did…kind of. They basically ripped off the Junkers Jumo 213, but the German’s weren’t in a position to complain at the time so there you are.

However conservative the French attitude to was in using a piston engine, there can be little doubt that the rest of the aircraft was extremely advanced in concept. The SO 8000 was to be a pusher design utilising a contra-rotating propellor and a tricycle landing gear.

This allowed the cockpit to be mounted well forward, and the pilot was given a bubble canopy that would provide him with excellent visibility.

Of all-metal construction the Narval featured a swept crescent wing, while the tail was supported by twin booms that ran either side of the propellor, allowing for a large horizontal stabiliser that ran between the two.

Though I don’t believe armament was ever fitted to the prototypes, it was projected to be six 20mm cannon and a bombload of 1,000kgs (2,200lb).

On the face of it, all good.

But things soon got complicated.

The decision to use a piston engine rather than one of the new jets or even turboprops could be argued to have some validity for simplicity. Unfortunately, the Jumo 213 – known in its French iteration as the Arsenal 12-H2 – proved troublesome in development and needed extra work because more power was wanted from it, with the goal being for the engine to produce 2,250hp.

The complexities meant that it wasn’t until January 1949 that the first attempt to fly the Narval was made. This proved somewhat alarming as the aircraft wasn’t capable of getting airborne, with the second prototype having the same problem. Modifications were made several times before the first flight was actually made in April 1949.

So, for a bit of context, the French were just beginning flight testing of a piston-engined prop aircraft while their contemporaries were already flying jet fighter bombers off their carriers.

And worse was yet to come. The flight testing demonstrated that the Narval was a pig.

Both prototypes oddly displayed radically different handling, something that is hardly ideal in any aircraft, let alone one intended for carrier operations, as well as stability issues. In addition, it was soon apparent that the cooling system on the SO 8000 was completely inadequate, leading to further issues with the troublesome powerplant.

And though the estimated speed for the aircraft in design had been 453mph (729km/h) the absolute maximum that the type ever recorded was 348mph (560km/h).

Indeed, looking at the reports of the test pilots, the SO 8000, despite its graceful lines, seems to have been somewhat scary to fly. It should also be remembered that the aircraft didn’t have an ejector seat, which would have made bailing out an interesting experience, what with the twin propellors located behind the cockpit.

Plus, though notionally a carrier aircraft, I’m personally not sure about how much clearance the props would have had coming in to land on a carrier deck, especially as the tricycle landing gear would have meant a nose up attitude would be needed.

That concern is however moot, as the SO 8000 Narval never got to see a carrier. In February 1950, with just 43 flights accomplished between the two prototypes, the French decided to abandon the project. The Narval obviously needed a lot of work to make it viable, which may not actually have been possible, and was clearly obsolete as a new aircraft.

Instead, the burgeoning Cold War meant that now the French had the option of acquiring quantities of American aircraft instead, picking up surplus F6F Hellcats initially and ordering new build Vought F4U-7 Corsairs to be their primary carrier fighter-bomber. These would form the backbone of the French carrier air arm, supplemented from 1953 by the De Havilland Sea Venom, made under licence by Sud-Ouest.

And that is the story of the SNCASO So 8000 Narval, a rather fetching looking aircraft that was basically obsolete from conception and rather terrible as well.


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