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The Story of Safran Helicopter Engines


Safran Helicopter Engines is the world’s leading manufacturer of rotorcraft turbines and the only one dedicated exclusively to this market. The company finds its starting point in another one founded in 1938 by Joseph Szydlowski: Turbomeca.

Turbomeca, Tarnos plant in 1980

The founders

238TM : Joseph Szydlowski stepping off a Max Holste MH153 equiped with Turbomeca Astazou II engine

Joseph Szydlowski is born in November 1896 in Poland and moves to Germany during the interwar period. There, he registers his first patents in the field of the automotive industry. He soon develops an interest in internal combustion engines and registers around sixty patents between 1925 and 1933. In 1930, he receives an order from the French government for a 50-hp. diesel engine demonstrator composed of a single pair of cylinders. The SAMAC (Société Anonyme de Mécanique Automobile Cozette), whose director at the time is André Planiol, is tasked with building the prototype. With this collaboration, Szydlowski's French career begins and his family moves to the country in 1932.

The following year, Szydlowski and Planiol register the first patents for an innovation: “variable circulation” compressors. In order to exploit this invention, the two men found a company in 1938, named Turbomeca by André Planiol.

The beginnings

Dewoitine 520 equiped with Hispano-Suiza 12Y engine

As of 1939 the contracts granted to the company pushed it to switch to an industrial production rate. The Aeronautics Technical Service (STAé) for instance ordered S39 compressors to equip the Hispano-Suiza 12Y engine mounted on the Dewoitine D.520 fighter plane.

The factory bought in Mézières-sur-Seine (Yvelines) in Septembre 1939 becomes operational in June 1940. However, that year, faced with the advance of the German army, the French government moves the defense industries south. Turbomeca sets up in Saint-Pé-de-Bigorre (Hautes-Pyrénées) where its activity is divided between the manufacture of compressors for aircraft engines and turbocompressors for gasifiers.

In 1941, André Planiol is sent on a mission to the United States, where he ends his career with the founding of the Stratos company to manufacture compressors equipping American combat aircraft. He retains interests in Turbomeca until 1954, when the Szydlowski family buys out all of his shares.

In 1942 Turbomeca leaves the Saint-Pé-de-Bigorre factory, which has become too small, and moves to Bordes near Pau (Pyrénées-Atlantiques). However, the invasion of the southern zone by the Germans slows the progress of the company since they seize a large part of the machine tools of the workshop.

Turbomeca, aerial view of the Bordes plant

Joseph Szydlowski takes refuge in Switzerland from where he returns when the region is liberated in August 1944. Turbomeca's technical and industrial activities are then able to resume and to adapt to the new type of engine that appeared during the war: the gas turbine.

Like all the allies, the French government has taken on a number of German engineers, in particular aeronautical specialists, some of whom form a design office at Turbomeca devoted to the study of turbojet engines.

From 1947, Turbomeca develops the B781, a 250-hp gas turbine stemmed from an abandoned order from the STAé. After a simplification of its initial design, it is renamed TT782 and features a centrifugal compressor, a centrifugal injection combustion chamber and two linked turbines. This architecture subsequently remains the basis of all Turbomeca engines up to the Makila model.

The first prosperity

Fouga Gémeaux

In the early 1950s, Turbomeca develops two flagship products, the first industrial successes that ensure the prosperity of the company until the mid-1960s: the Marboré and Artouste engines.

In 1949, the STAé asks Joseph Szydlowski to develop a small auxiliary turbojet engine for René Leduc's thermopropulsive nozzle aircraft. Named Marboré I, this turbojet makes its first test in April 1950 and its first flight in June 1951 on the back of the Fouga Gémeaux glider. Afterward the Marboré becomes the reference engine for several jet trainers: the Spanish Saeta HA200, the British Miles Student, the American Beechcraft Jet Mentor and Cessna T-37.

Alouette III

From the end of the 1940s, Turbomeca also takes part in the technological advances that lead to the birth of the modern helicopter; from the Aspin turboshaft engine that equipped the DH011 to the Artouste then Astazou engines for the successive versions of the SNCASE Alouette.

Turbomeca, Tarnos plant in 1999

The Adour turbojet program is initially designed to equip the Jaguar, a Franco-British military aircraft built by the SEPECAT. A major event in the history of Turbomeca accompanies its implementation: the creation of the Tarnos plant in 1965, a symbol of the successful conversion of the Forges de l'Adour industrial site. Condemned by the restructuring of the European steel industry, the closure of the site threatens a major labor pool for which Turbomeca's expansion needs represent a reconversion solution.

The Tarnos factory specializes gradually in support professions. Today, the site is the backbone of Turbomeca's worldwide support and service network, as well as the largest repair site for in-service engines. In 2015, the year of its fiftieth anniversary, a major site modernization project is undertaken.

Turbomeca, Adour Adour engine at the test bench in 1971

The Adour engine also powers the first Japanese supersonic aircraft, the Mitsubishi T2, then its single-seat ground support derivative, the F1. The Hawker-Siddeley Hawk training aircraft, which makes its first flight on August 21, 1974, is also equipped with an Adour engine. This program has a long career: in 2006 it is selected by Dassault and BAe to equip French and British combat drones.

Crisis and specialization

Joseph Szydlowski and Sonia Meton

From the mid-1970s, changes have a lasting impact on several aspects of Turbomeca's history.

As Joseph Szydlowski grows older, the decision is made in 1973 to hire a general manager to lead the company: Gérard Pertica, former director of the helicopter division of Aerospace. When the founder of the company dies in 1988, his daughter Sonia Meton assumes the presidency of the company. In 1989, the Szydlowski family takes control of the Labinal group, which became a 45% shareholder in Turbomeca two years earlier, in exchange for the rest of the company's shares. Turbomeca therefore becomes a subsidiary of Labinal.

Competition from the American Lycoming LTS101 helicopter engine challenges Turbomeca's Arriel engine technology. Despite many launch difficulties, the Arriel engine eventually establishes itself as a benchmark of reliability in the world of helicopters. Turbomeca becomes Eurocopter's main engine manufacturer and makes itself known to other helicopter manufacturers worldwide.

In the mid-1980s, faced with the decline in sales of turbojet engines for military aircraft, Turbomeca refocuses on helicopter engines and decides to diversify into the design of auxiliary power units (APU) for commercial aircraft. Turbomeca joins forces with the American company Sundstrand and creates the company APIC (Auxiliary Power International Inc.) to develop and market this type of engine. However, the collapse of the helicopter engine market in the 1990s, when Turbomeca had to make a major financial effort to establish itself on the APU market, puts the company in great difficulty. Despite the colossal investments and the technical and commercial success of the APUs, Turbomeca has to sell its share of APIC to Sundstrand.

The renewal of the helicopter market in the early 2000s allows Turbomeca to regain an enviable position in this area, which becomes the company's sole specialization.

Moteur Arriel
Turbomeca, Tarnos plant, assembly of Arriel engine
910538-11TM : Turbomeca, Tarnos plant, assembly of Arriel engine
910538-11TM : Turbomeca, Tarnos plant, assembly of Arriel engine
© Espace Patrimoine Safran
Turbomeca, Arriel engine equipped on flying test bench Gazelle
703126-19TM : Turbomeca, Arriel engine equipped on flying test bench Gazelle
703126-19TM : Turbomeca, Arriel engine equipped on flying test bench Gazelle
© Espace Patrimoine Safran
First flight of flying test bench Gazelle equipped with Arriel engine in 1974
703126-13TM : First flight of flying test bench Gazelle equipped with Arriel engine in 1974
703126-13TM : First flight of flying test bench Gazelle equipped with Arriel engine in 1974
© Espace Patrimoine Safran

Joining Safran Group

When Sonia Meton dies in 1996, the Szydlowski family decides to retire from industrial life and resell Labinal. Turbomeca joins the propulsion branch of the Snecma group in 2000, then the Safran group when the latter appears in 2005 from the merger between Snecma and Sagem.

In 2016, when the company names of the Safran Group companies are changed, Turbomeca becomes Safran Helicopter Engines.