Ahead of its time
By Thomas A. Horne
Students of the very light jet (VLJ) breakout in the 2000s might name the VisionAire Vantage, Eclipse 500, or Cirrus Vision Jet as pioneering examples of this latest niche in jet-powered personal/executive airplanes. But no. The first such light jet began life in France in 1953, when manufacturer Morane-Saulnier began work on its MS 755 Fleuret, a two-seat jet trainer for the French Air Force. The air force rejected the Fleuret, so Morane-Saulnier came up with an improved, four-seat version aimed at serving in a liaison role: the MS760 Paris, commonly known as the Paris Jet.
The Paris Jet was powered by two Turbomeca Marboré turbojet engines, each with 880 pounds static thrust (lbst), and capable of pushing the airplane to speeds as high as 335 knots. A 1,056-nautical-mile maximum range was advertised, but the fuel-hungry, 125-gph Marborés made quick work of the ship’s 369-gallon maximum fuel capacity—245 gallons in a fuselage tank—so the rule of thumb was to cut the advertised range in half in order to land with safe reserves. Even so, the four-seat Paris Jet could cruise in air-conditioned, pressurized style as high as 33,000 feet, and had some attractive features—such as an electrically powered, retractable canopy that could be opened in flight (or thanks to its military DNA, jettisoned altogether should the need arise), spoilers, mechanically driven flight controls, great handling characteristics, and a ramp presence that turned heads wherever it went. It was way ahead of its time, and an instant hit.
The French Air Force and Navy bought 50 airplanes, the Argentinian Air Force bought 48, and the Brazilian Air Force ordered 30. Before long, Beechcraft took a major interest, signing marketing and licensed production agreements. A 1955 North American tour showed off the Paris Jet, and some 2,100 demonstration rides were given. Much to Beechcraft’s dismay, the feedback was mixed. At the time, jet fuel was difficult to find. The seating was cramped. The baggage compartment was tiny. The thirsty Marborés meant that the Paris Jet had limited range; it couldn’t fly nonstop from New York to Chicago. On top of this, the Marborés made a deafening high-pitched whine when on the ground. And there were concerns over their reliability, so much so that trucks with spare engines and parts followed the jet around on tour. Beechcraft president and CEO Olive Ann Beech was concerned that “no self-respecting woman could ever enter this aircraft.” That’s because getting in and out of the airplane meant climbing up on the wing and then swinging one leg after another to get in the cockpit or cabin. Despite all that, Beechcraft shepherded the Paris Jet through certification, which happened in July 1958.
Although everybody wanted a ride in a sexy looking jet, only a few were inclined to buy one. The price, a steep $300,000 back then, may have been one deterrent. The two-pilot requirement could have been another. And yet, some big influencers of the day sprang for them: people like the Shah of Iran; singer/actor Frank Sinatra; and industrialist Henry H. Timken, who bought one for his wife, Louise Timken, an active World War II pilot in the Civil Air Patrol, and later, the first woman to earn a type rating in a Learjet.
Follow-on Paris Jets addressed some of the airplane’s shortcomings. The Paris Jet II was given 1,100 lbst Turbomeca Marboré VI engines and 53 more gallons of fuel capacity in wing leading edge fuel cells to boost range. Tip tanks holding another 124 gallons were an option. To fix the awkward entry and exit issue, an aft door and a fold-up ladder was added with the five-seat Paris Jet III, and the canopy eliminated.
Ultimately, Beechcraft dropped its option to manufacture Paris Jets in 1961, opening the way to pursue what the company felt was a more practical alternative for turbine power. So, in this sense, the Paris Jet experience was the impetus for another pioneering design that was to emerge in 1964 and endures to this day: the King Air series of turboprop twins.
Ultimately, the Paris Jet languished as one-off models after Morane-Saulnier was boughtby manufacturer Groupe Potez, then Sud Aviation. But the last Paris Jet III, a sole copy with five seats, no canopy and an aft door, was built in 1964. In 2003, JetSet, a U.S. firm, bought the type certificate, tooling, parts, plans, and 30 remaining Paris Jets with the idea of completely upgrading the engines, airframe, and avionics, and selling them for $550,000. But the plan was never carried through. As of 2009, the company said that there were only 27 Paris Jets left in the United States. Who knows how few remain today?