Flying Back in Time on the First Civilian Passenger Airplane

Ride along on a Microsoft Flight Simulator journey in a Farman F.60 Goliath on its historic 1919 route from Paris to London.

Farman F.60 Goliath [Courtesy: National Archives]

Believe it or not, the inaugural flight of a bomber-turned-airliner first introduced the world to commercial aviation.

Today in Microsoft Flight Simulator, I’ll be flying the Farman F.60 Goliath, the world’s first civilian passenger airplane, on its historic route from Paris to London. And to tell this story, I’m using a mod that recreates the two airports, Le Bourget and Croydon, as they looked in the 1930s. 

Le Bourget was the airport in France where Charles Lindbergh landed in 1927, and it’s still a critical part of France’s aviation infrastructure today.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Henri Farman was born in 1874, the son of English parents living in Paris (his father was a reporter for a London newspaper). Originally he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts as a painter. He quickly became caught up (like the Wright Brothers and Glenn Curtiss) in the bicycling craze. Along with his younger brother, Maurice, he became a champion bike racer. The two brothers soon graduated to auto racing, winning several early cross-country races.

Henri Farman and his wife. [Courtesy: Library of Congress]

In 1907, Henri Farman purchased an early biplane from the pioneer aircraft designer Gabriel Voisin and flew it to set new records for height, distance, and endurance. The next year,  Farman made the first cross-country flight in Europe, a distance of 27 kilometers to Reims, France. 

He competed in early races and air shows, and opened a flying school at Châlons-sur-Marne. After a falling out with Voisin, Farman began designing his own airplanes. He and his two brothers, Maurice and Dick (who tended to the business side), founded their own aircraft company, Farman Aviation Works, near Versailles. His designs became known for popularizing the aileron (French for “little wing”) to induce roll, rather than the “wing warping” technique the Wright Brothers used. Farman produced several “pusher” airplanes (with the propeller behind) that proved popular in the early days of World War I. As the war progressed, however, they lost ground to other designs.

In 1918, Farman was busy developing a new two-engine heavy bomber that could carry 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of bombs out to a range of 1,500 kilometers (930 miles). When the war abruptly ended, however, the Farmans realized their monstrous new biplane—dubbed the “Goliath”—might find a new purpose transporting civilian passengers on new air routes. 

The Farmans formed their own airline, and on February 8, 1919—just a few months after the Armistice—flew 12 passengers from France to England and back the following day. Because non-military flying was not yet authorized, they were all ex-military pilots on orders.

By 1920, a new airline, the Compagnie des Grands Express Aériens (CGEA), acquired several Goliaths and began offering scheduled flights—for civilians now—from Le Bourget airfield outside of Paris to Croydon airfield near London. 

Here is one of their biplanes, nearby on the ramp at Le Bourget. Note the registration number, F-GEAD, because it will come up again later.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

A competing airline, Compagnie des Messageries Aériennes (CMA), also flew the same London-to-Paris route using Goliaths, and more airlines quickly emerged flying to Brussels as well. In 1923, CGEA and CMA merged to form Air Union. It’s one of its Goliaths we’ll be boarding today, bound for Croydon.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

The wingspan of the Goliath is almost 87 feet, compared to 93 feet for an original Boeing 737-100. The total area of both wings is 1,700 square feet, compared to 978 for the 737’s single wing. Its length, from nose to tail, was a modest 48 feet (versus 94 for the 737). 

Like most airplanes of its time, the Goliath was constructed of a wooden frame covered in fabric. As a result, despite its large size, the Goliath had an empty weight of just 6,393 pounds, one-tenth of a 737 (which weighs 62,000 pounds).

The Goliath was driven by two Salmson 9Z water-cooled nine-cylinder radial engines, producing 250 hp each. They only had a useful life of around 100 hours.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

So where’s the cockpit? It’s actually on top of the fuselage, open and exposed to the elements. The pilot sat on a kind of elevator platform in the middle of the passenger cabin. Beside him, slightly lower and to their right, sat a flight engineer. Behind the pilot is a small propeller, which spins from the oncoming airflow and drives a generator for electrical power.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

To the pilot’s left was the throttle and mixture control for each of the two engines. The main instrument panel features an altimeter (in meters) in the center. On either side are tachometers showing rpm for each engine, with their respective fuel gauges and gold magneto selectors below. The airspeed indicator shows km/hour and highlights the “danger zone” of flying any faster than 130 kph (70 knots). The lower needle indicates the aircraft’s pitch: “piquez” for nose down, “cabrez” for nose up.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

It’s time for the passengers to board. The best views are in the forward cabin in front of the cockpit. There is a direct access door to the front, but it looks a bit precarious. Maybe it’s better to board everyone from the back.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Between the forward and rear portions of the cabin, the Goliath seats 12 to 14 passengers. There were daily scheduled flights—and they weren’t cheap. I haven’t been able to find a price for Paris to London, but a London-Paris-Marseille combined ticket in 1922 reportedly cost 17.17 pounds sterling. That was $76.75 at the time, equivalent to $1,356 today.

Our authentic route will take us north from Paris across Picardy to the narrowest crossing point of the English Channel, near Calais, then on to Croydon, just south of London. The flight will take about two and a half hours.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Le Bourget (LFPB) opened in 1919 and remained Paris’ only airport until Orly was built in 1932. It remained a commercial airport until 1980 and continues to serve business aviation today—though it looks a lot different. Rather than distinct runways, the grassy field (at this time) is demarcated with striped lines into four parallel and adjacent strips. I’ll be taking off on the one closest to the terminal.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

The Goliath takes some time to get going, but with its huge wings it begins to lift off at just 75 kph (40 knots, or some 15 knots slower than the typical takeoff speed of a Cessna 172).

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

This morning is quite foggy, which could create challenges. The Goliath has no gyroscopic instruments and must rely on visual reference points. That means no flying at night or in heavy clouds. Conditions like these make it difficult to see the horizon clearly and remain straight and level. In theory, the Goliath sports a service ceiling of 18,000 feet and even took passengers up to 20,000 on some early demonstration flights. In practice, it usually flew close to the ground—at just 500 to 1,000 feet—in order to navigate.

A half hour later, as I continue north over Picardy, the visibility has improved quite a bit. That’s fortunate because on a foggy day on April 7, 1922, this route—this exact location, in fact—was the scene of the first midair collision in airline history. 

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Remember the blue Goliath, F-GEAD, operated by Compagnie des Grands Express Aériens (CGEA) that I pointed out on the tarmac at Le Bourget? That day, it was flying three passengers to Croydon. Suddenly, out of the mist, appeared a De Havilland DH.18 carrying airmail in the opposite direction on the same route, at the same low altitude. Neither pilot had time to take any evasive action. They collided, and both airplanes went down. A total of seven (four crew plus three passengers) were killed. 

Following the accident, several airlines met at Croydon and agreed on three basic rules. First, all airplanes meeting head-on should give way to the right—a rule that’s still followed today. Second, all airliners should be equipped with a radio to communicate with each other. Third, all new airplanes, including Part 25 commercial transport category aircraft, should provide the pilot with a clear view forward—something neither airplane, with their cockpits perched above a bulky cabin, really had.

After reaching the mouth of the River Somme, I follow the French coastline north for almost an hour. Passing over Wissant, it’s time to turn northwest and cross the English Channel. From this angle, the Goliath looks like a great bird of prey ready to grab a fish with its talons.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Notice the gray smoke trailing behind me. In the Goliath, that’s a sign I’ve set the fuel mixture too rich. It won’t cause us any immediate problems, but it will waste fuel and gunk up the engine longer term.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

So I’ve pulled back the mixture control a bit, and it seems to have solved the problem. With clear weather, the White Cliffs just west of Dover provide an easy aiming point, clearly visible for many miles out. It’s still a relief to make landfall near Folkestone. The Goliath is notoriously prone to breakdowns, and over the 33-kilometer (20-mile) channel crossing, there’s nowhere to land.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

I’ve kept a close eye on my oil temperature and pressure the whole way. The gauges for both are located over the engines on either wing. Run these engines too hard for too long and they’ll give out.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

It’s still almost another hour over the chalky English countryside, and the weather is starting to become cloudy again. I’m plugging along at about 110 kph (60 knots) to avoid overheating the engines. As I get closer to Croydon just after noon, the clouds start closing in. At least I’ve spotted the airfield, a large patch of green straight ahead. 

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Croydon was opened in 1920 and served as London’s main airport until World War II, when it was converted into a Royal Air Force fighter base. After the war, it was surpassed by up-and-coming Heathrow Airport (EGGL). Croydon became the first airport in the world to introduce a control tower and air traffic control procedures in 1920. It was also the first to adopt “Mayday” as a recognized distress call, from the French “M’aidez,” meaning “Help me”.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

Landing the Goliath is proving tricky. It needs to come in very slow. But even when I pull back the throttle to idle, it tends to gain a dangerous amount of speed in any descent. On my first try, I realized I was coming in way too fast and decided to go around and do another attempt. On the second try, I’m still faster than I should be but hoping I’ll have enough room to slow down and land on the flare. (Note that there is another device on the aircraft's nose, actuated by the oncoming airflow, which also appears to measure airspeed).

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

I won’t claim it was the prettiest landing, but I’m just happy to be on the ground.

Welcome to London. Please proceed to passport control.

[Image courtesy Patrick Chovanec]

The Farman Goliath enjoyed a surprisingly long life as an airliner, being retired only in 1931 with the coming of new all-metal airliners, such as the Junkers Ju 52 (visible behind it to the right). The Goliath evokes an era when flying felt daring because it was. It was an expensive and dangerous gamble on a brand-new technology for the select few. Despite this, new air routes sprang up across Europe, taking passengers from city to city with unprecedented speed and at least as much comfort as they could manage.

Cuba’s first airline, the Compañía Aérea Cubana (CAC) bought six Farman Goliaths, which were transported there by ship in 1920. It soon went out of business but remains heralded as the beginnings of aviation in that country. The F.60 Goliath was also adopted by several countries—including Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Japan, Peru, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Spain—in its original military role as a bomber. Approximately 60 Goliaths were built. No complete airframe exists today. Only the fuselage of the airplane we just flew, F-HMFU, survives on display at Le Bourget.

Air Union was eventually merged with four other French airlines in 1933 to form Air France. Farman Aviation Works was also nationalized in 1936 as part of Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Centre (SNCAC). The three Farman brothers largely retired after their company was nationalized and continued living in France until their deaths in 1940 (Dick), 1958 (Henri), and 1964 (Maurice).

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to the Farman F.60 Goliath, the bomber-turned-airliner that first introduced the world to commercial aviation. If you’d like to see a version of this story with many more screenshots and historical images, you can check out my original post found here. This story was told utilizing the Farman F.60 Goliath, Le Bourget 1935, and Croydon 1935 add-ons to MSFS 2020 from Red Wing. 

Patrick Chovanec
Patrick ChovanecContributor
Patrick Chovanec works as an economist in New York City, and has taught as a professor at China's Tsinghua University and at Columbia University. He is a private pilot, and author of the recently released book "Cleared for the Option: A Year Learning to Fly."

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