The romance of the airplane business

By Marc Dierikx

Airneth Column
April 2010
By Dr. Marc Dierikx 

What is it with commercial airplanes that makes people stand back in awe? Is it their size? The impression of power? The lure of speed? The attraction of distant horizons? The uncertainty of risking the elements?

From the very start aviation has enjoyed all of these attractions – and then some. Yet the actual production of aircraft has never quite shared the sentiments embodied in the finished product. There were exceptions, of course, especially in the early decades of flight, such as the aircraft workshops of Glenn Curtiss in the U.S., Handley Page in Britain, or Latécoère in France. All of these names have in common that they are no longer around. In Airneth home country Holland ‘we’ also had such a romantic name in the business: Fokker. Until 1996 that is. Now, in 2010 and fourteen years after Fokker’s sad ending in bankruptcy, ‘plans are in the making’ to resurrect aircraft production and build a new version of the Fokker-100 airliner. In March the Dutch media reported that a group of businessmen was to receive from the Ministry of Economic Affairs a credit of 20 million euros (out of an envisaged total of 600 million) to develop plans for Next Generation Aircraft to produce the new jet. Have the Dutch fallen victim to the romance of the airplane business – again?

It was no coincidence that the new plans were aired on 15 March 2010, fourteen years to the day after the court in Amsterdam ruled that Fokker had bankrupted. Amid public outcries that Fokker be saved, and an unheard of nationwide appeal to the government by the trade unions that distributed 6 million postcards calling for The Hague to ‘keep Fokker in the air’, the ruling dashed the hopes of many. Since that fateful day, plans to re-start the company have emerged time and again and serious people have – hitherto unsuccessfully – devoted time, effort and money to bring them about. The latest attempt, already the fourth of its kind since 1996, is geared towards the development of a new Fokker-100 version, with new engines, new electonics, and design adaptations such as the inclusion of winglets. Plans speak of a production run of 40-50 aircraft per year, to be assembled in Holland from 2015.

What fires this Dutch romance with past aeronautics and how realistic are the latest ideas when held up to the light? By way of answer, a short history lesson appears illuminating1.

As a company, Fokker started in February 1912 in Berlin, Germany. Luck, ruthlessness, coincidence and a streak of genius brought Fokker airplanes to the fore in World War I. By 1918 Fokker had made name as one of the prime constructors of fighter aircraft for the German military. These ingredients kept the company in the air throughout the following decades, until the factory – relocated to Amsterdam in 1919 – was bombed away by the Allies in the course of the Second World War. Nonetheless Fokker was resurrected in 1945 with the aid of the Netherlands government, believing that a medium size colonial power needed its own indigenous airplane production capacity. Not four years later, in 1949, and with the colonial empire in Indonesia crumbling, The Hague wished to withdraw its support, noting that the combination of a receding home market and the investments in research and development needed to compete internationally did not warrant long-term funding. Although the government did not then act on the advice received and instead continued to uphold aircraft production regardless of economic rationale, the relationship between Fokker and the Dutch Treasury remained tense. And for good reason, because as a financial venture Fokker never emerged from the danger zone. Successive Fokker presidents had to – and did – rely on a combination of charm, prospects and promises of future remuneration to have the next national airplane project funded in an increasingly international environment that came to characterise the aerospace industry. What did Fokker in, in the end, was the continued lack of success in hooking up to these international developments. It made funding each new project more precarious than the previous one. 

Historical research shows that decision making hinged on the romantic notion that building airplanes was an unremovable part of the Dutch national prowess. Fourteen years later the echoes still remain and in the best of traditions Fokker’s heirs seek out The Hague to sponsor the resurrection of a company on the basis of an amalgamation of technologies of the 1960s and the 1980s...


1. Cf.: Marc Dierikx, Uit de lucht gegrepen. Fokker als Nederlandse droom, 1945-1996 (Amsterdam: Boom, 2004)

Category: news & columns, Mark Dierikx, columns