Saft has been involved in aviation since the earliest days of flight and now equips 80 per cent of civil and military aircraft worldwide.
Saft and aviation have been closely linked since the 1930s. This was aviation’s golden age of flight between France and America, a time of pioneers such as Jean Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In 1932, Saft supplied nickel-cadmium batteries to Aéropostale, the aircraft manufacturer previously known as Latécoère.
A year later, the Latécoère 300, the first Aéropostale seaplane to be powered by Saft batteries, set the record for the longest nonstop flight, traveling between Marseille and Saint-Louis, Senegal. The aircraft later regularly transported mail across the Atlantic, between Senegal and Brazil.
Airmail played a crucial role in developing the aviation industry because commercial passenger flight was not yet a profitable prospect. However, as the 1930s progressed, the first commercial flights began.
The battery's job was to start the plane’s gasoline engine, just as a car battery does. But the aircraft battery had another, more important task; to provide power for the in-flight radio and in case of a forced landing. Many pilots were saved by these batteries.
Between 1932 and 1937, more than 200 batteries were delivered to Aéropostale, which became part of the newly-formed Air France in 1933. By 1938, first-generation nickel-cadmium batteries were no longer enough to meet airplane needs. Saft developed new Voltabloc batteries that used a sintered-plate process. This resulted in batteries that had five times the power of the previous generation but weighed the same.
In 1951, Saft batteries met US Navy requirements for flight testing. In May 1957, Saft Corporation of America was formed in Lodi, New Jersey, as a joint enterprise with Reeves Soundcraft Corporation. But although the Saft batteries had a technological advantage, working with associates with no battery experience proved difficult, and the new company struggled to win against American lead-acid battery competitors. Separate difficulties in the qualification process led to the closure of Saft Corp in October 1957.
In France and Great Britain, however, Voltabloc batteries replaced practically every other model. From 1957, Saft supplied a thousand Voltabloc batteries for military and civil airplanes in France, made by the likes of Air France, UTA, Breguet, and others. In 1953, the Salon de l'Aéronautique, the showcase for the French aviation industry moved to its present site at Le Bourget, founding the Paris Air Show. Saft began exhibiting there in 1959 and has done so ever since.
Batteries for French and British planes
Not surprisingly, the technological development of aviation batteries has occurred in parallel with the technological development of airplanes. Armies, manufacturers, and airlines worked with Saft to create the best batteries for their aircraft. In 1958, thin sintered-plate batteries were adopted, after extensive testing, by Air France and rival airline UTA for their long-haul, four-engine planes. Saft batteries were also used in the Caravelle, a two-engine plane produced between 1958 and 1973 by Sud-Aviation, which later became Aérospatiale, as well as in special airplanes made by Morane and Breguet.
At the same time, the British Air Force was also using Voltabloc batteries.
In 1969, the supersonic Franco-British Concorde made its first test flight at the Paris Air Show. The aircraft used Saft batteries (for engine starting and backup power) until its last flight between New York and London in 2003.
Saft batteries have also powered helicopters, including two record-breaking aircraft. First, in 1972, a Lama SA315B by Sud-Aviation, flown by solo pilot Jean Boulet, achieved the absolute altitude record for a helicopter with a 12,442-meter flight from Istres airfield, in France. Its 4000A1 battery is still sold today. Much later, on May 14, 2005, an Ecureuil AS350 B3 piloted by Didier Delsalle beat the world record for the highest altitude landing and take-off ever, at 8,848 meters – the summit of Everest, in Nepal. The craft was equipped with two 151CH1 batteries instead of one, and that battery model is also still sold.
The Airbus A380, the largest commercial airplane ever built, is equipped with four Saft ULM (Ultra Low Maintenance) batteries. These nickel-based batteries have already proven themselves on Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, and Gulfstream planes and helicopters.
The same ULM battery was chosen for the COMAC C919, the largest airliner designed and built by China and the new Irkut MC-21, a medium-haul Russian craft. Both aim to compete with the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 families.
In all, Saft has made more than 300,000 aviation batteries. Today, with 80 years of experience and 400 battery models, Saft outfits 80 per cent of the world’s commercial and military airplanes. All Airbuses, since their inception, and 70 per cent of Boeing aircraft, are fitted with Saft batteries.
The latest-generation batteries use lithium-ion technology. Lighter than traditional nickel-based batteries, they also have better energy density and require less maintenance. They are used on some of Airbus A350s and more than 200 military craft, like the F35, a next-generation plane designed by Lockheed Martin.
Both ULM and lithium-ion batteries are made in Bordeaux, France, and Valdosta, Georgia (US), where Saft opened a factory in 1975.
In the medium term, airplanes will use electrical power for even more functions, which will require a technological step change to offer reliable, safe batteries with high energy capacity. That is why, in early 2018, Saft formed an alliance with other European industrial champions to develop the battery of the future. The program’s ambition is to provide Europe with new generation batteries by 2025, for energy storage and other market segments like electro-mobility and specialty industries - based on a disruptive, solid-state technology.
These too will likely play a vital role in the future of aviation.