During the mid-1960’s, Marcel Dassault and the French civil aviation authority made the observation that numerous air routes in the world corresponded to small distances. But there was no aeroplane adapted to this traffic.
The DGAC suggested that Dassault build a competitor for the Boeing 737 with an up-market approach, namely a 140-seater.
In 1968, the research team initially worked on a 110 to 120-seater version driven by two rear-mounted Rolls Royce Spey jet engines, before adopting specifications for a 150-seat aircraft with a 1000-km range (540 nm).
The new aircraft’s wing was developed using calculation tools that were very modern at the time, and even though it was larger than the Boeing 737, the new aircraft could fly faster. Powered by two wing-mounted Pratt&Whitney JT 8 D 15 double flow engines, it was baptized “Mercure” by Marcel Dassault:”I wanted to name it for a mythological figure and I could only think of one who had wings on his helmet and ailerons on his feet – hence the name Mercure (Mercury).”
The programme Mercure was officially launched in April 1969. Manufacturing, to be carried out under the main contractorship of Dassault, was shared between Fiat (Italy), CASA (Spain), ADAP (Belgium), the federal aircraft builder FW of Emmen (Switzerland) and Canadair (Canada). Final assembly was handled by the company Dassault, at Mérignac for the prototype and, at Istres, for the production series aircraft.
This was the first large-scale European cooperation programme in civil aeronautics.
The prototype of the Mercure 100 made its maiden flight from Mérignac (Gironde, France) on 28th May 1971 with a crew including Jean Coureau, chief pilot, Jérôme Résal, pilot, and Gérard Joyeuse, test engineer.
On 2nd June, the aircraft arrived at the Paris Air Show for its 6th flight and with only 9 hours of test flights.
In order to allow mass production, the company Dassault established, at the request of DATAR, four new factories: Martignas, Poitiers, Seclin and Istres.
On 30th January 1972, Air Inter ordered 10 aircraft. The first production series aircraft made its maiden flight on 19th July 1973. Civil certification by DGAC was obtained on 12th February 1974.
The first commercial flight from Orly to Toulouse took place on June, 4 1974 as well as the first flight from Orly to Lyons.
Dassault tried to get major aviation corporations as well as regional companies interested in the program, by presenting the aircraft as the heir to the Douglas DC 9 ; but getting a foothold in the American market, dominated as it was by Douglas and Boeing, proved difficult. Although a number of companies showed an interest, no orders were forthcoming.
Four external events came as hammer-blow to the Mercure program:
- the first oil crisis which diminished the margins of airlines, restricting their ability to purchase new aeroplanes;
- devaluation of the US dollar;
- a higher rate of inflation in Europe than in the United States which was to the advantage of Boeing and Douglas;
- a preference on the part of the airlines for a versatile aircraft capable of providing short- and medium-haul service.
The aircraft was also disadvantaged because of its engines: its Pratt & Whitney engines were relatively old, noisy and fuel inefficient. To remedy the situation, Dassault designed a new version of the Mercure – the Mercure 200 – with two Snecma/General Electric CFM 56 engines.
Finally, only ten Mercure 100 aircraft were built. The assembly line was stopped on 19th December 1975. On 11th July 1983, Air Inter requested the adaptation of the prototype Mercure 02. It became the eleventh aeroplane in its fleet.
At the time of their retirement, their track record was impressive: 360,000 flying hours, 44 million passengers transported during 440,000 flights, without an accident, with a regularity of 98 per cent.