Expansion from Belgium to the Congo

Belgium has a long history with the Congo in Africa. The Congo was colonized by Belgium in the early XXth Century, and so the Belgians had business to run over in Congo, which was ruled by the Belgians until 1960 when it declared its independence and renamed Zaire.

In the world of aeronautics, this is how Sabena started out. The origins of Sabena (Société Anonyme Belge d'Exploitation de la Naviagation Aerienne) go back to the beginning of the XXth century when the airlines then carrying mostly mail by air were evolving in carrying passengers. The predecessor of Sabena was the Sneta (Syndicat National pour l'Etude du Transport Aerien) which was founded in 1919. Sabena was created in 1923 with the shareholders being the Sneta and the Belgian government, as well as the Belgian Congo having a share in the new company. Since then Sabena was always state owned, it began building its network within Europe and in 1925 Sabena started operating long haul flights from Brussels to the Congo, it would take at that time four or five days to complete a flight from Brussels to Leopoldville (renamed Kinshasa after the independence of the Congo in 1960).
While Sabena was headquartered in Leopoldville, it ordered after the Second World War the Douglas DC-4 to start transatlantic flights to New York. It bought DC-3's as well to use on short haul routes out of Brussels and within the Congo ruled then by the Belgians. The Douglas DC-6B was added to the fleet for long haul flights out of Brussels, New York and Leopoldville being the main two destinations in the long haul operations. Until the Boeing 707 arrived, the DC-6 was the aircraft best suited for long haul flights.

In 1960 the jet age began. The first Boeing 707 arrived, at the same time many other major airlines around the world were taking deliveries of their first Boeing 707's and Douglas DC-8's. Sabena chose the Boeing 707, which was inaugurated on the BRU-JFK flight. The Boeing 707 was the flagship of the fleet and assigned on most long haul routes within the system. The Douglas propliners were gradually phased out as the jets arrived. The Caravelle and the Boeing 727 were added as well for short haul flights within Europe. The DC-9 was not considered.
In the early 1970's Sabena took delivery of two Boeing 747-129's, registered OO-SGA and OO-SGB. Those would be assigned on the daily BRU-JFK flight, leaving the Boeing 707's to be assigned on other long haul routes. I took my first long haul trip when I was nearly two years old, at that time, I flew from Brussels to Johannesburg with a stop in Kinshasa, chances are it was Sabena that I flew, or maybe it was South African Airways. The aircraft I was on was probably a Boeing 707 because at that time both Sabena and South African Airways flew Boeing 707's and Sabena didn't have DC-10's yet.

The first DC-10 arrived in 1973 or 1974 and it was assigned on long haul routes from Brussels mostly to destinations in Africa, as well as a few destinations in North America and Asia. I took, when I was seven years old, another trip to South Africa. I do remember that the aircraft was a DC-10 and we were on Sabena. My most memorable moment on that trip was visiting the cockpit of the DC-10 in flight on the Kinshasa-Johannesburg segment. Until the first Boeing 747-329 registered OO-SGC arrived in the mid 1980's, Sabena always scheduled a stop in Kinshasa when planning flights between Brussels and Johannesburg. My aunt flew, with her daughters, on that particular aircraft from Brussels to Johannesburg only a few months after it was delivered new from Boeing. The 747-329 took over the DC-10 and it flew the route nonstop. Although Sabena always had a strong presence in Africa, it never flew down to Cape Town, in other words if you wanted to fly to Cape Town with Sabena you always had to clear customs in Johannesburg and then connect on South African Airways.
Sabena took delivery of the last Boeing 747-300 built in 1990. It was the second B747-329, registered OO-SGD, added to the fleet. The two 747-329's saw the following destinations: New York JFK, Atlanta, Cincinatti, Kinshasa, Johannesburg and Tokyo.

In the Europe sector, the Boeing 737 aircraft began replacing the Caravelle and Boeing 727. The first B737-229 arrived in the mid 1970's and it was with that aircraft Sabena would expand its network within Europe. Second generation 737's, 300/400/500 Series were added in the late 1980's/early 1990's and those would stay in the fleet until the demise in 2001. Sabena's subsidiary DAT (Delta Air Transport) was operating Embraer Brasilia's, Fokker F-28's and BAe 146's on short flights out of Brussels and Antwerp.

Sabena had also a long history with Airbus. The first Airbus aircraft, an A310 arrived in the mid 1980's and was assigned on medium haul flights, destinations served by the A310 were Tel Aviv, Boston and a few airports in Africa. Sabena looked at the Boeing 767-300ER and 777 to replace the DC-10's but chose instead the Airbus A330 and A340. The last DC-10 and Boeing 747 were retired in 1997 and 1999 respectively, leaving the long haul sector to the A330 and A340. With the exception of the A300, Sabena has flown all Airbus models that existed at that time.
I flew on OO-SGC around Belgium in 1999. This was a farewell flight for the Boeing 747 at Sabena. I knew it was the one my aunt flew on years earlier because at the time she flew from Brussels to Johannesburg, the B743 was assigned on the route and Sabena had only one B743.

In its 78-year history, Sabena suffered one major disaster in 1961 when a Boeing 707 bound from New York crashed in a field near Brussels while on approach for landing. The crash was due to a faulty flight control. Since then, Sabena has maintained excellence in the maintenance of its aircraft and in the training of its pilots. Sabena has maintained an outstanding safety record within the last 40 years of operation.

In 1995 Sabena and Swissair signed a cooperative agreement that the two airlines would world together. Paul Reutlinger was at that time the CEO of Sabena. This was, in my opinion, the beginning of the end. In 1997, a significant order was placed at Airbus for 34 aircraft of the A320 family, those 34 aircraft were due to replace all 28 Boeing 737's. The idea was to withdraw completely the Boeing's and have an all Airbus fleet. The first A320 arrived in 1999 but in 2001 huge losses were reported! Sabena had a debt of 1 billion Euros! Bankruptcy was inevitable, it was obvious that the end was near.
In November 2001, the last flight, an Airbus A340 operating as flight SN 690 landed in Brussels. As the last flight touched down on RWY 25L on November 7th 2001, all other Sabena aircraft were parked on the tarmac waiting for their new owners. This was a very sad end, after 78 years of operations. Belgium lost its wings. Over ten thousand people lost their jobs! Some three thousand were rehired by DAT which would eventually become with the help of new investors SN Brussels Airlines in 2002. Swissair, managed by CEO Mario Corti, also ceased operations and resumed flying a year later under a new name: Swiss.

Sabena's charter subsidiary, Sobelair, was founded in the late 1940's and flew to holiday destinations until its demise. Sobelair flew the DC-6, the Boeing 707 and 737-200/300/400 Series as well as two Boeing aircraft Sabena never flew: the 737-800 and the 767-300ER. In 2002 a nonstop flight from Brussels to Johannesburg was added but the route wasn't profitable. Sobelair ceased operations in 2004.
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