The Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 is a French fighter aircraft developed and manufactured by Morane-Saulnier starting in 1938. It was France’s most numerous fighter during the Second World War and one of only two French designs to exceed 1,000 in number. At the beginning of the war, it was one of only two French-built aircraft capable of 400 km/h (250 mph) – the other being the Potez 630.
In response to a requirement for a fighter issued by the French Air Force in 1934, Morane-Saulnier built a prototype, designated MS.405, of mixed materials. This had the distinction of being the company’s first low-wing monoplane, as well as the first to feature an enclosed cockpit, and the first design with a retracting undercarriage. The entry to service of the M.S.406 to the French Air Force in early 1939 represented the first modern fighter aircraft to be adopted by the service. Although a sturdy and highly manoeuvrable fighter aircraft, it was considered underpowered and weakly armed when compared to its contemporaries. Most critically, the M.S.406 was outperformed by the Messerschmitt Bf 109E during the Battle of France.
During 1934, the Service Technique de l’Aéronautique (Aeronautical Technical Service) of the French Air Force issued the “C1 design” requirement for a new and completely modern single-seat interceptor fighter. Envisaged as a monoplane with a retractable undercarriage, the prospective fighter aircraft was to serve as a replacement for the French Air Force’s existing inventory of Dewoitine D.371, Dewoitine D.500, and Loire 46 aircraft. Amongst the various aviation companies who took interest in the specification, to which the potential for a large production order was attached, was French aircraft manufacturer Morane-Saulnier.
The company’s design team quickly projected that a low-wing monoplane design would be capable of delivering the desired level of performance sought; other features were to include a fully enclosed cockpit, a variable-pitch propeller, and landing flaps. It was decided to submit their own response to the requirement, designated as the M.S.405; work on the design was headed by the firm’s Engineer-in-Chief, Paul-René Gauthier. Both the shape and basic configuration of the M.S.405 were hotly contended, particularly between ‘traditional’ advocates of biplane aircraft and ‘modern’ monoplane supporters
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The M.S.406 designation was adopted following various design changes from the earlier M.S.405 prototypes; two of the principal design changes were the inclusion of a new weight-saving wing structure and the new retractable radiator. Powered by the production 641.3 kW (860 hp) HS 12Y-31 engine, the new M.S.406 was over 8 km/h (5 mph; 4 kn) faster than the M.S. 405, at 489 km/h (304 mph; 264 kn), tested with no problem to reach up to 730 km/h (454 mph; 394 kn) in a dive. Armament consisted of a 20 mm (0.787 in) Hispano-Suiza HS.9 or 404 cannon with 60 rounds in the V of the engine and fired through the propeller hub, and two 7.5 mm (0.295 in) MAC 1934 machine guns (one in each wing, each with 300 rounds).
Length: 8.17 m (26 ft 10 in)
Wingspan: 10.61 m (34 ft 10 in)
Height: 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in)
Empty weight: 1,895 kg (4,178 lb)
Gross weight: 2,540 kg (5,600 lb)
Powerplant: 1 × Hispano-Suiza 12Y-31 V-12 engine
Maximum speed: 452 km/h (281 mph, 244 kn) at 2,000 m (6,600 ft)
490 km/h (304 mph; 265 kn) at 4,500 m (14,764 ft)
Range: 1,100 km (680 mi, 590 nmi) at 66% power
Combat range: 720 km (450 mi, 390 nmi)
Service ceiling: 9,400 m (30,800 ft)
France sent 30 Morane-Saulnier to Finland, between 4 and 29 February 1940. By 1943 the Finns had received an additional 46 M.S.406s and 11 M.S.410s purchased from the Germans. By this point, the fighters were hopelessly outdated, but the Finns were so desperate for serviceable aircraft that they decided to start a modification program to bring all of their examples to a new standard.