SABENA World Airlines



Callsign:  Sabena

SABENA - Societe Autonyme Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aerienne - began on 23 May 1923 as the Belgian national carrier.  It took over from Belgium's previous airline, SNETA (Syndicat Aeriens pour l'Etude des Transports Aeriens) which was formed in 1919 as a national airline.

SABENA AIR LINES' first paying flight was on 1 April 1924 on a flight from Rotterdam to Strasbourg stopping at Brussels.  Regular flights to Amsterdam and Basle via Strasbourg were started by 1923 with further routes to London, Bremen and Copenhagen by 1924..

When SABENA was formed it was part funded by Belgians in the Congo colony who had only a year before lost their air service - an experimental passenger and cargo company (L.A.R.A.) between Kinshasha, Lisala and Stanleyville - and expected the new Belgian national airline to fill this gap.  So from 1925 SABENA pioneered a route to Africa and to Belgium's interests in the Belgian Congo.  

SABENA chose to use landplanes for the Congo operation and a program of aerodrome building in the Congo began.  These were finished in 1926 and SABENA immediately began flights within the Congo in line with it's mandate, the main route being Boma-Leopoldville-Elisabethville - a 1422 mile route over dense jungle.  First flights were with De Havilland d.h. 50 aircraft although these were replaced with the larger H.P. W8f  airliners which had three engines and ten seats.

Handley-Page W8f 

The Handley-Page W8f  was used in the mid 1920s in SABENA's Congo operations

During the early stages the airline used the Farman Goliath, the Breguet 14 and various British-built Handley-Page aircraft including the Handley-Page W8f.

By 1931 SABENA's fleet, including the aircraft used on the Congo network, totalled 43 aircraft.  It's mainstay type was the Fokker 7b with a lesser number of the smaller Fokker 7a and 14 Handley-Page types.  It also used the British Westland Wessex aircraft.

SABENA flew aircraft out to Tropical Africa - it's Congo colony - occasionally but mostly these aircraft were shipped out.  The flight from Belgium to the Congo had, in the past taken 51 days... a mammoth flight.  But as the 1930s progressed SABENA cooperated with Air France and Deutche Luft Hansa on over-flight rights (who also had interests in routes over Africa and the Congo) and began it's first regular scheduled service from Brussels to Leopoldville in the Congo.

Thus, SABENA's first long-haul flight to the Congo occurred 23 February 1935 and took five and a half days.  It was flown by a SABENA Fokker F7b on a direct service.  The following year SABENA purchased the latest airliner, the Savoia-Marchetti S.M. 73.  At a speed of 200mph it reduced this route to only four days and the service ran alternative weeks in cooperation with Air Afrique who flew the every other week.

In Europe SABENA opened services to Copenhagen and Malmo in 1931.  A route to Berlin began in 1932.  The mainstay pre-war airliner that SABENA used in Europe was the successful Junkers Ju-52/3m airliner.  The airline's pre-war routes covered almost 6000 kms within Europe alone.  

Junkers Ju-52/3m of SABENA Air Lines

Junkers Ju-52/3m in pre-war SABENA colours 

From 1936 SABENA was using the pride of European airlines, the fast and comfortable Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.M.73 tri-engined airliner which was used mainly on the Congo route (SEE POSTER  BELOW).  SABENA purchased a fleet of eleven of this type.

Savoia-Marchetti SM73 

Savoia-Marchetti SM-73 OO-AGL in the late 1930s

In 1938 the airline purchased the new S.M. 83, a development of the S.M. 73 with a speed of 270mph although it flew services at about 250mph.  During World War Two the airline managed to maintain it's Belgian Congo routes.

By the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 SABENA's fleet totalled 18 aircraft.  It's mainstay fleet type was the Savoia-Marchetti SM-73 airliner (it had 11 of the type) and the Junkers Ju-52/3m airliner (it had 5).  SABENA also had two Douglas DC-2s.

WORLD WAR TWO stopped all European services.

After the second world war in 1946 SABENA's fleet consisted of Douglas DC-3s. (There were tens of thousands of C-47 Dakotas available to help airlines restart operations after the war).  The airline now flew under the name SABENA - Belgian World Airlines.

4 June 1947 saw SABENA start a new route across the Atlantic to New York initially using Douglas DC-4s which were quickly replaced by Douglas DC-6Bs.  These 'fours' and 'six-Bs' also restarted the airline's historic route to the Belgian Congo.  The SABENA markings for the immediate post-war period up to the early 1950s are shown on the Douglas 'Super DC-6B' shown here...

Douglas DC-6B in early SABENA colours

Douglas DC-6B OO-CTP in post-war and early 1950s colours  - Capt. John Lesch

Other equipment used included DH Dove twins and various helicopters.

Convair 240s were purchased and introduced in 1950 to replace the DC-3 twins, which had flown all European services.

Convair 240 in early SABENA colours

Convair 240 in post-war and early 1950s colours 

Convair 440 'Metropolitan' twins replaced the earlier Convair 240 twins and were used successfully well into the 1960s across European regional destinations.

Convair 440 Metropolitain

Convair 440 Metropolitan OO-SCV  in 1960s  colours  - Ronald Herron

In 1957 the long-haul Douglas DC-7C - the 'Seven Seas' was introduced for long-haul routes but would be supplanted after only three years by the jet age. 

Douglas DC-7 at Harare in 1959

Douglas DC-7 at Harare in 1959  - Brian Robbins

1960 saw big changes for SABENA when the state of Zaire was founded ending the long-held route from Belgium to the Congo.  1960 also saw the introduction of the new Boeing 707-320 intercontinental jet for it's long-haul trans-Atlantic flights to New York.  SABENA was mainland Europe's first airline to operate a jet across the Atlantic (BOAC had been flying trans-Atlantic Comet 4 jet services before 1960).

Boeing 707 of Sabena

Boeing 707-329 OO-SJM at Heathrow in 1973 - Ray Pettit 

Sud-Est SE-210 Caravelle 6 jetliners were introduced on all medium-haul routes in Europe from February 1961 and were flown on most European routes, alongside the Convair 440s, until the early 1970s.

Caravelle OO-SRA in original colours 

Caravelle OO-SRA at Copenhagen in 1971  -  Erik Frikke

1961 also saw a major upheaval for SABENA in the Congo colony.  When the old Belgian Congo became the Republic of Congo belgians fled, transported by SABENA.  This was the end of the impressive regional network of routes and airports in Congo that the airline had built up since 1924.  When the new Republic began it's own airline: Air Congo, in June 1961 SABENA held 30 percent of that airline's shares.

Douglas 'Super DC-6B' aircraft were still in use with SABENA in the mid 1960s despite the airline introducing a fleet of modern Boeing 707 jets.  These aircraft were no longer used on SABENA's main schedules though - the Boeing 707s and Caravelles were the mainstay types during this decade.

Douglas DC-6B in 1960s SABENA colours

Douglas 'Super DC-6B' OO-CTK  at Stockholm in 1966  - Lars Soderstrom

Boeing 727-100s were introduced important European routes from 1967 and the jet was introduced in a colour scheme of it's own, the fin markings incorporated bare-metal rudder and white engine colours.  The only other aircraft to have it's own special markings was the Douglas DC-10.

 Boeing 727-029 in 1970 livery

Boeing 727-029 OO-STA at Heathrow in 1970  -  Caz Caswell

Fokker F-27 'Friendships' were also introduced at this time and they were used from regional Belgian airports to European destinations such as Heathrow.

1971 saw Boeing 747-200s introduced on the transatlantic routes flying alongside the Boeing 707-320Cs.  SABENA, like many other trans-Atlantic airlines was happy with the Boeing 707s but for commercial reasons it had to buy the new jumbo-jets for it's prestige services like New York.  SABENA purchased only two and continued to fly the 707 into the late 1970s. 

747-200  OO-SGB

Boeing 747-200 OO-SGB at JFK  in 1979  -  C A Gage

1973 saw Boeing 737-200s replacing the Boeing 727s on the European services. 

737-200  OO-SDG in original colours 

Boeing 737-200 OO-SDG in original markings at Heathrow in 1983 - Sarah Ward

Douglas DC10-30CFs were introduced from 1974 and SABENA purchased four of these convertible wide-body jets.

DC10-30  OO-SLD

DC10-30CF OO-SLD at Anchorage in 1990 - Daniel Dufner

In 1984 Airbus A310s were introduced on routes that had high passenger-density.  This aircraft type also introduced a modernisation of the 1973 SABENA colours in which a lighter blue was used and the titles on the fuselage were in modern style.

A310   OO-SCB 

Airbus A310-300 OO-SCB at Heathrow in 1984 - Sarah Ward



A new name - SABENA World Airlines - and livery was introduced for the 1990s.

The new colours had an overall white colour and the white circle tail logo in blue on the fin.  A large 'sabena' title covered the fuselage in very light blue and at times was barely visible although the title was also painted on the fuselage in small clear letters.  The 1990s saw further fleet type renewal - the DC-10-30s were replaced with MD-11 jets.

McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 

McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 OO-CTG with CityBird titles  -  Marc Schaeffer

1993 saw Air France purchase  a large minority stake in SABENA which they sold soon after.  In 1995 Swissair purchased a 49 percent stake in SABENA - a move which would bring the airline down in 2001.

And the Boeing 747-200s that had seen service since the 1970s were replaced with the new Airbus A340 long-haul jet.  By the late 1990s the airline colours  were changed again.  

Airbus A340  OO-SCZ in new colours 

Airbus A340 OO-SCZ in new colours - 2001 - Carlos Borda

1999 saw the new colours on the latest Airbus equipment to be used by SABENA - the Airbus A321.

Airbus A321  

Airbus A321 on a pre-delivery flight  -  Airbus Industrie 

One of the latest fleet types that SABENA has introduced is the Airbus A-319 which saw service in 2000.

Airbus A319  

Airbus A319 OO-SSA at Manchester in 2000  -  Andy Kennaugh 



Delta Air Transport (DAT) fly many regional and domestic sheduled routes with a small fleet of Avro 100 feeder-liner jets in full Sabena livery but with small 'DAT' titles on the nose of the aircraft.

Avro RJ-85 OO-DWD Delta Air Transport 

Avro RJ-100 OO-DWD (owned by D.A.T.) in Sabena special livery - Marc Schaeffer



SABENA operated helicopter services from 21 August 1950 when it used Bell 47D aircraft on an experimental postal service between Brussels and extending domestically to cities like Antwerp, Liege and Turnhout.  It was begun in co-operation with the Belgian Post Office.  

The Bell 47s were replaced with the larger Sikorsky S.55 allowing the service to extend to internationally to Maastricht.  This was the world's first international helicopter service.

SABENA intended using helicopters on an international rotary-wing passenger service as a feeder service for it's fixed-wing international/European services.  This was started on 1 September 1953 using the Sikorsky S.55 aircraft, which could carry eight passengers.

SABENA flew international services with Sikorsky S.55 

SABENA began international passenger services with the Sikorsky S.55

By October 1956 the service had new helicopters, the twelve-seat Sikorsky S.58 and SABENA's fleet of eight S.58 helicopters inauguated the service to Paris in 1957!

Sikorsky S.58 

SABENA improved the helicopter services with eight Sikorsky S.58s

By 1960 this international passenger helicopter service from Brussels flew to Rotterdam, Antwerp, Lille, Eindhoven, Maastricht, Liege, Paris, Dortmund, Duisburg, Cologne and Bonn.  It served Holland, France, Germany and Luxembourg internationally.



After an airline recession and the effects on the airline industry of the terrorist attacks on America on 11th September 2001 all airlines that flew across the Atlantic suffered badly.

Further to this SABENA was owed 84 million by the Swiss airline Swissair.  After Swissair stopped operations on 2nd October 2001 and refused to repay the money SABENA was forced to stop flying.  They filed for legal protection against their creditors on 3rd October.  

This gave SABENA about three weeks to get further financial backing.  With most of the main airlines in Europe fighting for passengers in the aftermath of the attack on the USA and on civil aviation SABENA failed to gain the required backing and went into liquidation on 7 November 2001.


FLEET:  Airbus A340,  A321, Boeing 747-300, Boeing 737-200, 737-300, 737-400, 737-500, and Dash-8 turboprops.  DAT use Avro 85 and Avro 100 jets.  Airbus A330s were on order.

DESTINATIONS:  27 destinations in Africa, also Far East, Europe, and USA.


SABENA poster from circa 1936

SABENA poster from circa 1936 showing S.M. 73 aircraft

A short history of the Sabena






The beginning

Belgian interest for the aviation arrived early. Many private builders began to create aeroplanes from the beginning of the Century. Belgian Military Air Force was created in 1910. King Albert I himself was fond of new techniques and his government then still ready to support initiatives helping the development of the aviation.

The quick and surprising progresses of the aerial weapon in the Ist WW pushed some pioneers to launch a national air company. One year after the end of the war, the SNETA (Société Nationale pour l'Etude des Transports Aériens) came to life. The beginnings were "heroics", the first planes being mainly ex-war-machines, souvenirs of the conflict as some De Havilland DH-9 which desserved London, Amsterdam or Paris, taking off from Haren airfield, the then airfield of Brussels.

But Belgian territory was not limited to Europe... At that time it was extended to the colony on African soil: the Belgian Congo. The liaisons were mainly maritime and it took many weeks to travel from Antwerp to Goma and Léopoldville! The plane was, without doubt, the future for the liaison Europe/ Africa. In 1920, using a few seaplanes (as the triplace Levy-Lepen), the LARA (Ligne Aérienne du Roi Albert) could assure internal liaisons in the Colony, covering the important distance between Léopoldville and Stanleyville by flying over Congo river.


Devlopment of the national airline

A tri-engined Fokker F VIIb/3m of Sabena photographed at Haren in the early 30's.


All those attempts (SNETA & LARA) were concretized when, on 23 May 1923, SABENA (Société Aérienne Belge d'Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne) was born. The capital of the company was in the hands of both private interests and the state. The new airline expended quickly, each year new liaisons being created:

1924: to Switzerland (Brussels-Strasbourg-Basel). 
1925: using a Handley-Page W 8, the crew Edmond THIEFFRY (one of the greater Belgian aces of Ist WW), Léopold ROGER (co-pilot) and Joseph "Jef" DE BRUYCKER (engineer) made the first daring flight between Brussels and Léopoldville (in 51 days ... but only 75 flight-hours!). 
1926: Brussels was linked to London. 
1927: first regular flight in the Belgian Congo: from Boma to Elisabethville via Léopoldville. 
1928 and 1929: Germany, the ex-enemy, saw the Belgian civilian planes at Köln (Cologne), Düsseldorf and Hamburg. 
1931: first flight to Copenhague. 
1932: Berlin. 
1935: Lille (France) and Stockholm were the new landing places. At that time, King Leopold III (another Belgian sovereign interested in new tecnics) had married the Swedish princess Astrid and Sweden was nearly a part of Belgium in the heart of many inhabitants of that country. 
That year, a regular flight Brussels/Léopoldville war inaugurated, the first Fokker F-VII receiving very normally the honour name "Edmond THIEFFRY". 
1937: Prague. 
1938: Vienna... and so on ....

Belgium is a little country but Sabena started liaisons between Brussels and Antwerp. A more uncommon service was the weekend flight between Brussels, Antwerp and Knokke permitting to businessmen to rejoin their families for the Friday evening. The return trip on the Monday permitted to be at the office at 9 O'clock.

The material followed the civil aviation development. The Belgian national company bought the best planes for the period. The time of using ex-military planes was closed. In the Sabena, flew the Dutch Fokker F VII, the Italian SM S-73 and S-83, the German Ju 52 (very useful in the harsh conditions of the colony!), the American DC-3,.... Some of these machines were locally produced by SABCA (Société Belge de Construction Aéronautique) under license. 

Sabena ordered nine Junkers Ju 52/3mge in 1936. OO-AGV as shown here at Haren, was the second Ju 52 delivered to Sabena.

The end of the growing

The beginning of 2nd WW stopped the activities of Sabena. In the phoney war, the civilian planes were mainly painted in orange wearing in great black letters the word "Belgique-België" proving that those planes were neutral. By chance, there were no incidents from September 39 to 9 May 40. However, operations were limited, Belgium being surrounded by belligerents. For example, the Terminus of the Congo road was temporally moved from Brussels to Marseilles. 

On 10 May 1940, the Belgian airfields were bombed but, excepted a few planes, the Sabena machines could "escape" to Hendon. After a very surprising contract with the Sabena attaché in London, the transport planes (with their crews!) were "hired" to the RAF and included in British Squadrons (as 24 Sq.).

Sabena DC-3-227B seen at Shoreham in May 1940. Later that same month it entered service with No 24 Squadron RAF. 

They flew mainly supply missions from England to the mainland, some being destroyed by the german Flak or fighters, civilian crewmen being killed or captured. A mission to Merville on 23 May turned into disaster, when three Sabena planes (two Savoia and one DC-3) were lost. Many crewmen decided then to "desert" and operate for the Belgian military schools evacuated in French Marocco. Those crews continued to fly after Belgian armistice (28 May 40) but had to stop all activities after the Fall of France (18 June 1940). The still-flying planes were therefore parted between the victors, the Italians receiving the Savoia, the Germans at least a DC-3. That American plane survived the war as the personal plane of General CHRISTIANSEN (who, for the anecdote, was in 1918 a well-known pilot in the German airbase of Zeebrugge, on the Belgian coast).

But, in the Colony, the planes still in service continued to operate for the Allied cause, Belgian Congo having rejoined Great Britain and the Commonwealth. So, regular flights existed between Léopoldville and London (via Lisbonne). For the anecdote, Sabena inherited from some Ju52's of British origins, their previous operators finding too dangerous to continue to operate German aircraft in Europe. Fokker FVII were still used until the arrival of more modern hardware in the form of a few Lockheed Lodestars.

After 2nd WW

On 10 July 1945, a Lodestar coming from Congo in the Sabena livery landed on Haren airfield after five years of hostility. All had to be rebuilt. To recruit crewmen, it was asked to pilots who served in the war in the RAF or the SAAF to become civilian pilots. It was a difficult choice for many of them who did not want to become "truck drivers" but those who decide to come back to civilian life(as, e.g., A. GENDEBIEN, G. HALLEUX, J. ESTER, G. JASPIS, ....) did never regret their decision.

A Sabena Douglas DC-7C being prepared at Melsbroek.

IInd WW saw too devlopment of the airplanes and the beginning of the "jet age". Sabena started operation on the Atlantic with DC-4 followed by DC-6, liaisons with Belgian Congo were also improved... Others commuters planes (Convair 440, Dove, Heron Bristol 170,...) were bought by the Belgian Company which developped its liaisons in Europe, in the Congo and all over the world. Haren airfield became to tiny and the new national Belgian airport was built and developed at Brussels-Evere. During the Korea war, some Sabena planes took part in the air-bridge from Europe to
Asia carrying troops and cargo loads under contracts of the USAF.

In the fifties, Sabena was also of the first company to operate helicopters for liaison from town to town from Brussels to Paris and Köln in Germany.
In Brussels the Sikorsky S59 operated from the centre of the town.

The Brussels' World exhibition in 1958 signified new challenges for Sabena. Belgium build a new airport in Zaventem, still know as the Brussels national airport. Sabena ordered Boeing 707's and leased Lockheed Constellations to carry the thousands of visitors coming in Brussels.

The 707's were extensively used during the troubles following the Congo independence in 1960 to evacuate Europeans from the country. It will not be the last time since, all crisis in the new independent country will signify the mobilisation of the Sabena for humanitarian flights until the end of the eighties. 

All along the last thirties years, new types entered service with what was then called the Belgian World airline: Caravelle, Boeing 727, 737, 747. The technical department of Sabena acquired some expertise maintaining the company fleet. Some other company contracted Sabena to maintain their fleet. It was the start of a new success story. Sabena technical Dept maintained ans still maintain and upgrade the Hercules fleet of the Belgian air force based on the other side of of the Zaventem airport in Melsbroek. 


After a very pleasant period, the crisis of the 70's hitted the Sabena as many aerial civilian companies. In the 60's and 70's, choices had to be made and, following responsibles, some mistakes were made. True or not? It is easy to judge that after the facts... As too many Western Europe companies, Sabena lost money and had to find new ways.

The recent links with Swissair were one of the solutions and, in the 90's, Sabena has changed to be prepared for the third millenium. What will it be?


Sabena A340-300 as it nears Runway 25R at Zaventem Airport for takeoff.