l'aéronautique, le spatial, les choses de l'air et du vide, et leurs environnements au prise des SHS

Dossier thémathique/Thematic Section  |   Thematic Section

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Marie-Madeleine Rotelli et Sophie Rousseau

Occupations and technical changes in the Toulouse aeronautics industry from 1960 to 1980


Cynthia Johnson


Entre 1960 et 1980, alors que la France traverse une importante crise du travail, de nombreuses mutations techniques et technologiques se produisent au sein de l’industrie aéronautique – en partie grâce au développement de l’informatique – et transforment les métiers et la nature du travail. L’ensemble des professions est concerné par ces changements, mais toutes n’ont pas connu la même trajectoire. Ainsi, grâce à l’étude de quelques métiers représentatifs de l’industrie aéronautique (traceur, chaudronnier, tourneur et fraiseur), nous avons pu déterminer les diverses conséquences que peuvent avoir les mutations techniques : disparition de métiers, évolution des savoir-faire, réduction des effectifs, apparition de nouvelles méthodes de travail, possibilité pour certains travailleurs de progresser dans les catégories socioprofessionnelles, amélioration des conditions de travail, etc. Bien que l’interprétation de ces conséquences puisse varier en fonction des individus et de leur ressenti, il est important de garder à l’esprit que la modernisation de l’appareil productif était nécessaire et a permis d’augmenter la productivité ainsi que la production.


Between 1960 and 1980, while France is going through a significant crisis of work, numerous technical and technological changes occur in the aviation industry - especially through the development of data processing - and transforming professions and the nature of work. All professions are affected by these changes, but all have not experienced the same trajectory. Thus, through the study of some representative careers in aviation industry (tracer, boilermaker, lathe and milling machine operators), we were able to determine the various possible consequences of technical change: loss of jobs, development of expertise, downsizing, introduction of new working methods, opportunities for social promotion in some categories, improvements in working conditions, etc. Although the interpretation of these consequences may be different, depending on individuals and their feelings or personal history, one should keep in mind that the modernization of the means of production was an unavoidable trend to increase productivity.

Texte intégral


1Today aeronautics in Toulouse is a leading, internationally-recognised industry. Its success is due to the prestige of the aircraft which have rolled out of the assembly lines, such as the Caravelle, Concorde and the Airbus family, as well as to the quality of the work of those who manufactured them. And yet, in the scholarly literature on this subject, the professional qualities of the men and women who participated in this success are often overlooked in favour of the technical achievements of a given aircraft or the history of aircraft manufacturers, great engineers and pioneers. When studying the history of the aeronautics industry in Toulouse, it is clear that the evolution of labour techniques has not been sufficiently taken into consideration by specialists in the humanities and social sciences (historians, sociologists, economists, geographers, etc.). The topics considered are still very general and, despite the importance of the Toulouse region in the aeronautics sector, it is the national history that prevails at the expense of the regional history. Thus, researchers have focused the history of the pioneers in aeronautics through the achievements of manufacturers and pilots. The researchers have also preferred to study the exploits of French commercial and military aircraft. Geographers have analysed the impact of aeronautics on the industrial landscape of the Midi-Pyrénées region1. Today, several researchers have undertaken to write the social and cultural history of aeronautics actors in the twentieth century2; my research on the evolution of labour in the Toulouse aeronautics industry between the early 1960s and early 1980s, conducted as part of my master’s thesis, falls within the same scope3. Up until now, labour in aeronautics has rarely been studies in the humanities and social sciences, except for sociologist Yvette Lucas’ work on technicians4.

2Through a corpus of varied sources, the present study approaches labour in its various dimensions: the evolution of occupations, technical and technological changes, etc. This corpus consists of written sources from the Institut régional CGT d’histoire sociale Midi-Pyrénées, the Aérothèque and Departmental Archives of the Haute-Garonne Department; oral sources collected through interviews with retired people from the aeronautics industry; and iconographic sources preserved at the Aérothèque of Toulouse.

3The period 1960-1985 marked a turning point for the aeronautics industry. During these years, the industry underwent in-depth reorganisation, with labour evolving significantly in terms of its organisation, as well as in its technical and social aspects. These changes took place in the context of a major labour crisis in France starting in the late 1960s, due to several factors: the accelerated evolution of the production system, employment problems in the sector, the deterioration of the relationship between workers and employers, and economic crises caused in part by the exhaustion of the Ford growth model. This crisis resulted in an increase in unemployment and the resistance of a certain number of employees affected by it. Nonetheless, the aeronautics industry maintained its status as a leading-edge industry and retained a highly skilled workforce able to adapt to the technical and technological changes that occurred. These changes, encouraged by the development of computerisation in the 1960s and 1970s, significantly transformed the occupations and the nature of work.

4Although no profession is immune to these changes, not all have experienced them in the same way. This is why this article seeks to study some representative professions in the aeronautics industry (loftsman, sheet metal worker, turner and milling machine operator5) and the transformations they faced, to determine the consequences that the technological changes may have had, which were not neutral. What were their effects on the professions? What impact did they have on know-how? What were the reactions of workers in view of the changes? How did workers adapt? More fundamentally, this project focused on identifying, within the corporate strategies, the concrete elements of overall innovation dynamics that have enabled companies to adapt to new competitive conditions, while overcoming or bypassing the aforementioned labour crisis. At first sight, it would appear that this occurred due to the harnessing of know-how accumulated by the workforce, by calling into question previously constituted labour groups, and by reducing the specificity of professions and the habits of journeymen. The habitus and jargon of workers were also affected, so that workers and technicians themselves "did their best" (i.e., from the point of view of managers, without major grievances) to integrate this process of on-going technical change, which was already a reality affecting management by that time.

5The first part of this article considers the technical changes that have transformed the design professions. The example of the loftsman is analysed here, because it is a little-known profession which underwent significant changes. The second part deals with some of the occupations relating to manufacturing (sheet metal worker, turner and milling machine operator) to determine the place they occupy between tradition and modernity.

Design professions through the example of the loftsman

6Design professions come into play at the beginning of an aircraft’s construction process. They include the study of technical characteristics and "theoretical" design. Before arriving at the finished product, the aircraft takes different shapes, both virtually and tangibly. First, the aircraft’s profile and its characteristics are presented as calculations that contribute to drafting the plans. These then become layouts to manufacture simple parts. There are then mounted together to form sub-assemblies which, once assembled, constitute the aircraft. Several highly qualified professions are involved during the "theoretical" design: engineers, designers, loftsmen, tooling designers, etc. Among them, the loftsman’s job is one that has undergone the most significant changes during the period studied.

Description of the loftsman’s profession

7The loftsman’s contribution came into play at the beginning of the design and manufacturing chain of the aircraft. First, the engineers studied the forces that would be exerted on the aircraft in order to calculate its profile and dimensions, while considering the airlines' requirements. Then, the designer prepared a two-dimensional profile, giving an overview of the different parts of the aircraft. This representation was then sent to the design office which determined the (X, Y) coordinates through which the plots must pass.

8Before the introduction of computers, these calculations were performed with a slide rule. This instrument is a ruler with the central part able to slide back and forth in relation to the outer part. Logarithmic distances and values are indicated on both parts. Two values are aligned in order to obtain a result to be interpreted6. This requires pre-determining the magnitude of the desired result (number of decimal places). When working with small dimensions (e.g. millimetres), errors may occur and the different points may not form a smooth line. This is when the loftsman's skills were required. He created the link between the design and manufacturing sectors. On the one hand, he verified the consistency of plans provided by the design office, and on the other, he provided the sheet metal workers with a template serving as a model to manufacture the sheet metal sections constituting the aircraft. The tracing was done in a large room where all the loftsmen were gathered. Initially, the tracing room of SNIAS (Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale) was located at the Saint-Éloi factory (in central Toulouse), but, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was moved to the Blagnac factory7 (see black arrow on figure 1).

Figure :

Image 10000000000001F40000017694CD603B15236D02.jpg

Plan of the Blagnac factory in 1971. Location of various buildings comprising the Blagnac factory in 1971

Source: Brochure entitled “Blagnac: journée portes ouvertes 20 juin, 1971”, Toulouse, 1971, 4 p., Institut régional CGT d’histoire sociale Midi-Pyrénées.

9The loftsman’s profession consisted in representing the aircraft and all the parts constituting it in their actual dimensions by engraving them on metal sheets using scribers. On the working draft, i.e. the plot, everything was shown: The location of rivets or angles, the areas where the tubing must pass through, the areas that must be folded, etc. It was as if the aircraft was cut into “slices”. To obtain this working draft, the loftsman had to calculate the average of various coordinates provided by the design office in order to create a plot that corresponded to the correct profile of the aircraft. He reproduced these coordinates on the metal sheets, then he aligned these points using a spline8 – a flexible ruler, originally made of wood, then of plastic – that is held in place using lead weights, known as “ducks9”. Once the system was set up, the loftsman connected the different points as a continuous line: first with a pencil, then with a scriber:

From there on we did the work by hand with lead weights, which we called “ducks”. The spline was placed on the sheet and the weight was placed on top of it. Afterwards, we simply traced the line that had been defined10.

Figure :

Image 1000020100000165000001F4AAA9145C438D2082.png

The lofting room in 1964. Loftsmen laying out an aircraft part in 1964 after positioning the spline and ducks

Credits: Aérothèque de Toulouse

10At Sud-Aviation, loftsmen used scribers. These were tips inserted into tubes that resembled pens and that were used to scratch the metal sheet.

The scriber was an ordinary tip attached to a ball-point pen or a tool like a small hook that was used to scratch the metal sheet11.

11At Breguet, on the other hand, the tools were more rudimentary. In fact, the loftsmen used old reamers. These were tools used to make a clean hole of precise dimension. Reamers were made of very hard steel and the loftsmen sharpened them regularly.

“For us, it was simpler. We took an old reamer. This is a tool used after a hole is drilled to rectify it to the desired diameter, as there were adjustments that were either tight, or with tolerance. The reamer is a tool made of very hard steel. We used damaged or broken reamers to trace, as they were convenient and flexible to work with. Rather than hunting for tools that were commercially made, we worked with a reamer that was simply placed at the end of a tube. I've had this scriber for thirty-five years! This reamer simply needs to be sharpened a little12.”

12In general, the loftsman’s tools were provided by the company. However, the workers sometimes had to make some themselves, known as “DIYs”. These are present in all professions and are created in order to compensate for the shortcoming of tooling or to facilitate the work13. The tracing was done on metal sheets measuring two metres long by one metre wide. Thus, to represent a small part, a single sheet is sufficient; whereas to trace large parts, such as wings, several metal sheets are required. In order to obtain the correct dimensions, the sheets are assembled using cleats (these are metal fittings used to attach several metal sheets together with screws14) placed at the four corners. They are then placed on tables that can be moved to adapt to the dimension of parts to be traced (figure 2, 3 and 4).

Figure :

Image 10000000000001F400000138075317D722B502DA.jpg

Saint-Éloi lofting room in the 1950s. The lofting room comprises several modular work-stations, adjusted by moving the tables.

Credits: Aérothèque de Toulouse

Figure :

Image 10000201000001F40000014D77BFE903C03D55A6.png

Lofting the Concorde (late 1960s). The loftsmen work in a team to trace a large part. They have connected several tables to obtain the correct dimension.

Credits: Aérothèque de Toulouse

13Before the introduction of air conditioning and heating in workshops, loftsmen were subject to wide temperature fluctuations. Steel dilates with heat and contracts with cold which can cause errors in tracing. Consequently, this parameter had to be taken into account.

Although Toulouse is not Siberia, sometimes it can get cold and, although it is not the Sahara, there are times when it gets hot. The metal sheets contract or dilate, so it's necessary to maintain the same temperature throughout the year in the rooms15.

14In addition, as can be seen in Figures 2, 3 and 4, the loftsman’s profession often involved uncomfortable postures: squatting or stretched out on tables, kneeling on a stool, etc. In this sense, working conditions could be trying for the loftsmen.

Introducing CAD into the design process

15The inconveniences linked to loftsmen's postures and the temperature's effects on metal sheets were corrected thanks to technical developments. The first evolution that occurred in the loftsman’s profession was the use of new materials. In fact, before the advent of computerised layout, the loftsmen used Stabiphane. According to Alain Rumeau, a loftsman at Breguet, they began using this material in the early 1970s. This transparent, plastic film adheres to the surface, does not slip, does not tear and is not sensitive to humidity or temperature, as is the case with metal sheets. This new material provided greater stability for tasks requiring precision. Nevertheless, tracing on Stabiphane was very soon replaced by computers and computer aided design (CAD) in the late 1970s16.

16CAD is present throughout the design process. It includes geometrical modelling software and techniques making it possible to design products, test them virtually on a computer, and create them along with the tools necessary to manufacture them. In aeronautics, CAD enables engineers to develop new studies, to analyse and graphically describe them during successive design, analysis and drafting phases. The system includes operating software with an integrated CAD package, which makes it possible to create specific applications with the help of development tools.

17CAD is characterised by its graphical processing capability in two or three dimensions. CAD systems designed by suppliers are known as turnkey systems. There are four main systems: Computervision, Calma, Applicon and Gerber. However, aeronautics companies have also developed proprietary CAD software, such as (Computer Augmented Design and Manufacturing) created on an IBM (International Business Machines) computer to meet the Lockheed's specific requirements. This is a two dimensional design system. It was purchased by the Avions Marcel Dassault (AMD) company which, in addition to using it, enhanced it significantly to then sell its new version to Lockheed. Alongside the use and development of the CADAM software, and to meet its requirements for three-dimensional CAD, Dassault developed CATIA (Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application). These two system software packages (CADAM and CATIA), developed by Dassault, led to an in-house system (not marketed) known as DRAPO (Dessin Rationnel Assisté Par Ordinateur or computer-aided rational drafting). SNIAS, meanwhile, developed two system software packages, Sigma for the Aircraft Division, and Systrid for the Helicopters Division. Both are intended for designing complex shapes: aircraft wings, helicopter cockpits, wing-fuselage connections, etc. Sigma system software was developed in 1976 by SNIAS IT engineers and became operational in 197717. By the 1980s, French 3D CAD was at the cutting edge world-wide and the aerospace industry was ranked at the top. The aeronautics industry's interest in CAD may be explained partly by the fact that it can handle very large or very small numbers. The use of CAD makes it possible to assign the computer to carry out complex or repetitive tasks such as calculations, file management, documentation updates, statistical monitoring, etc. The power of computer technology refines the design process.

18In the case of loftsmen, when CAD was introduced, they began working on a screen with a stylus. The use of computers was necessary because, as we have seen, loftsmen handled infinitely large or small values, requiring great precision. CAD facilitates the processing of such values. Simply stated, by using CAD, the coordinates provided by the design office were entered on the computer, which then connected the points to obtain a harmonious curve. The loftsman simply needed to check and correct errors, if any. At the other end of the chain is the pen plotter, which uses small motors to move a print-head that marks each point. Such transformations had an impact on the nature of the profession and corresponding know-how.

Consequences of technical transformations: towards a transformation of skills?

19These technical transformations had "positive" as well as "negative" consequences on the loftsman’s job. As for the "positive" impacts – or those deemed as such by the management –the use of computers helped save time, thereby increasing productivity. Clearly, it became easier to correct reproduction errors. In the case of tracing on metal sheet, if there is an error in reproducing the coordinates of a point, everything needs to be redone. On the other hand, if an error occurs on the computer, simply correcting the coordinates enables the computer to generate the corrected layout. Moreover, working on a computer was more comfortable for the loftsmen. They no longer needed to lie on the floor or on tables, or to kneel on stools for hours. However, for some, working on a screen introduced visual stress and headaches. For Alain Rumeau, the machine gained the upper hand over humans. To summarise his thoughts during our interview, he quoted Gandhi: “The machine won over man; man became a machine. He functions without living anymore18.” This shows that workers did not experience these transformations in the same way. Finally, the introduction of computers for lofting enabled many loftsmen to see their careers evolve. This was a specific aspect of the industry in Toulouse. When there was no longer enough lofting work, the loftsmen were incorporated into the design office, while in other metallurgical companies, lofting shifted to the manufacturing sector. This did not have the same impact on salaries. On the Blagnac factory plan of 1971 (Fig. 1), the lofting room is clearly mentioned, whereas on that of 1983 (Fig. 5 below), the design office replaced it19.

Figure :

Image 10000000000001F400000162C0E868BBD44BFBCF.jpg

Blagnac factory plan in 1983. Location of various buildings comprising the Blagnac factory in 1983

Source: Plans of three factories of Aérospatiale Toulouse, Toulouse, 1983, 5 p., Institut régional CGT d’histoire sociale Midi-Pyrénées

20This transition of loftsmen to the design office took place between late 1970 and early 1980. They became designers and joined the technicians' group. From then on, they were no longer considered as "labourers", which contributed to divisions in the working group.

21The technical changes therefore did not produce consequences that could be considered only as “positive” or “negative”. In fact, they led to the transformation of occupations, and even their disappearance. In the case of the loftsman’s profession, the transition to computer work at first caused a reduction in workforce. According to Alain Rumeau, there were originally about thirty loftsmen at Breguet, but after the introduction of computers and CAD, the workforce was reduced to seven or eight!

We were about thirty loftsmen. This decreased to seven or eight. It was not layoffs, it happened over time by not replacing people who left20.

22This reduction may be explained by the fact that computers saved time, and so a single loftsman could perform the work of many. Thus, “excess personnel” were either redeployed to other departments – Alain Rumeau, for example, was transferred to the tooling design office – or transferred to other factories of the company. Ultimately, the technical changes got the better of the loftsman’s profession, which no longer exists, and the old skills also died out. This disappearance reinforced the impression of a down-scaling of skills felt by workers, even by some of those who did not complain about their redeployment.

Computer work is fine. It saves a lot of time, but for me, it diminishes skills. Perhaps others will tell you differently, but I cannot see it in any other way than having lost the skills. They have disappeared, been absorbed by the machine and the employer no longer needs a qualified person to do this21.

23Alain Rumeau gave an example to illustrate this loss of skill. In 1984-1985, the Dassault-Breguet company decided to release a new version of the Atlantic, first produced in 1962 and laid out on metal sheets. The structures of both aircraft versions were quite similar. In 1984, Alain Rumeau was the only person with the necessary knowledge to reassemble the sheets in order to note down the modifications that needed to be made to the new version.

In 1984-85, we made the new version of this aircraft, the new generation Atlantic. In fact, it was an aircraft with radar built for submarine detection, using new generation radars, but the airframe was practically the same and some of the layouts had been preserved. This had been done at Montaudran and in 1985 we were at the Colomiers factory; Montaudran no longer existed; everything had been more or less transferred. As I knew how to do it, I put together these sheets from 1960 to compare what had been done recently to what was done at the time and the modifications that were made on the 1985 aircraft22.

24Once the seniors retired, there was no longer anyone to maintain the know-how. Finally, Alain Rumeau recalls the isolation of workers in front of their screens, whereas earlier there was more communication between loftsmen, particularly in asking for advice, sharing experience, etc.

25However, interpreting consequences as “negative” must be qualified, as they are perceived differently from one worker to another. Some considered evolutions in the profession as an opportunity for career development, particularly by joining the design office; while others saw it as a loss of know-how and looked back nostalgically to the era when the job was manual. This nuance in the interpretation applies to all occupations affected by the transformation of work, as other technical and technological changes occurred in the aeronautics industry. They concern, among others, the manufacturing professions.

Manufacturing professions: between tradition and modernity

26Once the “theoretical” design phase was completed with the establishment of operations sheets23 and programmes, production could begin. This took place mainly at the Saint-Éloi factories, since until the 1970s, almost all aircraft parts, excluding engines, were designed in the aeronautics factories of Sud-Aviation in Toulouse. This involved several professions, mainly labourers, such as milling machine operators, turners, welders, sheet metal workers, fitters, etc. I will focus on three professions, grouped in hall 5 at Saint-Éloi: that of sheet metal worker, turner and milling machine operator.

Figure :

Image 10000000000001F400000143DF6754F081DBCB10.jpg

Saint-Éloi factory plan in 1983. Location of various buildings comprising the Saint-Éloi factory in 1983. Hall 50 is located on the left of the drawing (red arrow).

Source: Plans of three factories of Aérospatiale Toulouse, Toulouse, 1983, 5 p., Institut régional CGT d’histoire sociale Midi-Pyrénées

The sheet metal worker

27The sheet metal worker is involved in forming the metal sheets covering the aircraft, as well as in manufacturing various stamped parts, tanks, etc. Forming is a manufacturing process that consists in changing the shape of a material by various techniques (drawing24, folding, etc.). The sheet metal worker relies on the work undertaken beforehand by the loftsman who indicates on the plans the areas that must be folded and the sheet metal worker carries out the folding.

Initially, sheet metal work was a bit like the continuation of lofting. The loftsman plots the part and the sheet metal worker makes it25.

28The sheet metal worker’s job consisted in manufacturing different aircraft components by deforming the metal sheets with different tools. The sheet metal worker had a personal toolbox – which was replaced later by a locked drawer – and access to common tools. The toolbox contained mainly hammers of various sizes and shapes, in order to adapt to the type of tasks to be performed. The most commonly used hammer was the bumping hammer. There were also planishing hammers, riveting hammers, etc. The sheet metal worker also used shears to cut the sheets. To mark the areas to be folded on a metal sheet, he used the same tools as the loftsman, i.e. scribers. “DIYs” could also be found in a journeyman's toolbox, enabling him to save time and increase his bonus26. The sheet metal worker also used tools available in the workshop or those available from the tooling shop. This was the case for files, drills, squares, etc. In those days, the drilling machines were not electric, but rather operated with compressed air. To use them, the journeyman connected the drill to one of the tubes in the workshop27. To give the proper shape to a part, he used dowels, which he wrapped the sheet metal around or used dolly blocks as supports (like portable anvils). These could have several shapes: flat, rounded, oval, etc. The sheet metal worker could also use mechanical presses to work larger or thicker sheets. Some of the tools may be seen in the photo below (Fig. 7).

Figure :

Image 10000000000001F40000016F99B7BAE490FA5925.jpg

Display of the sheet metal worker’s job at the Aérothèque de Toulouse. Reconstitution of the sheet metal worker’s job by the Aérothèque de Toulouse displaying several tools used by the sheet metal worker (hammers, shears and dolly block)


29Until the late 1960s, the sheet metal worker’s job was mainly performed by hand with a hammer and dolly blocks. However, since the Concorde's structure was designed differently using new alloys that were difficult to form, it required the use of mechanical machining techniques where the sheet metal worker played only a limited role28. It was at that time that mechanical presses and folding machines were introduced in workshops, transforming the nature of the profession. For example, sheet metal can be folded on a press brake (Fig. 8). For this, the metal sheet or plate is held by the press, and stamped with a tipped blade, calibrated according to the fold to be made. The folding angle is obtained thanks to the shape of the blade, the opening and the angle of the “V-block29” in which the metal sheet is held and according to the pressure exerted on the sheet.

Figure :

Image 10000000000001F40000012EA7C90654B1589AFD.jpg

Hufford brand machine to fold sheet metal (1955-1976). At the centre of the photograph a metal sheet, clamped on each side, is drawn and folded mechanically.

Credits: Aérothèque de Toulouse

30These technical changes transformed the sheet metal worker's profession, leading to its decline – but not its disappearance, as occurred for loftsmen. In fact, before the introduction of numerically controlled (NC) machine tools, the sheet metal worker formed the part entirely from a metal sheet. But afterwards he only applied the final adjustments. From the 1970s, the sheet metal worker became a “retoucher30”, i.e. he worked to reshape a part that had been formed mechanically, and verified whether the machining had been correctly done.

From there on [the introduction of numerically controlled machine tools], our professions changed because Concorde required less sheet metal work than Caravelle. For example, for Caravelle the skin of the airframe was produced by hand, using the traditional method, whereas, for Concorde, the skin of the airframe and wings were extracted from the mass. They were made by machine tools. Although at the end, the “retouching” was entrusted to the sheet metal worker because the metal stretches when machined and often he was there to give the finishing touches with the hammer. It was more a job at the final phase of installation or manufacturing than a sheet metal designing job. At the same time, the number of sheet metal workers decreased. When I arrived, I was in a workshop at Saint-Éloi where there were 200 to 250 sheet metal workers. There was another sheet metal shop at Blagnac as well as a retouching sheet metal shop at Saint-Martin-du-Touch. There would have been about 500 to 600 sheet metal workers out of about 3,000 hourly workers…[Now], it's different, but there's still a sheet metal worker to give the last tap with the hammer at the end. There may be about a dozen left31.

31Thus, with the new techniques, the sheet metal worker's profession required fewer skills, although it remained a skilled-labour job. Indeed, the safety requirements and the need to prevent stamping defects have led aeronautics companies to maintain high qualification requirements for their sheet metal workers32.

The turner

32The second profession for producing individual parts analysed is that of the turner. The turner must produce a series of identical parts in a given time, complying with the operations sheet provided. Turning is a process of machining by removal of material which enables the turner to obtain cylindrical and/or conical parts. The turner’s profession consists in shaping parts of the aircraft from a block of material. Most of the time, this is a stainless-steel block. In the case of the turner, the part is held by a chuck that spins the piece of metal, and the worker uses a tool to cut away the material (Fig. 9 below). Gradually, the combination of these two movements causes the removal of material in the form of shavings to obtain the desired shape33. When the part is finished, the turner files it to eliminate defects. Turners say that they deburr it.

Figure :

Image 1000000000000159000001F4A2D1DCEC11466C39.jpg

A turner at work. This undated photograph shows a turner shaping a simple part using a conventional machine tool. The block of material (red arrow) is held by a chuck while the worker cuts the steel with a tool (green arrow).

Credits: Aérothèque de Toulouse.

33Turning can be done on two types of machine tools: conventional (Fig. 9) or numerically controlled (NC). The latter were introduced in the 1960s, but both types of machines coexisted for several years. In both cases, they are called lathes34. Most of the time, the senior workers operated conventional machines, while the younger workers, fresh from school, operated NC machines.

34The introduction of NC had two major impacts on the work. Firstly, it modified the nature, i.e. the tasks assigned to the turner were no longer the same. For Michel Loubet: "It’s no longer a turner’s profession, it’s the job of a lathe operator35” and the skilled worker became an operator. Michel Loubet also felt that his job had been deskilled. However, NC requires the acquisition of new techniques and skills. NC machines also enabled many workers to move-up in the hierarchy. As a matter of fact, some were able to move from skilled labourer to technician status. Moreover, NC had repercussions on productivity because, on NCs, a single worker could perform the work of seven or eight people working on conventional machines.

I came back here three or four years after my retirement and was flabbergasted. In place of forty or fifty machines, there were only three! There was one guy to monitor the machine and one guy to remove the shavings. A machine did the work of seven or eight employees36!

35Finally, conventional machines can only produce small parts, which are then mounted together to form sub-assemblies, whereas with NCs, the machined parts are large and require less assembly work. The NCs can carry heavier loads than conventional machine tools, therefore large parts are directly cut from a single piece of material37.

36In both cases, when the machining of the part is complete, the turner verifies its compliance with the specifications before handing it over to the inspector, who uses a calliper gauge to ensure that it corresponds to the correct dimensions. Calliper gauges were provided to the inspectors by the company, but the turners had to purchase their own. This situation was seen as a disparity. This is why, after negotiating with the management, a bonus was granted to the workers to be able to purchase their own callipers. As a result, self-inspection has developed within the factories. Consequently, the workers themselves inspect their work38.

37However, turning is not the only process for forming simple parts; the other method is milling.

The milling machine operator

38Milling is a machining technique similar to turning in that material is gradually removed to produce a part with the desired shape and dimensions. The milling machine operator’s job resembles that of the turner. The milling machine operator must obtain a series of identical parts from blocks of material according to an operations sheet. However, in the case of milling, unlike turning, the tool rotates and the part is repositioned in various planes. The milling machine operator, as the name implies, uses a machine tool called a milling machine, which is equipped with a cutter, i.e. a removable bit that cuts into the metal. There are several types of cutters of different shapes and sizes. They are provided by the company and kept in a tool store where workers check them out in exchange for tokens that are returned to them when they bring the tools back.

We went to the store to get our tools and then paid for them with a token. My token had the number 418. The storekeeper wrote down what had been checked out. We were rarely satisfied with the tools he lent39.

39If a trimming cutter breaks during milling, the team leader prepares a form requesting its replacement. The workers are not responsible for hardware damage, except in extreme cases, such as damage to a machine tool.

When a cutter broke, we could not take it back to the store. So, the team leader prepared a form for its replacement.

Interviewer: But, was there any impact on your salary? No, except for big errors like breaking machines. There was one person who was almost got fired40.

40The cutter is installed either a conventional or numerically controlled machine tool. With the conventional machine tool, the block of material is moved by cranks operated by a skilled labourer. This type of machine is sufficient for machining parts that are not very complex, but it is difficult to plot profiles other than those consisting of straight lines and circles. From the late 1960s and early 1970s, the shapes became more complex and required the introduction of NCs in workshops. From then on, working techniques were transformed and changed the role of the milling machine operator. In fact, NCs are programmed – initially this was done with a punchcard and then later by a computer – and the parts are positioned automatically. The milling machine operator is responsible for installing the material on the machine, running the programme and removing the shavings when required (Fig. 10 below).

Figure :

Image 10000000000001F40000015E7BBD881315C1A196.jpg

Forest brand numerically controlled milling machine. Milling a Concorde spar in August 1974. Milling a Concorde spar using a numerically controlled milling machine. The skilled worker operates the NC machine from the control panel on the left. The block of material is installed on the NC table and held with shims (black arrow) while the cutter (red arrow) cuts the steel.

Credits: Aérothèque de Toulouse

41To machine more complex parts, copy milling machines are used (Fig. 11), which as their name suggests, enable workers to produce parts by copying an initial model made in the tooling shop. Their operation is quite simple: A sensor explores the entire surface of the model, while the milling cutter follows the same profile on a block of material to obtain the part. Later, machining with copy milling machines did away with the need to make a model. CAD is used to create a virtual model, and the corresponding data is entered on a computer in the numerically controlled machine tool41.

Figure :

Image 100000000000011B00000190F24B2073752AFCC8.jpg

Copy milling machine. In this photograph, a part is shaped by a copy milling machine: the block of material is placed on the NC table and the cutter removes the material by following the model that has been programmed using CAD. The milling machine operator controls the copy milling machine via the electrical panel on the left in the photograph.

Credit: Aérothèque de Toulouse

42The choice of whether to work on traditional or modern machines was made on a voluntary basis. Some workers, such as André Dagault, took a great interest in the new techniques.

A machine that operates all by itself was really extraordinary! Then one day, while working with my team of fitters, the team leader asked me if I'd be interested in working on numerically controlled machines. Of course, I liked the idea a lot…42

43André Dagault did not see the introduction of NCs as a loss of skills, but instead as a transformation. In fact, the use of numerically controlled machine tools requires new skills. In addition, the complexity of machined parts requires the use of new techniques.

Well, we could talk about loss of skills, but the parts were so complex that it would have been impossible for a conventional milling machine operator to make them43.

44The jobs of sheet metal worker, turner and milling machine operator thus underwent changes due to the introduction of new techniques, but this change was made necessary by the technical characteristics of new aircraft. In fact, Concorde and Airbus are much larger than Caravelle, thus their parts are also bigger, and only NC machine tools are able to machine such parts. In addition, the old skills of sheet metal workers, turners or milling machine operators have not completely disappeared, since the work on a conventional machine tool has coexisted with that on an NC. Consequently, these professions fluctuate between tradition and modernity. The jobs of manufacturing simple parts also were affected by the development of subcontracting and international cooperation. At the time of the Caravelle, the simple parts used on the aircraft were mostly manufactured in Toulouse factories, especially at Saint-Éloi. However, from the Concorde onward, the share of production carried out by Toulouse workers tended to decrease and their factories began to specialise in the production of fuselage and engine pylons44. Thus, from the early 1970s, the assembly line of Saint-Martin received sub-assemblies and aircraft sections from other French or European companies. It was at this time that the assembling jobs (riveter, welders, electricians, cable installers, etc.) came into play.


45The technical and technological changes that occurred between 1960 and 1985 played an important role in the evolution of work in the aeronautics industry. First, these changes had varying impacts on the professions. In some cases, they led to their disappearance (e.g. loftsman); while in others, they "only" caused staff reductions (e.g. sheet metal workers). Then, they sparked a profound transformation of the nature of the occupations, because the working methods had changed, particularly after the introduction of CAD in workshops. Henceforth, many professional workers became NC operators. For some, these changes were seen as a decrease in qualification and a loss of their traditional skills, while others saw change as an opportunity to move up in the socio-professional hierarchy and advance their careers. Thus, many professional workers were able to move to a higher category, such as technician, thereby accompanying the overall development of the company’s payroll organisation. Consequently, to adapt to the technical and technological changes, workers had to acquire new skills through training provided by the company, as well as through study on their own and the “transmission of know-how on-the-job.”45 Some professional knowledge, as a result, was acquired by contact with working colleagues. It is for these various reasons that we need to speak of an evolution of know-how rather than its disappearance.

46The changes have also had repercussions on the company’s economic situation. Since the construction of modern aircraft requires increasingly complex manufacturing processes, increasingly powerful machines and new technologies, modernisation of the production apparatus was necessary and led to increased productivity and output. For example, CAD accelerates the development of new studies, in particular by facilitating error correction; while CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) makes it possible to carry out direct numerically controlled machining. In addition, the use of NC makes the machining of large parts possible, which reduces the proportion occupied by assembly work within the construction timeframe for an aircraft. As the parts are bigger, there are fewer sub-assemblies to be created. However, technical modernization is not the only element explaining the increase in productivity. Actually, this is closely related to the redistribution and reorganisation of work, i.e. the development of subcontracting and international cooperation, the setting up of a national (or even international) division of labour, and to the restructuring of assembly lines, etc.46 The employees' acceptance of this innovation process, under negotiated conditions, was one of the crucial elements in the employers’ strategy during that period. This is illustrated by the establishment of management by project, the creation of operational groups, as well as multiple (and successful) efforts to re-orient the balance of power of trade unions within the company47. All these elements contributed to building up the company which is now on the largest aeronautics company in Europe: Airbus.


1 G. Jalabert, Les industries aéronautiques et spatiales en France : étude géographique (Toulouse: Privat, 1974).

2 Many of the historians, geographers, economists, and sociologists writing the social and cultural history of the aeronautics industry in the twentieth century work together in the Aéro group of the SMS Labex, headed by Jean-Marc Olivier.

3 M.-M. Rotelli, S. Rousseau, L’évolution du travail dans l’industrie aéronautique toulousaine du début des années 1960 au début des années 1980 (Master’s thesis, directed by Alain Boscus, UT2J: Toulouse, 2014).

4 Y. Lucas, Le vol du savoir (Lille: Mutations/Sociologie, Presses universitaires de Lille, 1989).

5 According to Y. Lucas in Le vol du savoir (Table p. 64), in 1967 at Sud-Aviation there were: 111 turners/ turner-toolers, 121 sheet metal workers and 147 milling machine operators. However, by 1983 there were only 80 turners and 86 sheet metal workers. Only milling machine operators saw their numbers increase slightly (there were 167 in the early 1980s), which can be explained by the appearance of copy milling machines, whose use complemented that of numerically controlled milling machines and conventional ones.

6 Source: Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

7 M.-M. Rotelli, S. Rousseau, L’évolution du travail dans l’industrie aéronautique toulousaine du début des années 1960 au début des années 1980 (Master’s thesis, directed by Alain Boscus, UT2J: Toulouse, 2014), 278-279.

8 See the green arrow on Figure 2.

9 See the red arrow on Figure 2.

10 Source: Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

11 Source: Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

12 Source: Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

13 G. Desseigne, L’évolution des structures de l’emploi dans l’industrie aérospatiale française, (Paris: Editions Cujas, 1965), 157.

14 See the yellow arrow on Figure 2.

15 Interview of Yvon Cazes, loftsman at Sud-Aviation, 6 December 2012 at the l’Institut d’histoire sociale de la CGT.

16 Brochure TO INFO, département des affaires sociales, Aérospatiale, n° 24, 10 December 1984, 4 p., (Aérothèque de Toulouse).

17 Computer Plan 1980-1984 by La direction d’Etudes de l'Aérospatiale, Toulouse 27 June 1980, Institut régional CGT d’histoire sociale Midi-Pyrénées.

18 Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

19 See the red arrow on Figure 5.

20 Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

21 Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

22 Interview of Alain Rumeau, loftsman at Breguet-aviation, 12 November 2012 at his home.

23 Operations sheets are data sheets that define all operations to be performed: the order, the use of tools, etc. The sheets therefore state: manufacturing drawings, materials, tools to use, and the time allotted for the completion of a task. This quantifies the percentage of the bonus awarded to the worker. They are sheets that workers are required to comply with to the letter.

24 Stamping is a parts-forming method which comprises deforming the material by stretching or by pressing it. It can be done manually by the worker or using a machine, such as mechanical presses, in particular for stamping thick plates.

25 Interview of Maurice Biard, sheet metal worker at Sud-Aviation, 29 March 2013 at l'Institut d'histoire sociale de la CGT.

26 Interview of Maurice Biard, sheet metal worker at Sud-Aviation, 29 March 2013 at l'Institut d'histoire sociale de la CGT.

27 Interview of Maurice Biard, sheet metal worker at Sud-Aviation, 29 March 2013 at l'Institut d'histoire sociale de la CGT.

28 G. Desseigne, L’évolution des structures de l’emploi dans l’industrie aérospatiale française (Paris: Éditions Cujas, 1965), 115

29 The V-block is a block in which there is a v-shaped notch.

30 G. Desseigne, L’évolution des structures de l’emploi dans l’industrie aérospatiale française (Paris: Éditions Cujas, 1965), 115

31 Source : Interview de Maurice Biard, chaudronnier à Sud-Aviation, le 29 mars 2013 à l'Institut d'histoire sociale de la CGT.

32 G. Desseigne, L’évolution des structures de l’emploi dans l’industrie aérospatiale française (Paris: Éditions Cujas, 1965), p. 115

33 Interview of Michel Loubet, turner atSud-Aviation, 5 November 2013 at his home.

34 Interview of Michel Loubet, turner atSud-Aviation, 5 November 2013 at his home.

35 Interview of Michel Loubet, turner atSud-Aviation, 5 November 2013 at his home.

36 Interview of Michel Loubet, turner atSud-Aviation, 5 November 2013 at his home.

37 Interview of Michel Loubet, turner atSud-Aviation, 5 November 2013 at his home.

38 Interview of Michel Chevalier, Yves Bize and André Dagault, 12 February 2013 at the Bourse du travail of the CGT de Toulouse.

39 Interview of André Dagault, milling machine operator at SNIAS, 23 March 2013 at his home.

40 Interview of André Dagault, milling machine operator at SNIAS, 23 March 2013 at his home.

41 Bulletin Echos de Sud-Aviation, May 1964, 4 p., Archives de l’Aérothèque de Toulouse.

42 Interview of André Dagault, milling machine operator at SNIAS, 23 March 2013 at his home.

43 Interview of André Dagault, milling machine operator at SNIAS, 23 March 2013 at his home.

44 Periodical Aérospatiale, published by the Société nationale industrielle Aérospatiale, 1981, 20 p., Institut régional CGT d’histoire sociale Midi-Pyrénées.

45 Y. Lucas, Le vol du savoir (Lille: Mutations/Sociologie, Presses universitaires de Lille, 1989).

46 M.-M. Rotelli, S. Rousseau, L’évolution du travail dans l’industrie aéronautique toulousaine du début des années 1960 au début des années 1980 (Master’s thesis, directed by Alain Boscus, UT2J: Toulouse, 2014).

47 Doctorat thesis forthcoming, by C. Juilliet, Histoire sociale des travailleurs de la SNCASE/Sud-Aviation/Aérospatiale de la fin des années 1940 à la fin des années 1980, directed by Jean-Marc Olivier.

Pour citer ce document

Marie-Madeleine Rotelli et Sophie Rousseau, «Occupations and technical changes in the Toulouse aeronautics industry from 1960 to 1980», Nacelles [En ligne], Pour une histoire sociale et culturelle de l'aéronautique au XXe siècle, Dossier thémathique/Thematic Section, mis à jour le : 24/10/2016, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Sophie Rousseau


Master II Histoire et civilisations modernes et contemporaines, Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès

Quelques mots à propos de :  Marie-Madeleine Rotelli


Master II Histoire et civilisations modernes et contemporaines, Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès