27 June 2023
Sabena NV (Société Anonyme Belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne) was the national airline of Belgium from 1923 to November 2001, with the first flight taking place on 23 May 1923. Now the airline's history is being celebrated on a new coin from the Belgian Mint.
After KLM, Sabine is the oldest airline in Europe. Georges Nélis (the first Belgian soldier to hold a military pilot's licence), known as the ‘Father of Belgian Aviation’, and King Albert I were closely associated with the airline’s foundation.
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The first flight between Belgium and the Belgian Congo in Africa took place before World War II, with the pilot, Pilot Edmond Thieffry, taking 51 days to make the flight in his open-cockpit propeller plane.
After World War II, modern aircraft were purchased, and the Sabena Flight Academy pilot training programme was established, which still exists today as CAE Oxford Aviation Academy Brussels, and the flight steward was introduced.
The company also bought out its national competitor Sobelair and developed it as a charter company. A network of helicopters was also established.
After the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels, Sabena made Zaventem airport its headquarters, a dedicated railway line was built from Brussels Central to Zaventem and it became the first European airline to buy jet planes.
Sabena evacuated around 35,000 Belgians from the former Belgian Congo during its turbulent path to independence. After independence, flights to this part of Africa ended and the airline’s focus shifted to cargo flights.
Gilbert Périer, the chairman of the Sabena board of directors, commissioned René Margritte’s painting, L’oiseau de Ciel (The Sky Bird) in the mid-1960s, which was then extensively as the logo to promote Sabena, adorning aircraft, the in-flight crockery, advertising, airline tickets and more.
Fierce competition from the 1980s onwards created difficulties for the airline, with bankruptcy finally declared on 7 November 2001, shortly after the attacks of 11 September in the USA.
This bankruptcy remains the largest ever known in the history of Belgium. At the end, the fleet numbered 52 aircraft and served nearly 150 destinations on five continents. Due to knowledge accumulated over the years, the technical and maintenance department was taken over and is now called Sabena Aerospace.
The current Brussels Airlines, also based in Zaventem, was created from the merger of Sabena’s subsidiaries. On 21 March, Brussels Airlines unveiled the A320 OO-SNC Magritte, decorated inside and out with various works by Magritte.
The obverse of the coin depicts a Sabena Airbus A340-211, whose fins are decorated with René Magritte’s Sky Bird. The plane is shown flying around the globe. The reverse features a portrait of King Philippe.