50 years ago today the first Airbus aircraft, the A300B, embarked on its maiden flight. On this historic anniversary we look back with pride and admiration at the aircraft and programme that were at the beginning of the Airbus story.
On 28 October 1972, the world’s first twin engined widebody commercial aircraft, the A300B1 development aircraft, MSN 1, bearing the registration F-WUAB, performed its maiden flight in Toulouse. The test flight crew were Captain Max Fischl, First Officer Bernard Ziegler, Flight Test Engineers Pierre Caneil and Gunter Scherer, with Romeo Zinzoni as Test Flight Engineer/Mechanic in the cockpit. The flight was initially scheduled for Friday 27 October but unfavourable weather conditions (fog) pushed it back by 24 hours. On the following day, Saturday 28th, conditions were better with some sunshine but with the risk of wind.
However the weather was judged sufficiently good for the flight to go ahead. The flight lasted 1h 25 min. during which a maximum speed of 185kt (342.6Kmh) was reached at an altitude of 14,000ft (4,300m). Autopilot was engaged, moving surfaces were tested and landing gear retraction and deployment were performed. Upon return to Blagnac airport, strong wind gusts, the famous Toulouse “Vent d’Autan”, required a controlled crosswind landing which was expertly handled by Max Fischl.
Forging a collective European ambition
In the mid 1960s, various studies for a new 250-seat short-to-medium-haul aircraft were being considered by European aircraft manufacturers. The HBN 100 had been in discussion between Hawker Siddeley, Breguet and Nord Aviation, and alternative designs for a similar sized aircraft, the Galion, were also being considered by Sud Aviation. Germany’s MBB and VFW, later to collectively become Deutsche Airbus, had also set up a dedicated “air bus” study group. European airframers at the time, although leaders in many technological developments and having produced some excellent airliners, only had around 10% of the global market share, with the remaining 90% going to the three main American manufacturers. To say the stakes were high is an understatement. Only an aircraft borne of a transnational collaboration would be able to successfully challenge the long-established competition while substantially reducing the development costs for each of the participants.
By 1966, the studies had evolved into a joint European project, the French government appointed Sud-Aviation as its partner in the venture, whilst Deutsche Airbus and Hawker Siddeley would respectively represent Germany and the United Kingdom. Engine development was initially trusted to Rolls-Royce, who were to develop the power plants (RB.207) for the new “air bus”.
In July 1967, a framework agreement for “strengthening European cooperation in the field of aviation for the joint development and production of an air bus” (a non-proprietary term used by the airline industry in the 1960s to refer to a commercial aircraft of a certain size and range) was reached by the French, German and UK governments, allowing detailed design work and planning to start in earnest. By this time the project had evolved towards a 270 to 300 seat aircraft (hence the A300 name).
In April 1969, the UK government decided to withdraw from the programme due to uncertain commercial prospects and because Rolls-Royce, who was positioned to be the “official” UK partner in the Airbus venture, had decided to focus its efforts on the development of a less powerful engine, the RB211, for the Lockheed Tristar and was not keen on developing another engine, the RB.207, for the Airbus. This resulted in the selection of the General Electric CF6-50A as the engine for the A300, with the additional benefit that it was a proven engine, hence reducing risks for the development and certification of a brand new airframe.
The A300 gets the green light
By the time of its launch, the aircraft’s capacity had also been reduced to some 225 passengers, this at the request of the two initial potential customers, Air France and Lufthansa who did not require the larger 300 seater which British European Airways and Rolls-Royce were initially in favour of. As a result, the design was updated with a new fuselage cross-section which was able to accommodate eight seats in a row (instead of nine) with two aisles, and also two standard LD3 containers side by side in the belly holds. This could be achieved by slightly raising the floor of the cabin, making it the optimum fuselage cross-section for what would become a true twin-aisle wide-body. This new version was thus named A300B to reflect the new configuration.
At the 1969 Le Bourget Airshow, France and Germany formally co-launched the A300B programme. The signature ceremony between the French Transport Minister Jean Chamant and German Economics Minister Karl Schiller took place inside a specially constructed forward fuselage mock up.
To provide the necessary legal and governance framework for the programme, Airbus Industrie was formally established as a Groupement d’Intérêt Économique (Economic Interest Group or GIE) on 18 December 1970. Shareholders were the French company SNIAS, later to be called Aérospatiale (the merged Nord and Sud Aviation companies) and the West German company Deutsche Airbus, which was the legal entity representing MBB, VFW and Hamburger Flugzeugbau (HFB), each owning a 50% share. In October 1971, CASA of Spain acquired a 4.2% share of Airbus Industrie, with Aérospatiale and Deutsche Airbus reducing their respective stakes. Despite the British government having stepped away from the venture, Hawker Siddeley remained onboard in a private capacity as an “associate” partner to supply the A300’s wings on the design of which they had already substantially progressed at time of the programme launch. In 1977, Hawker Siddeley and British Aircraft Corporation merged to form British Aerospace and in January 1979, British Aerospace joined the Airbus consortium by acquiring a 20% share, further reducing the shares of the original partners to 37.9% each.
Keys to success
Successful international industrial cooperation, on an until then, unprecedented scale in the aviation industry was key to the A300’s success. Thanks to the knowledge acquired through the national aircraft programmes that predated the A300 (SE210 Caravelle, BAC111, HS121 Trident…) and the experience and lessons learnt through two important transnational cooperation programmes; Transall C-160, (between France and Germany) and Concorde (between France and Great Britain), the Airbus project had strong foundations on which to build the new programme.
Of course, the support of the founding nation governments meant that a political balance was also required when defining the workshare and responsibilities amongst the partners. This included not only the production of the sections for which each of the partners was responsible, but also its design and development as well as all the equipment that was to go into each section. The resulting industrial and organisational model was a rather natural and pragmatic distribution defined by the skills and areas of strength of each partner. This allowed each of the GIE members to bring their best competences and brightest minds to the table. We truly can speak in hindsight of centres of excellence in an age before the expression was widely adopted.
Designing, manufacturing, assembling and marketing a cutting-edge and complex enterprise such as a new generation airliner by four nations with four different languages, cultures, historical differences and distinct ways of working was deemed by many at the time as not being the best recipe for success. In fact, it turned out that these differences were key to the successful completion on time and on quality of the first development aircraft. It went as far as dispensing altogether with building a “prototype” as had been common practice in the industry. Indeed, nothing was left to chance and extra care, attention and continuous refinement were implemented to ensure that risks, errors and misunderstandings were mitigated and that the nascent collaborative culture evolved in the right direction. An innovative policy of multinational critical design analysis meant that collective agreement was necessary at each step of the process, this allowed different technical approaches and solutions to be explored, and fostered cultural cross-fertilisation which is still a key feature of how Airbus works today. Another innovation was for each partner to supply their constituent assemblies for final assembly in Toulouse pre-equipped at section and subassembly level which vastly accelerated the final assembly process. As a result, the amount of work performed on the final assembly line, which also includes final ground controls, represented no more than 4 % of the total amount of work needed to build the aircraft. Internationalisation was also a unique facet of the A300 project with a clear policy of using an international supply chain to procure the very best equipment, systems and materials available at the time.
Production of the first A300B1, MSN 1 commenced in September 1969 and the completed aircraft was rolled out on 28 September 1972, only one month to the day before its first flight! Remarkably the workshare, responsibilities and specialisation of the industrial sites and the logistical “ballet” involved in the construction of the first A300 remains virtually the same for the current Airbus range of aircraft, albeit augmented by the progress and developments in design, production and assembly which have intervened over the course of the last 50 years.
The two subsequent aircraft to be produced continued to be used for flight test and development purposes before being sold to customers. MSN2 was the second – and last – A300B1 to be built. MSN 3 was the first A300B2. This stretched version of the initial A300B1 was developed at the request of Air France. Being 2.6m longer, the A300B2 could accommodate 251 passengers in a standard two class configuration which remained the standard for all subsequent A300B2 & B4 versions (the B4 had the same seating capacity as the initial B2 but with an increased range, allowing it to enter the medium range market) . All three aircraft underwent intensive flight testing and demo flight campaigns achieving type certification on 11 March 1974, less than 18 months after its maiden flight, and slightly ahead of schedule, on cost and with guaranteed performance met.
Variants and derivatives
In 1974 the A300B4, the longer-range variant with increased weight and additional fuel tanks went into serial production. The A300 subsequently proved to be a particularly efficient platform allowing for further development, and numerous variants were designed, tested and built over a programme lifespan of nearly 35 years. These include the A300B10, which was eventually launched under the designation A310 in 1978 and which first flew in April 1982. The A310 was a shorter, reduced capacity, medium-long haul version of the A300, but with a completely new wing. The A300-600, an extended version of the A300B4 with a redesigned rear fuselage section carried over from the A310 allowing for two additional seat rows and additional containers underfloor and incorporating many of the improvements introduced on the A310, would first fly in 1983. The A300-600F, a freighter version of the passenger aircraft, would enter into service in 1993. The A300B9 and A300B11 projects would eventually provide the basis for the A330 and A340 family of aircraft, with the same ground breaking fuselage cross-section that was introduced on the initial A300. Finally, last but not least, five A300-600ST “Belugas” would be built to meet Airbus’ internal requirements for increased oversized transport capacity and to replace the ageing Aero Spacelines Super Guppy fleet. Altogether 821 aircraft of the A300 family were produced in all configurations and types.
Innovative design features of the A300
Whilst the defining feature of the A300 was the fact that it was the first twin-engined widebody, constant design evolution across the family, along with the integration of new technology and materials, earned it a place in aviation history with many industry “firsts”: the first application of composites on secondary, and subsequently on primary structures, the first application of a two-man forward-facing cockpit for a twin-aisle with the A300 FFCC, the first use of electrical signalling for secondary controls and the introduction of both drag-reducing centre of gravity control and wingtip devices (introduced on the A300-600), and the first widebody designed for a two-man flight crew on the A310. With all of the A300’s innovations, Airbus was truly living up to its “setting the standards” motto of the time.
The A300 today
At present, more than 250 A300/A310 aircraft are in operation with 37 operators. 75% of the fleet are freighters and it is the third most-operated freighter type worldwide. More than 60% are operated by four major customers which project operating their fleets until at least 2030. The A300/A310 Programme team ensures customer satisfaction is maintained throughout the current projected life cycle of the A300/A310 Family by supporting operations but also by proposing upgrades and improvements to further increase mission capabilities. 50 years later Airbus has evolved into a global company with manufacturing, assembly and sales and services activities spread across five continents. One of the lesser publicised ambitions, at the time, of the founders of Airbus was for the A300 to be the first in a family of commercial aircraft; In 1968 an early advertisement for the A300 stated it was “the start of something big”. Little did they know how prophetic those words would turn out to be!