Early days (1967-1969)
Setting the table
On 29 May 1969, at Le Bourget airshow, French transport minister Jean Chamant sat down with German economics minister Karl Schiller in a mock-up of the cabin of a new aircraft destined to reshape the aviation industry.
The two politicians then signed an agreement officially launching the A300, the world’s first twin-engine widebody passenger jet. It was to be built by a French-German consortium which would also involve the British and the Dutch. The decision to give the go-ahead to the A300 was the formal starting point of the Airbus programme.
But the birth of Airbus had come nearly two years earlier. At a meeting in July, 1967, ministers from France, Germany and Britain agreed “for the purpose of strengthening European co-operation in the field of aviation technology and thereby promoting economic and technological progress in Europe, to take appropriate measures for the joint development and production of an airbus.”
A300 birth of a saga: A European Ambition
The weighty language of the declaration concealed the economic reality behind the decision. In reaching this agreement, the three nations were acknowledging a simple truth: that without a joint programme of aircraft development and production, Europe would be left trailing in the wake of the Americans, who dominated the industry – and, with the planned long-range 747 “jumbo” on the horizon, looked set to consolidate their supremacy. The proud European firms which had produced some of the world’s best passenger aircraft and pioneered commercial jet travel would become little more than sub-contractors to American manufacturers. Hundreds of thousands of jobs could be at risk and European airlines would be dependent on the United States for new aircraft.
Until this point Europe’s aviation industry had remained strongly rooted in nationality. The British had built the Comet, the BAC1-11 and the Trident, among others. The French had produced the Caravelle. Together the two countries had built the world’s first supersonic airliner, Concorde.
But Concorde was the product of a political dream. It was never going to be the saviour of the European aircraft industry because it was highly expensive to build and operate and catered for relatively few people.
The idea behind the short-haul European airbus, on the other hand, was to capitalise on the dawning of a boom in popular air travel. More people wanted to fly, and for less.
The “fathers” of Airbus
Throughout the 1960s, firms like France’s Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation planned new aircraft with the aim of catering for the growth in demand for air travel. Sud Aviation’s Galion was to be a 200-seat widebody, while BAC talked of a similar-capacity BAC 2-11. Britain’s Hawker Siddeley Aviation planned a twin-engine stretch version of the Trident. Hawker Siddeley Aviation also carried out joint studies with French firms Nord Aviation and Breguet for a widebody named the HBN 100. Yet it was becoming clear that if all these aircraft were built, none of them would sell enough to make it viable. They would be competing against one another in the same market. Only if Europe combined the considerable talents and expertise which existed in individual companies and nations and put them into one aircraft to compete directly against the Americans – who held more than 80 per cent of the world market - could there be any hope of success.
Within days of the July 1967 meeting, a brilliant French engineer, Roger Béteille, was appointed technical director of the A300 programme. Henri Ziegler, president of Sud Aviation, was later named general manager of what would become Airbus Industrie and a German politician, Franz-Josef Strauss, was made chairman of the supervisory board. These men were to become known as the “fathers” of Airbus, along with a man whose skills Béteille recognised at once: Felix Kracht, a young German engineer, who had been working for Nord Aviation but was about to join the German Airbus group as head of sales and marketing. Kracht, who later described himself more as the “midwife” of the Airbus manufacturing system than as a father of the company, took on the role of production director: overseeing and co-ordinating the job of building the A300.
Launch of the A300 programme
It was to be no easy task. At his base at the Sud Aviation site in Toulouse, Béteille drew up the workshare plan which would form the basis of the Airbus production system for decades to come. He proposed that the French should make the cockpit, the control systems and the lower centre section of the fuselage. Hawker Siddeley, whose work on the Trident had impressed Béteille, should make the wings while the Germans should make the forward and rear fuselage sections, plus the upper part of the centre section. The Dutch would make the moving parts of the wing such as flaps and spoilers. (The Spanish, who would become a full partner in 1971, would build the horizontal tailplane.) “I wanted to use all the available talents and capacities to their utmost without worrying about the colour of the flag or what language was spoken,” Béteille said later. Kracht’s job would be to make all the pieces come together as efficiently as possible: “The essential thing was to execute a given task once, and in a single place,” said Kracht.
In September, 1967, ministers from France, Britain and Germany met in London to sign a memorandum of understanding to launch the first phase of the development of the A300, a short-to-medium range twin-engine aircraft. Work was to be shared 37.5 per cent each between France and Britain, with 25 per cent for Germany. Sud Aviation was given the role of “lead company”, while Hawker Siddeley was selected to be the British partner company.
Defining the structure
Next came the need to establish how the programme was to be run. As Henri Ziegler later recalled: “I knew it was essential to have the industrial partners as members of a legally-established corporation, with a board, a chairman and a president. Otherwise, nobody was responsible.”
The partners decided to set up a Groupe d’Interet Economique, a unique structure under French law which would enable Sud Aviation, HSA and what had by now become known as Deutsche Airbus – a consortium of leading German aviation firms – to work together on the A300 while remaining separate business enterprises.
But the formation of the GIE was still some way off – and its final make-up was to be rather different to what had been planned.