First order, first flight (1970-1972)
Understanding the customers
From the beginning Roger Béteille insisted that a high level of technology should be built into the A300 to give it the edge over competing aircraft. He also decided that English should be the working language – and that measurements should not be metric because most airlines already had U.S.-built aircraft. Béteille had spent time listening to airlines such as Air France and Lufthansa, as well as visiting U.S. airlines like United, TWA and American. “I wanted to try to understand what the customers really wanted,” he said, laying the groundwork for much of the future success of Airbus where a culture of listening to customers has become endemic.
Even in these early days, Béteille and Kracht shared a bold vision of the Airbus future. They knew, as Kracht said later, that to succeed, Airbus would have to produce more than one aircraft – they must offer a family of aircraft covering all sectors. They also had a firm and ambitious commercial target: to win at least a 30 per cent share of the market.
“Green light” for the A300B
The A300B given the go-ahead by France and Germany at Le Bourget in 1969 would be smaller, lighter and more economical than its three-engine American rivals. Its fuselage had been reduced from the original A300’s 6.4 metres in diameter to 5.6m, its length from 53.92m to 48.3m. As a result it was 25 tonnes lighter than the first planned A300.
Making the A300 as economical to operate as possible was seen as key to ensuring its success. To this end, Béteille ingeniously decided to raise the cabin floor slightly. This provided enough space in the hold to accommodate standard LD3 freight containers side by side, allowing airlines to increase the profitability of each flight by carrying more cargo.
Hawker Siddeley designed a new wing which provided greater lift and improved the A300’s performance. Airbus was able to declare that the A300 would climb faster and attain a level cruise altitude sooner than any other passenger aircraft, giving the cabin crew more time for the in-flight service.
The engine finally chosen for the first A300 was the GE CF6-50A, built by Americans but – in a deal insisted upon as part of the package – with the aid of French firm Snecma. This engine produced 49,000 lbs. of thrust, as powerful as anything else on the market, yet it was more economical.
An increasing use of weight-saving composites would be a major factor in the design and development of all Airbus aircraft. The A300 featured the first composites used on a passenger aircraft. Leading and trailing edges on the tail fin were made from glass fibre reinforced plastic, as was the radome (the tip of the nose housing the radar).
The A300 was taking shape, but the formal setting up of Airbus as a consortium did not take place until 18 December, 1970, when Airbus Industrie was officially created as a GIE. France’s Aerospatiale (a merger of SEREB, Sud Aviation and Nord Aviation), and Germany’s Deutsche Airbus – a grouping of four firms, Messerschmittwerke, Hamburger Flugzeugbau, VFW GmbH and Siebelwerke ATG - each took a 50 per cent stake. The headquarters were to be in Paris initially – they would not move to Toulouse until January, 1974 – and would provide a single interface for design, development, flight testing, sales, marketing and customer support, as well as media relations and publicity. Franz-Josef Strauss was appointed president and chairman of the supervisory board, the forum in which policies would be decided and decisions made as to how the work on new programmes would be shared out.
The consortium grows
The following year saw the consortium gain its third full partner: Spain’s Construcciones Aeronauticas SA (CASA) was awarded the contract to build the horizontal tailplane and took a 4.2 per cent stake, with the stakes held by Aerospatiale and Deutsche Airbus reducing to 47.9 per cent each.
It was all very well deciding who should build what – but how to transport large sections of aircraft safely and efficiently over long distances for final assembly in Toulouse, a city some 160 kilometres from the sea? Components for the first A300 were ferried to Bordeaux in France and then carried by road to Toulouse. But Felix Kracht knew this was far from ideal. His solution was to use a transport aircraft known as the U.S.-built “Super Guppy”, big enough to swallow the wing and fuselage sections of the A300. Airbus duly took delivery of two. With the Super Guppy, none of the Airbus manufacturing sites dotted around Europe was more than two hours away.
Béteille and his team continued to consult with key airlines over what they wanted from the A300. Air France, Lufthansa, Air Inter (the French domestic airline) and British European Airways all chipped in with views and requests, but Béteille remained mindful of the fact that Airbus was developing an aircraft for the world market, one that had to compete against the Americans.
Technology and heritage
Years later, Béteille spoke of the importance of technology and recalled how the mix of cultures at Airbus brought tangible benefits: “The basic idea of Airbus has always been to compete against established manufacturers. We had to bring something more. That something more was daring to use advanced technology wherever it could bring economic results. We had to take more risks of failure than the established manufacturers. But we had the ability to make use of different experiences, education, ways of looking at things. We had each of the three teams looking at different aspects of the aircraft, and having the ability through our established system to express their views and to support them until a decision was made. That enabled us to avoid mistakes. If we had not given a degree of high technology, Airbus would not have succeeded.”
Adam Brown, who joined Airbus in 1973 and became the Vice President-Customer Affairs Directorate, recalled: “Right from the start we realised our products would have to offer significant advantages over the established U.S. aircraft. Specifically, we decided that we must exploit the rich heritage of European creativity to develop aircraft which were more advanced and efficient."
Having scaled down the original A300, Airbus now learnt that an all-economy 250-seater was not big enough for Air France. More capacity was created by stretching the fuselage and the A300B1 became the A300B2 with 270 seats. On 3 September, 1970, Air France signed a letter of intent to buy six A300s, the first order won by Airbus.
Flight testing commences
With the test programme well under way Airbus took another revolutionary step by setting up an international team of test pilots. It was decided that Airbus Industrie – rather than Aerospatiale – would be responsible for the flight test. Bernard Ziegler (son of Henri) was asked to organise the A300 flight test “on the basis that it was a European organisation” and he set about recruiting some top names, including Aerospatiale veterans Pierre Canet and Max Fischl. Later he recruited British and Spanish test pilots.
The first flight of the A300 took place in Toulouse on 28 October, 1972, a month ahead of schedule despite several delays due to bad weather. It lasted one hour and 23 minutes. Fischl was captain, while Bernard Ziegler, then head of flight test, was his number two. Ziegler explained: “It was a kind of tradition that the boss was in charge of making the first flight, but I took the decision to reverse that, to make it a team effort. I was not willing to have, any longer, a star in the system…The decision was to the surprise of the Airbus management of that time, Béteille and my father.”
A300 BIRTH OF A SAGA: THE TIME OF DOUBT
Despite a successful first flight for the all-new A300 on 28 October 1972, Airbus faced a challenge – convincing airlines that it had designed the world’s most economical, innovative and comfortable aircraft. The solution? Take the A300 on a six-week odyssey across the Americas to show off Airbus’ new creation to customers, pilots and executives. Early Airbus leaders Bernard Lathiere, Felix Kracht, Bernard Ziegler and Roger Beteille are interviewed.