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DAY 27

DAY 27

WHY THE A320 RECEIVED ROYAL TREATMENT

Fly-By-Wire technology set a new industry standard for pilots

On 22 February, 1987, the new single-aisle A320 was rolled out in a glittering ceremony with special guests including the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Thanks to Fly-By-Wire technology, it was the first airliner to have every function, from the flight controls to the toilet operation, actioned by a computer.

Fly-By-Wire harnessed the full power of 1980s’ computing, setting a new standard for the digital age – which has since been adopted across the airline industry.

Far from placing pilots in the passenger seat, the system was devised by pilots for pilots.

Fly-By-Wire offers improved handling, commonality across the Airbus family, and a flight envelope protection system so that pilots can push aircraft to their limits, without ever extending them.

Roger Béteille, long-serving COO of Airbus and a qualified pilot, and his team devised the system and Bernard Ziegler, son of one of Airbus’ founding fathers and a chief test pilot, became a crucial ambassador for the technology, pursuing it with a zeal many called evangelical.

We let Frank Chapman, one of the Airbus test pilots who followed him, explain how Fly-By-Wire has shaped his experience…

Airbus 50 Day 27 Asset Image

What was your first experience of Fly-By-Wire?

In 1990, when I was going through my test pilot training, all the students flew the A320 at Toulouse and the Mirage 2000 at Istres.

The principles of flight are the same for all aircraft, however with Fly-By-Wire the sidestick measures the force applied and translates that into a command. The Flight Control Computers then calculate the appropriate control surface movements to provide the desired aircraft response.

Later in the 90s, I worked on Fly-By-Wire military fighters. That’s a different experience as, unlike commercial aircraft, without the computers they would be very unstable and for some, impossible to fly.

Is today's Fly-By-Wire the same as that of the original A320?

A320s and their original Fly-By-Wire systems were based on computer systems from the 1980s. As everyone knows, computers have developed quickly since then! Within our industry, we’ve also got better at aerodynamic modelling.

Together, these developments have created a more powerful Fly-By-Wire system. The concept and principles are the same, but the design and architecture has progressed.

Over time, how have pilots' (and passengers') perception of Fly-By-Wire changed?

I don't think passengers even think about Fly-By-Wire. It just makes things work.

Most pilots who fly today are used to Fly-By-Wire. Since we pioneered the technology for commercial aircraft, now most other companies have learned from our experience and incorporate Fly-By-Wire… even the competition!

Do you miss flying previous generation aircraft?

I do miss the challenge to a certain extent. The whole operation and interface in the older aircraft is less adapted to a human. You can easily see that we were not as in tune with how a human and a machine can work together as one.

We’ve got far better at studying the discipline of the psychology of flying. For example, we now have a better idea of how the interfaces should be to better grab the attention of a pilot in case of an emergency.

What is the relationship between Fly-By-Wire and the pilot?

Fly-By-Wire is designed to prevent error, to protect the plane and its pilots, and to help planes perform as a reliable tool to carry passengers safely around the world.

However, it is not there to substitute airmanship and good piloting. Pilots still need to be at the top of their game.

What would you say to pilots who have only flown Fly-By-Wire aircraft?

Don't become de-sensitised to the fact that you’re in command of a flying machine.

Pilots always have to be ready to take control of the aeroplane, whatever level of computerised or automated control is built in.

That’s what simulator training is for – in case the systems degrade or fail.  Keep your piloting skills honed in case you need to rely on them one day.

Airbus test pilot Frank Chapman 3

Fly-By-Wire is a game-changing electrical control system. It eliminates all mechanical control components as pilots’ controls are converted into electrical signals. These, in turn, are interpreted by the flight control computers, which calculate exactly which control surface deflections are needed to make the aircraft respond as the pilot wishes. 

The system enhances safety, reduces weight, and simplifies maintenance and updates. It also, crucially, established an operational commonality to the entire range of Airbus aircraft. No matter how one aircraft varies in size or weight from another, Fly-By-Wire allows the pilot to fly them in the same way because the computer ‘drives’ the aircraft’s flight controls.

This means that it has applications across the full Airbus range. For helicopter pilots, it reduces their workload, allowing them to focus on often challenging missions at hand. On 12 December 2003, the first military helicopter fitted with Fly-By-Wire took flight – the NH90.

Airbus is saddened that Roger Béteille, who not only shaped Airbus’ first commercial aircraft - the A300B - but also Airbus Industrie, passed away on 14 June at the age of 97.


Roger Béteille, long-serving COO of Airbus and a qualified pilot, devised the system and Bernard Ziegler, son of one of Airbus’ founding fathers and a chief test pilot, became a crucial ambassador for the technology, pursuing it with a zeal many called evangelical.

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