Between the signing of two documents – the memorandum of understanding in July, 1967, and the A300 launch agreement in May, 1969 – the bold and visionary venture that was Airbus could have foundered at several turns.
Roger Béteille, Felix Kracht, Henri Ziegler and Franz-Josef Strauss faced repeated claims that a twin-engine passenger jet could not be operated safely over long distances. Three engines was still the accepted minimum, and in America new three-engine jets – the DC-10 and the Lockheed Tristar - were being developed which would be in direct competition to the A300.
To operate the A300, Béteille wanted a more powerful engine than was then available. Rolls-Royce was already developing a new engine, the RB211, aimed at the American market, and it pledged to build a version with more thrust, the RB207, for Airbus. As the months went on, however, it became clear that Rolls-Royce had overstretched themselves and were concentrating all their efforts – and funds – on the RB211. Development work on the RB207 had all but stopped: Airbus had no engine.
Responding to market requirements
But what appeared at first to be a disaster turned out to be a boon.
For a large chunk of the development costs of the A300 was accounted for by its new Rolls-Royce engines. Béteille realised that if he could buy engines “off-the-shelf,” it would considerably reduce costs.
By now Béteille had also realised that major European airlines were revising their passenger growth forecasts and that a 300-seat A300 was in danger of being too big for the market.
With a small team, and working in secret, he set about designing a scaled-down version of the aircraft which would take up to 250 passengers and have a range of 1,200 nautical miles. This would become the A300B, the aircraft launched at Le Bourget in 1969.
The reduced size of the A300 meant that it could be flown with any one of three less-powerful engines already available – the RB211, the Pratt and Whitney JT9 or the General Electric CF6. The A300, which would need only two engines, would be therefore even more attractive to potential customers.
The world’s first wide-body twin-engine jetliner, Airbus’ A300B, was capable of carrying 226 passengers in a two-class layout.
A significant withdrawal by Britain
Despite the momentum gathering pace, there were growing doubts, too, about the escalating cost of the Airbus programme.
Ziegler, a war hero and resistance fighter, and a former head of Air France, fended off a threat from the French government to stop further finance because it said it could not go on funding three aircraft: the Concorde, Airbus and the Mercure.
In blunt terms, Ziegler told French transport minister Jean Chamant: “To stop Airbus is to condemn 30,000 workers, most of them French, to unemployment. Do you want to take the responsibility for that?” The threat evaporated.
In Britain, already stung by the cost of Concorde, the doubts were turning to a firm anti-Airbus stance. When it emerged that Rolls-Royce would not be supplying the engines for the A300 – the company had done a deal to supply its RB211 to Lockheed for the Tristar only – the British government’s mixed passion for the European project turned icy cold.
In December 1968, the day after the A300B had been announced, Britain’s minister of technology, Tony Benn, told the House of Commons that “the withdrawal of the A300 design presents the three governments with a new situation which they will have to consider…I must make it absolutely clear that I cannot in any way commit the government to give financial support to any new proposals which may be brought forward by the consortium.”
Germany steps up
Sure enough, within a few months Britain announced they were pulling out of the Airbus programme. West Germany, which had anticipated such a move, immediately stepped in, offering to contribute up to 50% of the costs of the programme if the French did the same. The Germans saw Airbus as an opportunity to rebuild its civil aviation industry, devastated during World War II.
Also behind the German enthusiasm for Airbus lay the exuberant Franz-Josef Strauss, then West German finance minister - a fervent believer in European industrial cooperation and a keen aviator. Hanko Von Lachner, who became Airbus’ general secretary, summed up Strauss’s contribution to the company’s success: “Without any doubt, Strauss was the man in Germany who kept, at least on the government side, the programme going….He was a man with a strong personality and a lot of courage. He saw the overall goal, that the Airbus project was the chance for a European industry. Strauss was the archetypal European.”
At this difficult time, another man of vision and courage made his mark. Sir Arnold Hall, then managing director of Hawker Siddeley, decided that despite the British government’s withdrawal from the project, his company would stay in as a favoured sub-contractor – enabling it to take part in future board meetings, but without a vote. Hawkes Siddeley Aviation invested £35 million in machine tools to design and build the wings for the A300, but it needed a further £35 million to fund other aspects. Here again the German government came to the rescue, this time with a loan.
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% each between France and Britain, with 25% for Germany. Sud Aviation was given the role of “lead company,” while Hawker Siddeley was selected to be the British partner company.
A300: Birth of a saga
Some of Airbus’ early leaders – including Bernard Lathiere, Felix Kracht, Bernard Ziegler and Roger Beteille – reflect on the milestone A300 programme in this series of retrospective videos.