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Airbus A300: The European Jet That Challenged Boeing’s Air Supremacy

Today there are two words that are synonymous with domestic airliners- Boeing and Airbus. These two Titans of the industry stand toe to toe, dwarfing all others around them, the epitome of a duopoly. It would be easy to think that it had always been this way, that they had been feuding since Day One. 

But not so and in today’s megaproject we’re going to talk about the Herculean task that it took to bring down a Titan or should I say, build a new one?

A Vested Interest

Since the early 1950s European governments have made it a habit of theirs to stick their noses and their funding into the businesses of airlines and airplane manufacturers. The three best known examples of this are the De Havilland Comet; The Concorde Program (both of which we have already done a video on) and the topic of today’s video, the Airbus A300, or simply, the Airbus Program.

Before we get into that though, we need to set the scene a little bit. You see, at some point in the mid 1950’s’ it started becoming apparent to the nations of Europe that the entire continent was lacking in one of the most lucrative markets of the time; the airline industry, or more specifically, the airplane manufacturing industry.

While it was true that most countries had airplane manufacturers, they were dwarfed by those American giants, Boeing and Mcdonell-Douglas, who accounted for more than 80% of the market at the time. Clearly something had to be done if Europe were to have any reasonable part of this market. And so, the European Governments set to work establishing ways to develop their industries with an ethos of teamwork and not wasting money… not really, they just threw lots of money at small companies and told them to make better planes than the Americans.

The nations of Europe were convinced that the key to success was to develop new and proprietary technology and then beat the Americans to the market with it. This was their initial intentions with the Comet, which was the first domestic airliner to use jets engines instead of turboprops. And they did achieve this, however, if you’ve already seen our video on the Comet you will know; great idea, bad execution. 

Consequently, the Brits teamed up with the French for another swing at the Americans with the Concorde program. And again, if you’ve seen our video on the Concorde you will know; great execution, bad idea and even worse timing.

Which brings us to 1966 and the release of what was called the Plowden Report. This was a report out of the UK looking into the nation’s airplane manufacturing industry and by extension the rest of Europe’s manufacturing as well. One of the conclusions reached was that the market was calling for an efficient, mid-range, high-capacity jet and that this jet would need to be years ahead of what the Americans were making at the time. The report also stated that the only way to make a project of this kind feasible was to make it the combined effort of many manufacturing companies across Europe. This attitude of cooperation was no doubt spurred on by the establishment of the European Union just one year prior. 

The theory behind the A300 was that by working together they could develop a product that no single country or manufacturer could have done alone. By spreading the task and widening the pool of minds at work, they could avoid the mistakes of the past. And, after much discussion, an agreement was made between the UK, France and West Germany at the 1969, Paris Airshow.

It was decided that each country would assign manufacturers to the project:

For the UK, it was Hawker Sydney, France was the two companies, Breguet and Nord Aviation and West Germany conglomerated a number of its top manufacturers under the name Arbeitsgemeinschaft Airbus (sorry mate you’re on your own with that pronunciation) which roughly translates to “working group Airbus”. The German language ladies and gentlemen.

Later in 1971 the Spanish joined with CASA and the Dutch with Fokker. After which the development was ready to get underway.

Just a quick side note here, the official name for a conglomerate company, such as Airbus is, Groupement d’intérêt économique or Economic Interest Group, why is this relevant? Because I couldn’t find anywhere else to add it and I wanted to see Simon try to pronounce it.

Specification and Development

So… We’ve now got our multi-national, rag-tag band of Engineers and bureaucrats ready to take on the Americans. And their first question was probably… Where do we start? The answer? From the beginning, this would be a brand-new design from the ground up, and they were going to leave nothing to chance when it came to making the best product possible. 

They were also going to need to innovate however, and innovate they did, pioneering designs and concepts that are still the industry standard to this day. The primary one being the combination of a wide-body, twin-jet configuration which had never been done before. 

Widebody is the name given to a plane with a wide fuselage, allowing for more passengers and cargo. As you might expect this configuration generates a lot of drag and weight, so at the time, this design would only really be found on the long-range quad-jet or tri-jet aircraft. These are simply aircraft with 3 or 4 jet engines attached, but the A300 would be the first time a manufacturer had put only 2 engines on a widebody. 

When implemented on the right routes a widebody jet would have significant advantages over a narrowbody, especially when using twin-jets. However, it was believed that there were too many problems with such a design for it to be feasible, some of those reasons we will get into in a bit, but suffice it to say that one of the main objections was that two engines were thought to be not powerful or efficient enough to cover any meaningful distance.

However, Airbus were able to work around this problem by building the fuselage out of composite materials, instead of the conventional metal alloys. These were a fairly recent discovery and only recently had become cheap enough to use for commercial purposes. This would be another first for the civil aviation industry and would bring the weight of the aircraft within the capability of two modern engines.

Also here is a quickfire list of some other pioneering advancements made in this design. 

First to use a digital cockpit, incorporating the brand-new onboard computer systems from the Concorde program, removal of the need for an in-flight engineer, further cutting costs and a addition of a supercritical aerofoil, which is basically a kind of wing shape that promotes smooth airflow during flight, reducing a lot of the drag that would normally occur at a cruising speed and is not, as we initially suspected, a very judgemental plane wing.

With those design choices out of the way the next question would probably be, who was going to build what? And this is where Felix Kracht, the Director of Production comes in. With that matter-of-fact efficiency you might expect of the Germans he decided that a job would be assigned to whoever was best at it. This meant that the Brits handled the wings; the French were in charge of the cockpit, control systems and the lower fuselage; the Germans were in charge of the upper fuselage; the Dutch handled the moving elements of the wings and the Spanish dealt with the tailplane. This proved to be an excellent decision as it permitted extreme attention to detail for every single part of the aircraft and it stopped any conflicts arising due to disagreements over design specifications.

And with all that, and much more in mind, the development could finally go ahead and at first it went very smoothly. No foreshadowing there whatsoever…

As we have said their engine choice and design had to be impeccable and; at first, they had decided on a custom-made Rolls Royce engine as there was nothing on the market that could make the required power while remaining efficient. However, the execs at Airbus were not about to make the same mistakes as before and get caught out by market trends. 

About halfway through the engine’s development process the Technical Director Roger Beteille was handed a report that said, according to market trends, a plane with a capacity of 300 would struggle to be sufficiently filled on regular routes. This led him to make the decision to reduce the capacity of the A300 from 300 to 250 

Interestingly the capacity is where the plane got its name from (A300). However, instead of just calling it the A250 they called it the A300B, seems a little misleading, but then again, I was never very good at arithmetic.

Anyway, this reduction in seating also meant they could reduce the length of the fuselage by 5.62 meters, allowing them to bring the cabin floor up a little further, making room for a larger cargo hold. This reduction cut the weight of the plane by about 25 tonnes, putting them within the capability of already existing engines. Two to be precise, the General Electric CF6 and the Prat and Whitney PW4000 engines. Henri Ziegler the General Manager of Airbus decided that switching to American made engines would help them to sell the plane to airlines over in America. Therefore they opted for the Prat and Whitney engines and cancelled the contract with Rolls Royce.

And while this may have pleased the Americans, it certainly did not amuse the British Government who promptly threw all their toys out of the pram and said they were pulling all funding from the project. This put the British designer, Hawker-Sidney, in a bit of a pickle. However, as they were most of the way through developing the wings, they decided that they were going to put £35 million of their own money into continuing development with another £35 million loan from the West German Government, which equates to roughly £1.16 billion today.

Putting the Damn Thing Together

After 3 years in development, they were finally able to start building the plane, and it’s here we meet Felix Kracht again. There was one last hurdle to overcome before rolling the plane into production. Which was how they were going to get a great many, very expensive, very heavy, very large pieces of airplane from 7 different manufacturing facilities scattered all around Europe to the final assembly plant in Toulouse, France.

And honestly guys, the construction process of just one of these planes is a megaproject in itself. By our estimates the plane parts had to cover a combined 6100 km (3290 miles) before they even started being put together. What Kracht decided on was a masterstroke of logistics. Using a method of assembly known as Just-In-Time manufacturing. 

This process is quite common in the automotive industry. Essentially the idea is that if you have parts coming from many different locations, on many different shipments, you can organise the shipments to arrive precisely at the time they are needed for assembly, cutting down on a slew of costs and the time required to create the final product.

At first the plan was to have the parts arrive by a combination of road and rail. However, it quickly became apparent that this was just not going to work. You see, Just-In-Time manufacturing requires tight deadlines for deliveries, or the entire process falls apart and I’m not gonna point fingers, I’m just gonna say that I’m almost entirely certain it was the British rail system causing the delays. I mean it’s not like the Germans were gonna be the ones that weren’t on time.

So, in 1970 Kracht decided that the best course of action was to buy a fleet of 4 stratocruisers from Boeing. Maybe not the solution you were expecting, but it was for a good reason, because these were not normal planes. These had been modified so as to be able to carry extra-large cargo. Rechristened Super Guppies these planes had been used by the likes of NASA to transport the Apollo and Gemini rockets in the 1960’s. Brushing past the fact that these were like, 30 years old even at the time, they served their purpose perfectly, with the assembly running like a well-oiled machine from then on.

After this they were ready to begin selling to the public. The plane had its first test flight in October of 1972 and on the 23rd of May 1974 Air France provided the first commercial service on an A300 from Paris to London.

What the team had produced was every bit as advanced as they had hoped. It was safer, more efficient and more profitable than almost anything else on the market. With orders coming in from European airlines it would be easy to think that the hard part was over- however it was only just beginning.

A Rocky Start

Roger Beteille
Roger Beteille by Photo aerospatial is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Roger Bétteilli and Henri Ziegler were set the task of selling this plane to America, a far more difficult task than you may be expecting. At the time selling a European plane to an American was a little like trying to sell a book of patriotic Canadian poems to an American, yes, the language is similar and no, they don’t dislike Canada, but they have their own poems and Canadian poems are often thought to have a worse safety record than American poems. Maybe we’ve taken this analogy too far… Look, the American’s liked their own shit, and they didn’t need to be buying anything from those silly Europeans. 

But despite this confusing metaphor the decision was made that an all-out marketing campaign around the Americas would be their plan of attack. So, in mid-September of 1973 an A300 fully loaded with champagne and a slightly inebriated sales team, because let’s not forget this was the 70’s, set off from Toulouse, across the Atlantic, spending the next 6 weeks landing in hub airports throughout North and South America.

This tactic garnered quite a bit of media attention. Despite not having organised the planes landing schedule to coincide with any large air shows they still began to gather crowds wherever they went. It was being very well received and you can imagine the sales team’s pitch: 

“American engines, cheaper to operate, and the designers have even set the operating language to be in inches and miles not meters and kilometres. Because fuck the metric system. AM I RIGHT?! “ 

By the time the tour was over the team were feeling hungover but also very confident that they had managed to secure a stake in the American market, and it was only a matter of waiting for the orders to come rolling in, can you see where we are going with this? 

This highly expensive gamble completely flopped with Airbus failing to secure a single order. It seemed that developing something with so many advancements was going to be the undoing of the whole endeavour.

ETOPS

You remember when we said that we would go into reasons why you don’t put two engines on a widebody aircraft? Well now we are going to talk about that, because we keep our promises here at megaprojects. For broken promises please check out my other channel business blaze. 

Anyway, back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s the established design for an Atlantic crossing aircraft was the tri-jet or a quad-jet configuration. This was because of something called the 60-minute rule. This is similar to the 5-second rule but instead of being a ridiculous rule about food on the ground, it is a federal law outlining the maximum amount of flight time a plane can be from a suitable airport when flying over bodies of water or desolate land.

This rule only applies to planes of 2 engines or less. The reasoning behind this, is that if one of the engines on a twin-jet plane were to fail mid-way across the Atlantic it would only have that one engine available to limp the remaining hour and a half flight over the Atlantic to the nearest airport for an emergency landing. So, let’s say you tried to fly New York to London in a twin-jet aircraft, during the 1960’s, you would have to fly north to Canada, then East to Iceland, where you land and refuel, then Norway and south to London. 

Needless to say, all that extra distance would make a ticket hugely expensive, not to mention time consuming. It was more profitable to simply add another engine and go direct. Yes, it was less efficient per mile, but it cost much less than going the other way. 

Airbus had planned for this however and they approached the Federal Flight Administration or FAA, requesting that they get an extension to the rule to allowing them a direct Atlantic crossing, to which they said no. More specifically the head of the FAA, J. Lynn Helms decided to get involved and said ‘It’ll be a cold day in hell before I let twins fly long haul, overwater routes’. Which is a pretty clear message.

However, the Airbus team persisted, using the advanced safety measures on their plane to convince the FAA and eventually, they were granted an ETOPS extension. ETOPS stand for Extended Range Twin Operations. Otherwise known to pilots as ‘Engines Turn or Passengers Swim’. This permitted them to fly a maximum distance of 90 minutes (30 minutes more than before) away from the nearest airport, opening up direct Atlantic routes to the new airplane.

Success

Eastern Airlines A300  airbus
Eastern Airlines A300  by clipperarctic is licensed under CC-BY-SA

So now we return to our little band of bureaucrats and they are in dire straits between December of 1975 and May of 1977 as they didn’t sell a single plane. That drunken sales team were now scrambling to make a sale, and there were calls to shut the program down altogether due to unprofitability. The previous General Manager of Airbus had been sacked, to be replaced by a man named Bernard Lathiére who took an aggressive approach to marketing looking to make deals that would make even Donald Trump blush. 

Finally, in 1977 he managed to secure a deal with Eastern Airlines, one of America’s Big 4 airline companies. This deal effectively meant Airbus gave them 4 A300’s free of charge. If Eastern liked them they had the option to buy the 4 planes at a discounted price, if not they could give them back free of charge, I imagine Airbus probably wasn’t even asking for shipping by this point.

But there was no need, because the head of Eastern, Frank Borman was so impressed with the efficiency of the A300, which consumed 30% less fuel than even the most efficient jet in their fleet, that he not only purchased the 4 A300’s they already had, they ordered 23 more. After this the other American Airlines had no other choice but to purchase A300s in order to remain competitive with other airlines. And, by 1979, only 2 years later, they had received 256 orders for the A300. This is probably the ultimate example of the “free trial”. 

Following this deal Airbus saw massive growth in the sector and in 1987, upon the release of the A320, Airbus cemented themselves as a major player in the airplane manufacturing market, with production of this plane ongoing to this day.

But what of the A300? Well, this plane saw widespread use for many years after and once the time came for the airlines to begin replacing the aircraft, Airbus had a huge range of new planes to choose from. The A300’s as is common with airlines, were sold off to airfreight companies where they still operate today.

One interesting development on the A300, was that when the time came for Airbus to replace the Super-Guppy transporters, they made the decision to turn some of their own A300s into the A300 Beluga-STs. They got a few regular A300s and modified their fuselages, creating a massive airplane that resembled a flying whale or beluga. They then assigned this aircraft to fly over busy fishing docks in an attempt to scare the fisherman into thinking flying whales were real. However, they soon realised that these modifications also made it good for transporting heavy airplane parts. Today scaring fisherman has become a secondary function of the A300 Beluga, although it is regularly heard lamenting the good old days.

As of 2018 Airbus and Boeing were almost equal in size, with Boeing beating out Airbus by a not inconsiderable margin. However, following the release of Boeing’s brand new 737 Max, in 2019, it was found that a flaw in the design of the plane was responsible for several fatal and highly publicised crashes. This resulted in every 737max worldwide being grounded for 20 months while the flaw was fixed. During this time Airbus was able to take advantage of their competitors loss by ramping up production of the A320neo, which is Airbus’s direct competitor to 737max and in 2019 Airbus pushed Boeing off the throne as the largest airplane manufacturer, outselling Boeing by almost 400 planes.

As for the future of air travel, everyone has got their own ideas as to what the future may be, some think that our next stop will be space, others say it’s Electric planes. It’s impossible to tell what the future will hold. If someone a year ago had told you how you would end up spending your time this year, would you have believed them? All we can do is take the lessons of the past, with us into the future.

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