One of the most recognisable and elegant airliners to ever come from the Airbus factory, the A340 came to be the company’s flagship model during the 1990’s, as well as being their first four-engined jet airliner and their largest product until the A380. Though arguably not as successful as its smaller A330 cousin, the A340 is still the mainstay of many major carriers and has garnered a beloved following among aviation enthusiasts as the first true Airbus that could take on the likes of the Boeing 747.
In order to trace the A340, you must also trace the smaller twin-engined A330, as both originated from the same project, a derivative of the pioneering Airbus A300. The original Airbus A300 of 1972 was meant to be the flagship of a wide range of aircraft that would make Airbus a solid rival against the likes of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, but it wouldn’t be until ten years later following multiple redrafts of the design and getting all the members of the company to play along that Airbus would eventually expand on its model types with the Airbus A310. While the A300 was a capable aircraft, studies from the mid-1970’s had included the conception of a larger example of the wide-body airliner known as the A300B9. The B9 was essentially a lengthened A300 with the same wing, coupled with the most powerful turbofan engines available. It was targeted at the growing demand for high-capacity, medium-range, transcontinental trunk routes. The A300B9 was comparable to the Douglas DC-10, providing the same capacity but with 25% more fuel efficiency, with the intention being to be a viable replacement for the DC-10 and the L-1011 Tristar.
The B9 was also added to by the B11, a four-engined design that originally would be a narrow-body, medium-range jetliner, but eventually evolved into a long-range wide-body aircraft eventually dubbed the Airbus A340, again with the intention to replace the likes of the DC-10. Costs for both projects were cut by designing both aircraft simultaneously and giving them the same fuselage and wing, with a proposed saving of $500m for Airbus. Another factor was the split preference of those within Airbus and, more importantly, those of prospective customers; twinjets were favoured in North America, quad-jets desired in Asia, and operators had mixed views in Europe. Airbus ultimately found that most potential customers favoured four engines due to their exemption from existing twinjet range restrictions and their ability to be ferried with one inactive engine. As a result, development plans prioritised the four-engined model, now dubbed the TA11, ahead of the TA9.
Both TA9 and TA11 projects have basic specifications shared with each other than the fuselage and wing profiles. Both aircraft would be built to accommodate 410 passengers in a single-class configuration, would have a large underfloor cargo area that could hold five cargo pallets or sixteen LD3 cargo containers in the forward, and four pallets or fourteen LD3s in the aft hold, double the capacity of the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar or DC-10. The aircraft would also be 27.8ft longer than the Airbus A300. In June 1985, as the Airbus A320 domestic jetliner project was nearing completion, it was decided that the TA9 and TA11 projects would also be given an A320 style Flight Deck with digital fly-by-wire (FBW) control system, and side-stick control. Airbus had developed a common cockpit for their aircraft models to allow quick transition by pilots. The flight crews could transition from one type to another after only one week’s training, which reduces operator costs. The two TA’s would use the vertical stabiliser, rudder, and circular fuselage sections of the A300-600, extended by two barrel sections. Airbus briefly considered the variable camber wing, a concept that requires changing the wing profile for a given phase of flight. Studies were carried out by British Aerospace (BAe), now part of BAE Systems, at Hatfield and Bristol. Airbus estimated this would yield a 2% improvement in aerodynamic efficiency, but the feature was rejected because of cost and difficulty of development. A true laminar flow wing (a low-drag shape that improves fuel efficiency) was also considered but rejected.
From the start of both projects, the plan was to allow customer choice for the three major engine manufacturers, Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney, and GE Aviation. GE Aviation first offered the General Electric CF6-80C2, used previously on the Airbus A310, though later studies revealed that more thrust was needed to increase the initial power capability from 60,000 to 65,000lbf. GE enlarged the CF6-80C2 fan from 92.9 to 96.1 inches to create the CF6-80E1, giving a new thrust output of 67,000–72,000lbf. Rolls-Royce initially wanted to use the 60,000lbf Trent 600 to power Airbus’s newest twinjet and the upcoming McDonnell Douglas MD-11. However, the company later agreed to develop an engine solely for the A330, the Trent 700, with a larger diameter and 69,900lbf of thrust. Similarly, Pratt & Whitney signed an agreement that covered the development of the A330-only PW4168. The company increased the fan size to augment power, enabling the engine to deliver 69,900lbf of thrust.
In January 1986, Airbus officially designated the TA9 and TA11 the Airbus A330 and Airbus A340, respectively, and began discussions with potential launch customers. Originally the designation was meant to be the other way around, but Airbus felt that the ‘4’ in A340 would be better suited to the quad-engined jet. The first airlines to place orders were Lufthansa and Swissair, who jointly wanted both Airbus A330’s and A340’s within their fleets.
In order to build their new fleet, Airbus invested $411m into a brand new assembly plant adjacent to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport. By November 1988, the first 69ft pillars were erected for the new Clément Ader assembly hall. The assembly process, meanwhile, would feature increased automation with holes for the wing-fuselage mating process drilled by eight robots. The use of automation for this particular process saved Airbus 20% on labour costs and 5% on time. British Aerospace accepted £450 million funding from the UK government, short of the £750 million originally requested. Funds from the French and German governments followed thereafter. Airbus also issued subcontracts to companies in Austria, Australia, Canada, China, Greece, Italy, India, Japan, South Korea, Portugal, the United States of America, and the former Yugoslavia.
The A330/A340 programmes were formally launched on June 5th, 1987, and very soon the order stood at 130 aircraft for 10 customers, 89 of which were A340’s. At the time, McDonnell Douglas, who had fallen into dire straights following the damaged reputation of the DC-10, were eager to make up their losses with a modified version of the trijet, the MD-11, the A340’s main competitor. In order to try and win this contractual battle between the A340 and the MD-11, the success of either one came down to orders by Singapore Airlines, a major player on the international carrier field. Singapore Airlines based their choice on performance, and ran a worst-case-scenario test between the MD-11 and the A340, where a fully laden aircraft would fly from Singapore to Paris, against strong headwinds during mid-winter in the northern hemisphere. The MD-11, according to test results, would experience fuel starvation over the Balkans. Due to the less-than-expected performance figures, SIA cancelled its 20-aircraft MD-11 order, and ordered 20 A340-300s instead.
The Airbus A340 first took to the skies on October 21st, 1991, and immediately encountered issues with the outboard engines, with engineers noticing that the wings were not strong enough to carry them at cruising speed without warping and fluttering. To alleviate this, an underwing bulge called a plastron was developed to correct airflow problems around the engine pylons and to add stiffness. European JAA certification was obtained on December 22nd, 1992; FAA followed on May 27th, 1993.
The first and smallest series of the Airbus A340, the A340-200, was delivered to Lufthansa on February 2nd, 1993, entering into service in March of the same year. This was followed quickly by Air France, who took delivery of the larger A340-300 on February 26th. Both airlines used these aircraft to replace ageing Douglas DC-10’s and older variants of the Boeing 747 from the 1970’s. During the Paris Air Show, on June 16th, 1993, an A340-200 named The World Ranger took off for a round-the-world demonstration and publicity-stunt flight. The aircraft, carrying 22 persons, had been modified for the flight, including the addition of five centre tanks. Taking off at 11:58 local time, The World Ranger made only one stop en route – in Auckland, New Zealand – and arrived back in Paris 48 hours and 22 minutes later, at 12:20. The flight broke six world records at the time. Among the six was the longest non-stop flight by an airliner, when the aircraft flew 10,409 miles from Paris, arriving in Auckland in record time. The A340 would hold this record for a total of 12 years; when in 2005, a Boeing 777-200LR flew from Hong Kong eastward toward London, successfully completing a 11,664 mile journey.
From the outset, the A340 was an incredibly popular aircraft among larger carriers and soon cemented itself with European and Asian operators including Cathay Pacific, Air France, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic, China Airlines, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Iberia and many, many more. However, the A340 sadly didn’t make it in the United States, with no American carriers operating the type. This was somewhat covered for by the Airbus A330, which found itself into the fleets of Northwest and US Airways.
Over its production period, four variants of the A340 were produced. The initial models were the A340-200 and -300, the -200 being able to carry 261 passengers, while the -300 was 14ft longer and could carry 277. The -200 also had a range of 7,700 miles while the -300 had a range of 8,400, which was also a useful reason as to why the -300 was much more successful than the shorter -200. In all, only 28 Airbus A340-200’s were built, of which most were retired from major airlines by the mid-2000’s, while 218 A340-300’s were sold and remain in service today.
Later models to be introduced were the A340-500 and A340-600. The -500 entered service in December 2002 with Emirates, and was 14ft longer than the -300, being capable of carrying 313 passengers. The -500 also had the distinction of being put to work on the longest non-stop commercial flight in history, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ21 from Singapore to Newark Liberty International on the American East Coast. The flight was 8,285 miles in length, took 18 hours and flew within 130 miles of the North Pole. The flight was specifically created thanks to the A340-500’s immense range of 10,000 miles, and operated between June 2004 and November 2013. In all, 34 A340-500’s were built, taken on by many large airlines primarily in Asia and the Middle East.
The last version of the A340 to be produced was the A340-600, the longest of the A340 family, with a 39ft longer fuselage than the -300. Capable of carrying 379 passengers and with a range of 7,500 miles, the A340-600 entered service with Virgin Atlantic in 2002, and has become the mainstay of airlines such as Lufthansa and Etihad, even going so far as to supersede the -500. 77 A340-600’s were eventually built when production of the A340 range ended in 2011.
A340 production ceased following a mixture or removing internal competition with advanced versions of the A330, whilst also being superseded by the likes of the Boeing 777 and 787. At the same time the recession of 2008 had made four-engined jets undesirable with many airlines, and the A340 was struggling to sell in its later years as the twinjet A330, which was just as capable in terms of range and much more fuel efficient, became more popular. In November 2011, Airbus announced an end to the A340 project, and the last of 377 aircraft left the factory, making room for the new generation Airbus A350.
Thankfully, so far in the Airbus A340’s career it has never had a fatal crash, though there have been five hull losses.
The first was on January 20th, 1994, when Airbus A340-200 F-GNIA of Air France was gutted by fire on the ground at Paris. The cause was later found to be a fault with the hydraulic pump fitted to both the A330 and A340, which was later disabled as part of an Airbus general notification in January 1997.
The second was again on the ground, this being an unoccupied SriLankan Airlines A340-300 on July 24th, 2001, which was destroyed amid an attack on Bandaranaike International Airport, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The third, and perhaps most high profile accident involving the A340, was Air France Flight 358 on August 2nd, 2005, which overshot the runway at Toronto Pearson International Airport while landing in severe thunderstorms from Paris. The aircraft slid into a creek at the end of the runway and subsequently caught fire, but all 297 passengers managed to escape with only a few minor injuries. The aircraft was consumed by the blaze and scrapped shortly afterwards.
The fourth was on November 9th, 2007, when an Iberia A340-600 slid off the runway during bad weather at Ecuador’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport, causing the landing gear to collapse and two engines to be broken off. All 333 aboard were able to escape without injury and the aircraft was scrapped on site.
The fifth, and somewhat quite spectacular was a brand new Etihad A340-600, which was undergoing engine tests on the ground at the Airbus factory in Toulouse. During the test, multiple safety checks had been disabled, and without chocks, the aircraft accelerated to 31 knots before colliding with a concrete blast deflection wall. The aircraft ploughed over the wall and was left suspended with its cockpit smashed over the other side. It was broken up on site.
A very serious near-miss, and the latest major accident involving the A340, was on March 20th, 2009, when Emirates Flight 407 attempted to take-off en route to Dubai. Failing to become airborne, the aircraft struck several structures at the end of the runway before eventually climbing away, circling and returning to land.
However, the A340’s continuing clean sheet is a true testament to its fantastic engineering, a brilliant aircraft that continues to be a major part of many important carriers. Today, earlier A340’s are harder to come by as they’re gradually retired, especially the rare A340-200’s, which, as mentioned, were mostly retired by the mid-2000’s. Today, 207 of the type are in operation, with 11 (of 28) -200’s, 135 (of 218) -300’s, 8 (of 34) -500’s and 77 (of 97) -600’s still in service. While it is truly a shame this beautiful aircraft never became the long-haul hit Airbus wanted, it doesn’t make it any less a capable, reliable and interesting aircraft, and a plane that truly proved that Airbus could make it happen when it came to strong and sturdy aircraft.