The Airbus A300 was the first product of the European conglomerate, built to take on the likes of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas by providing European carriers with a home-bred alternative. The result was a fairly successful airliner that remained in production for the best part of 35 years and even hit it big in that bastion of wealth and homeland of its rivals, America!
Airbus was formed by a merger of several European aircraft manufacturers in an attempt to create a larger and more influential company. The Achilles Heel of many European builder’s was that, while their aircraft were highly complex and innovative, they had very little mass-market appeal, unlike the models of Boeing and Douglas which built very simplistic, highly reliable mass-production aircraft. Cases in point included the Hawker-Siddeley Trident and the Vickers VC10, both highly innovative aircraft with their automatic landing systems and ability to access tedious airports, but seen as far too expensive and complex when compared to their rivals, the Boeing 707 and 727.
The result was the formation of Airbus in December 1970, created by share inputs from British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), Hawker-Siddeley, Fokker-Wulf, Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and CASA of Spain. Together, the companies brought together a plan devised by many of these aircraft builders, the creation of a minimum 200 seat airliner to exploit the growing desire for wide-body aircraft. Both BAC and Hawker-Siddeley had toyed with updated versions of their BAC 1-11 and Trident, but both projects came to naught. At the same time, European governments were also keen on encouraging the merger into Airbus as a way to ward off the influence of American builders.
In July 1967, French, German and British ministers met to discuss the creation of the company, and for the first time the word Airbus came into play as a unilateral, multilingual brand for their multinational company. Shortly thereafter, French engineer Roger Béteille was appointed as the technical director of what would become the A300 program, while Henri Ziegler, chief operating officer of Sud Aviation, was appointed as the general manager of the organization and German politician Franz Josef Strauss became the chairman of the supervisory board. Béteille drew up an initial work share plan for the project, under which French firms would produce the aircraft’s cockpit, the control systems, and lower-center portion of the fuselage, Hawker Siddeley would manufacture the wings, while German companies would produce the forward, rear and upper part of the center fuselage sections. Additional work included moving elements of the wings being produced in the Netherlands, and Spain producing the horizontal tail plane.
Béteille’s principle intention was to incorporate a high level of technology as a unique selling point over the competition. As such, the A300 would feature the first use of composite materials of any passenger aircraft, the leading and trailing edges of the tail fin being composed of glass fibre reinforced plastic. Béteille opted for English as the working language for the developing aircraft, as well against using Metric instrumentation and measurements, as most airlines already had US-built aircraft. These decisions were partially influenced by feedback from various airlines, such as Air France and Lufthansa, as an emphasis had been placed on determining the specifics of what kind of aircraft that potential operators were seeking. According to Airbus, this cultural approach to market research had been crucial to the company’s long term success.
Following further discussions, the A300 project was born on the 26th September, 1967, after a memorandum was signed by the British, French, and West German governments.
The design of the A300 became the first twin-engine wide-body aircraft in the world, a tradition that has now become unanimous among aircraft manufacturers with the new Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. The A300 would also gain the distinction of becoming the first ETOPS-compliant aircraft, due to its high performance and safety standards, as well as it being the first commercial aircraft to use the aforementioned composite materials. Other firsts included the pioneering use of center-of-gravity control, achieved by transferring fuel between various locations across the aircraft, and electrically signalled secondary flight controls.
Power was derived from a pair of underwing turbofan engines, either General Electric CF6 and Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines; the sole use of underwing engine pods allowed for any suitable turbofan engine to be more readily used. Though at the time Tri-Jets were very much the trend of aircraft manufacturers, the underwing design allowed for the wings to be located further forwards and to reduce the size of the vertical stabilizer and elevator,
which had the effect of increasing the aircraft’s flight performance and fuel efficiency. Development of the A300 also carried over some technology from their pinnacle of design success, Concorde, thereby making it among the most advanced commercial airliners ever constructed, even by today’s standards. Some of these advancements from the Concorde project included advanced wings by de Havilland supercritical airfoil section for economical performance, advanced aerodynamically efficient flight control surfaces, 222 inch diameter circular fuselage section for 8-abreast passenger seating and wide enough for 2 LD3 cargo containers side-by-side, structures made from metal billets, reducing weight, wind shear protection (the first aircraft to ever be fitted with such), advanced autopilots capable of flying the aircraft from climb-out to landing and electrically controlled braking system.
The A300 made its first flight on the 28th October, 1972, and entered commercial service with Air France on the 23rd May, 1974, operating a flight from Paris to London. However, the A300’s start in life was unfortunately bumpy, with sales being very slow to pick up any sort of pace. The only major initial orders of the type were by airlines obliged to buy it as part of its development, namely Lufthansa and Air France. Eventually, an aggressive sales approach was adopted to help promote the aircraft to airlines that had little to no knowledge of the Airbus brand. Another problem for the A300 was the lack of confidence in innovative technology. The equivalent Boeing 747 and DC10 came from established manufacturers, whilst the A300 was perceived as a European upstart with technology they felt was probably beyond their comprehension. Aircraft sat idling for months awaiting sales at the Toulouse factory, with only half an aircraft constructed per month, as well as calls for the production to be paused completely until more buyers were found.
Eventually help came from Asia, when in 1974 Korean Air took an interest in the newly developed A300B4. At the same time Indian Airlines purchased several for use on high-capacity domestic services. Airbus sought further sales in Asia as this was becoming a vital market as Japanese, Chinese and regional carriers began to develop following their slow rebuild from the Vietnam War and World War II. It quickly became apparent however that Airbus’ concept of a short-haul widebody aircraft and attempts to market the A300 as such was highly flawed as airlines operating the A300 on short haul routes were forced to reduce frequencies to try and fill the aircraft. As a result, they lost passengers to airlines operating more frequent narrow body flights. It wouldn’t be until the late 1980’s that Airbus would attempt to venture into the domestic market again with the Airbus A320.
As such, Airbus changed its market and decided to focus the A300 on the long-haul routes
to combat the likes of Boeing and Douglas. The result was an interest in the late 1970’s by American carrier Eastern Air Lines, which leased four A300s as an in-service trial. Impressed by the aircraft’s performance, Eastern CEO and ex-astronaut Frank Borman found the A300 much more flexible, efficient and reliable than the Lockheed Tristars already in his fleet, and ordered 23 in 1977. Other veteran American carriers to take on the A300 shortly afterwards included Pan Am and American Airlines, the latter operating the A300 until 2009. Once the A300 had made it in America and proven its worth, the model sold well, with 878 examples being delivered by the time production ended in 2007. The final production A300, an A300F freighter, performed its initial flight on 18th April, 2007, and was delivered to FedEx Express on 12th July that same year. Airbus has announced a support package to keep A300s flying commercially until at least 2025.
The A300 however has sadly seen its fair share of disasters, and, as of 2016, the aircraft has been involved in 70 accidents and incidents, including 32 hull-losses and 1,435 fatalities. Some of the more notable include Iran Air Flight 655, which was shot down by the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf after being mistaken for an attacking Iranian F-14 Tomcat in 1988, killing all 290 passengers and crew; Pakistan International Airlines Flight 268 crashed on approach near Kathmandu in 1992, killing all 167 on board; and in 1994, Air France Flight 8969 was hijacked by terrorists aligned with the Armed Islamic Group, who intended to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower but were foiled by French Counter-Terrorism units at Marseilles airport. The last major fatal incident involving the A300 though was American Airlines Flight 587, which, in November 2001, crashed into the Belle Harbour neighbourhood of Queens in New York shortly after takeoff due to a mixture of turbulence and pilot error resulting in the vertical stabilizer being sheered clean from the fuselage, killing 260 aboard and 5 on the ground.
But even though the A300 has now disappeared from production, its legacy lives on in the Airbus company, with many traits of that pioneering aircraft continuing to be handed down through the following generations. The A300 has been sold and operated on every continent on earth, and even today the later examples are still prominent features of many airlines, although its position as an essential part of many Flag Carriers such as Lufthansa, Air France, Japan Air Lines and American Airlines are long behind it. I personally used to see many of these aircraft in the service of charter airline Monarch when travelling to Tenerife on holiday, though these too have now been retired. Today many remain in active service, primarily with cargo carriers such as Fedex and DHL, and are a common sight at many airports across the world. Though falling into obscurity nowadays, the enduring legacy of this magnificent, pioneering aircraft has yet to let up!