Perhaps the first true competitor to the Boeing 737, the Airbus A320 showed the world that the European air industry still had what it took to match what had otherwise been an American monopoly on the short to medium-range jet airliner market, and helped to put what was otherwise an obscure French aircraft manufacturer on the map.
From its beginnings in the 1960’s, Airbus had always envisaged the idea of creating a range of jet airliners which would compete against the likes of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. While the company gained its footing in 1972 with the Airbus A300 wide-body jet airliner, which proved to be a modest success, it was the intent of the company to create a short to medium range jet airliner which would not only combat the likes of the Boeing 737 and the DC-9, but also help to replace models built prior to the formation of Airbus, namely the BAC 1-11 and the Sud Aviation Caravelle.
Prior to this, European attempts at fighting American influence had largely come to nought, with aircraft such as the Trident being far too complicated to manage, while the Dassault Mercure (which was based largely off the 737) had a woefully short range. The only major success stories, especially ones which hit it off in the USA, were the Caravelle and the 1-11, largely due to their trailblazing nature, while certain turboprops, including the Vickers Viscount and the Fokker F.27, also made reasonable swathes into the American market.
Planning behind what was dubbed the Joint European Transport (JET) commenced in 1977, the project being led largely by British Aerospace in collaboration with Airbus. The plan was a twin-jet airliner carrying between 130 and 188 passengers using CFM56 engines. The result would’ve been an aircraft faster than the 737, but
with an equal passenger capacity. Under the JET title, the development models were designated SA (Single-Isle) with three variations considered; SA1, SA2 and SA3. Each of these models represented different lengths and capacities between 125 and 180 seats.
In 1981, the JET project was redesignated the Airbus A320, with the SA2 model being favoured at a capacity of 150 seats. Interest was gained from American carrier Delta Air Lines, who helped to develop the specifications of the aircraft for the optimal design choice. The result was an aforementioned capacity of 150 passengers being split into two variations based on fuel capacity and range; the A320-100 (with a range of 3,440km) and the A320-200 (with a range of 5,280km). The fuselage cross-section was originally to follow the principles of the Boeing 707 and 727 narrow-body jets of the 1950’s, but eventually settled on a slightly wider diameter, with an internal width of 12 ft 2 in.
The most endearing features of the Airbus A320, however, came down to two factors; its efficiency and its fly-by-wire technology.
The A320 was designed to respond to the multiple fuel crises of the 1970’s and, as such, adopted composite materials wherever possible to reduce weight. This was further complimented by a centre-of-gravity control using fuel and a glass cockpit, which, by extension, resulted in the removal of the Flight Engineer.
As for its fly-by-wire technology, the A320 was the first commercial airliner to use computer controlled systems, with instrument readouts displayed by way of CRT (Cathode ray tube) monitors. The A320’s onboard computer systems were derived from the Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter jet, which allowed for all major aircraft functions, including fuel, hydraulic pressure and other important readouts, to be displayed in front of the pilots rather than on a separate panel behind the pilot seats, this being instead monitored by the Flight Engineer. While the Airbus A310 pioneered the removal of the Flight Engineer, the A320 perfected the human/machine interface.
Engine choice was, at the time, somewhat limited for the Airbus, primarily due to a lack of high-bypass turbofan engines with a small cross-sectional area. The only engines available at the time came from relative newcomers CFM, which offered the CFM56-5-A1. These engines produced 25,000lbf of thrust, pushing the A320 to a cruising speed of 447 knots. This was later joined by the IAE Model V2500-A1 from 1987 onward, though the option of both CFM and IAE models remained throughout the A320’s production life. The specifications of the A320 eventually came down to a maximum capacity of 186 passengers with a cruising altitude of 41,000ft and a range of 6,100km.
While development was being undertaken throughout the early 1980’s, Airbus garnered interest throughout Europe with 25 A320’s ordered by Air France and 7 by British Caledonian. The biggest surprise came when carriers from the USA took major interest in the proposed airliner, with Pan Am ordering 16 units while Northwest Airlines placed an order for 100 units.
The first A320 was rolled off the production line on February 14th, 1987, in the presence of governing representatives for both the UK and France, including French Prime Minister, and future president, Jacques Chirac and Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The first flight was undertaken 8 days later, entailing a 3 hour and 23 minute flight out of Toulouse. Testing would continue throughout 1987, eventually resulting in 1,200 hours worth of test flying before eventually, a year and four days after its first flight, airworthiness certification was awarded by the European Joint Aviation Authorities. A month later, Air France took delivery of the first A320.
However, the A320 was almost immediately marred with tragedy when on June 26th, 1988, Air France Flight 296 crashed into trees at the end of the runway at Mulhouse-Habsheim airport, killing 3 out of the 130 people aboard. This was followed in 1990 by the crash of Indian Airlines Flight 605, which landed short of the runway at Bangalore killing 92 of the 146 passengers and crew aboard. These two early tragedies were immediately swept up by the media, who began to question the
safety of fly-by-wire technology. However, it was discovered that both incidents were due largely to the pilot’s misunderstanding of the fly-by-wire technology, with no malfunctions being detected within the software itself.
As the years went on, the Airbus A320’s popularity only increased and soon hundreds of orders came flooding in. The universal appeal of the A320 allowed it to fall into the hands of both well-established national carriers, but also smaller airlines and low-cost carriers as well. Today the A320 can be found in the fleets of British Airways, American Airlines, Air France, Easyjet, Thomas Cook, SAS, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, Aeroflot and hundreds more.
Due to the multinational nature of Airbus, parts to create the airliners are provided from different countries across Europe, and thus have to be shipped to the final assembly plant at Toulouse before being fitted to the aircraft. To help with the delivery of these parts, an entirely new aircraft of bizarre proportions was created known as the A300-600ST ‘Beluga’, a custom built version of the pioneering A300 which can carry entire A320 fuselage sections in its massive belly.
But it doesn’t stop there, the phenomenal success of the A320 gave rise to multiple derivative versions of the aircraft, starting with the introduction of the stretched Airbus A321, which was introduced in 1993. The A321 was built to compete with the likes of the Boeing 757, a stretched design which allowed for higher capacity on more popular trunk routes.
This was followed in 1996 by the A319, a shorter version which took the original SA1 study design from the A320’s original conception to provide a lightweight, lower-capacity model for use on high frequency services or quieter routes.
The final variant of the A320 came about in 2003, this being the shortest of the group; the A318. The A318 endeared itself to quieter routes and niche markets, providing the reliability and functionality of the A320 without the expense of using larger jets on low capacity routes. The A318, however, failed to win over a large number of carriers and was discontinued after only 80 units were delivered.
Production of the A320 continues to be undertaken at the Airbus Factory in Toulouse, while assembly of the derivative A318, A319 and A321 is carried out at an entirely new factory in Hamburg, Germany.
The A320 family has since been updated further by the introduction of newer models based largely on the same principles; the A320 Enhanced Family (A320E) and the A320neo (New Engine Option) family. The A320E takes the original A320 design and upgrades it with engine improvements, weight savings, a new cabin design and other aerodynamic refinements such as Boeing style winglets. The A320neo again
keeps much of the original A320 design traits, but uses improved Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engines which include a 20% lower maintenance cost while burning 16% less fuel.
However, aside from the two incidents mentioned earlier, the A320 has not been immune to accidents and incidents, with the A320 alone suffering 26 crashes resulting in 1,185 fatalities.
The deadliest crash involving an Airbus A320 occurred on the night of July 17th, 2007, when TAM Airlines Flight 3054 overshot the runway at Congonhas International Airport in São Paulo, Brazil. The aircraft, which was landing in a tropical storm, aquaplaned along the runway due to a failure of airport authorities to implement drainage grooves on its surface to remove standing water. Unable to slow down, the aircraft momentarily became airborne again as it passed over the edge of a steep embankment at the end of the runway, crossed the adjacent Avenida Washington Luís, a busy thoroughfare, before smashing into the TAM Express headquarters and warehouse on the opposite side. The crash resulted in the deaths of all 187 people aboard the plane, plus 12 fatalities on the ground.
Another deadly crash was that of Germanwings Flight 9525 on March 24th, 2015, where on a flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf, the first officer locked the captain out of the cockpit before proceeding to fly the plane into the side of a mountain near Digne in the French Alps in an apparent act of pilot suicide. It had been previously noted by medical staff that the co-pilot had been suffering from mental instability and suicidal tendencies for some time but had failed to address the issue. All 150 aboard the plane were tragically killed.
Another mysterious crash was that of Egyptair Flight 804, which disappeared suddenly on the night of May 19th, 2016, while flying over the Mediterranean, being only 20 minutes away from its destination of Cairo. A suspected in-flight fire may have been the cause, but no official reason for the disaster has been determined as of 2017. The crash claimed the lives of all 66 aboard.
However, the A320 has also been known for one spectacular instance of survival, that being on January 15th, 2009. US Airways Flight 1549 departed New York’s LaGuardia Airport on a routine flight to Charlotte when it suffered a dual-engine failure after striking a flock of Canada Geese. Unable to return to the airport, Captain
Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger was able to ditch the aircraft on the icy waters of the Hudson between Manhattan Island and New Jersey without causing major injuries or any fatalities among the 155 souls aboard. The passengers and crew were eventually rescued by passing ferries and water taxis before the plane partially sank. The aircraft has since been recovered and is now on display in the Carolinas Aviation Museum. Captain Sullenberger received universal praise for his actions and has since been the subject of a 2016 dramatic feature named “Sully”, starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous hero.
As of 2017, 4,523 A320’s have been delivered across the globe, with a further 219 on order. While most of the original A320’s have been retired, there are still plenty of early examples still in regular operation with major carriers.
There’s not much you can say about the A320 which hasn’t already been said. It truly is the linchpin of the modern European aviation industry, and continues to put up a good fight against the rival Boeing 737 and its derivatives. The A320, even before it was released, had wormed its way into the hearts of airlines everywhere, its sales quota being a fine sentiment to that. It truly is a revolutionary, safe, comfortable, efficient and reliable aircraft, and one hopes it continues to grace the skies with its presence well into the future.