One of the longest produced and most popular models of the Airbus range, the Airbus A330 has been a major part of the company’s portfolio since the early 1990’s, and even though the design is coming up on 25 years old, the grand performance and reliability of this aircraft keeps its production rolling on even to this day.
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. Lufthansa and Swissair were shortlisted as potential launch customers, with major commitments to the project being followed up by many other European mainline carriers. The first solid orders for the A330 came from French internal airline Air Inter, which hoped to use the A330 on their high capacity domestic routes.
The A330 was first rolled out from the Toulouse factory on October 14th, 1992, and made its maiden flight on November 2nd of the same year, just over a year after the Airbus A340. By this time the A330 had garnered the interest of many major airlines including Northwest Airlines and Cathay Pacific. On October 21st, 1993, the Airbus A330 received the European Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) and US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifications simultaneously after 1,114 cumulative airborne test hours and 426 test flights. At the same time, weight tests came in favourable, showing the plane was 1,100lb under weight.
On June 30th, 1994, trouble struck during certification of the Pratt & Whitney engine when an A330 crashed near Toulouse, resulting in the deaths of both pilots and five passengers. The flight was designed to test autopilot response during a one-engine-off worst-case scenario with the centre of gravity near its aft limit. Shortly after takeoff, the pilots had difficulty setting the autopilot, and the aircraft lost speed and crashed. An investigation by an internal branch of Direction Generale d’Aviation concluded that the accident resulted from slow response and incorrect actions by the crew during the recovery. This led to a revision of A330 operating procedures.
Nevertheless, on January 17th, 1994, Air Inter became the first airline to commercially operate the Airbus A330 on services between Paris and Marseilles. Deliveries to Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and Thai Airways International were postponed to address delamination of the composite materials in the PW4168 engine’s thrust reverser assembly. Thai Airways received its first A330 during the second half of the year, operating it on routes from Bangkok to Taipei and Seoul. Cathay Pacific received its Trent 700 A330s following the certification of that engine on December 22nd of the same year.
However, the original A330-300 model suffered a drop in sales following the introduction of the longer range Boeing 767-300ER, and demands for smaller aircraft with increased range meant that Airbus had to act. The company responded with the A330-200, a shortened version with a range of 7,390 miles, an reduced operating cost over the Boeing 767-300ER of 9% and a reduction in length from the -300 by 15ft. The A330-200 first flew on August 13th, 1997, and after 16 months of certification, the aircraft made its first flight with charter airline Canada 3000 in 1998. The A330-200 production period also allowed Airbus to iron out a fault with the hydraulic pump fitted to both the A330 and A340, which was suspected to have caused a major fire that had burned out an Air France A340 on the ground in January 1994. A similar incident occurred on a Malaysia Airlines A330-300 at Singapore while undergoing maintenance, which heavily damaged but did not destroy the aircraft. Consequently, operators were advised to disable electrical pumps in January 1997.
Several in-flight shutdowns of Trent 700–powered A330-300s occurred. On November 11th, 1996, engine failure on a Cathay Pacific flight forced it back to Ho Chi Minh City. On April 17th the following year, Cathay Pacific’s subsidiary Dragonair experienced an engine shutdown on an A330, caused by carbon clogging the oil filter. As a result, Cathay Pacific self-suspended its 120-minute ETOPS clearance. Another engine failure occurred on 6th May during climbout with a Cathay Pacific A330, due to a bearing failure in a Hispano-Suiza-built gearbox. Three days later, a Cathay Pacific A330 on climbout during a Bangkok–Hong Kong flight experienced an oil pressure drop and a resultant engine spool down, forcing a return to Bangkok. The cause was traced to metal contamination in the engine’s master chip. Following a fifth engine failure on 23rd May, Cathay Pacific and Dragonair voluntarily grounded their A330 fleets for two weeks, causing major disruption as Cathay’s eleven A330’s made up 15% of its passenger capacity. Rolls-Royce and Hispano-Suiza developed a redesigned lubrication system to resolve the problem.
Once these teething problems had been ironed out, the A330 was quickly whipped up by many major carriers, including some of America’s more notable airlines such as Northwest and U.S. Airways, who operated extensive fleets on both domestic and international flights, primarily to Europe. These have since been integrated into the fleets of their successor airlines, Delta and American Airlines. Canada too found much use for the A330, with airlines such as Air Transat, Air Canada, and Canada 3000 all taking on several for their services to Europe and the Caribbean. In Europe itself, the A330 became the primary aircraft for the high capacity holiday flights to Florida, the Canary Islands and the Aegean, with airlines such as Thomas Cook, LTU, Swiss International, Aeroflot, Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic taking on a multitude as an alternative to the likes of the Boeing 757 and 767. It’s in Asia and the Middle East that the A330 has really become the staple of most carriers, with many national airlines such as Qatar, Emirates, Etihad, Garuda Indonesia, Cathay Pacific, Gulf Air, Jet Airways, Malaysia Airlines and Qantas using extensive fleets on worldwide operations.
The A330 however has sadly not had a clean streak in terms of safety, aside from the various but harmless technical faults that occurred in its early life, the A330 has since suffered 22 major aviation occurrences, including eight confirmed hull-loss accidents and two hijackings, with a total of 339 fatalities.
The first fatal accident was, as mentioned, during testing in June 1994, but all those who died worked for Airbus, and it was later found that the cause was due to the pilot’s inability to recover from a simulated stall.
The first crash of the A330 in service however took place on the evening of June 1st, 2009, when Air France Flight 447, an A330-200 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 228 people on board, crashed in the Atlantic Ocean 398 to 497 miles northeast of the islands of Fernando de Noronha, with no survivors. Malfunctioning pitot tubes provided an early focus for the investigation, as the aircraft involved had Thales-built “–AA” models known to record faulty airspeed data during icing conditions. In July 2009, Airbus advised A330 and A340 operators to replace Thales pitots with equivalents manufactured by Goodrich. Investigators later determined that the inadequate response of the pilots to both a loss of airspeed data from malfunctioning pitot tubes and subsequent autopilot disengagement resulted in Flight 447 entering into an aerodynamic stall.
The next major crash of an A330 happened on May 12th, 2010, when Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771, an A330-200, crashed on approach to Tripoli International Airport, Libya, on a flight from OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa. Of the 104 people on board, all but one nine-year-old Dutch boy died. The cause of the crash was determined to be pilot error.
Two A330’s have also been hijacked, with only one fatality, which was in fact the hijacker himself. On May 25th, 2000, Reginald Chua attempted to hijack Philippine Airlines Flight 812, but after being barred access to the cockpit, he instead robbed the passengers of their valuables at gunpoint before jumping from the plane at an altitude of 6,000ft with a homemade parachute. He was found dead several days later, apparently having survived the fall, but drowned in the mud hole he had landed in.
An A330 was also nearly involved in a terrorist act, that being on Christmas Day 2009, when Islamic extremist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to detonate plastic explosives located in his underwear aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. However, he was noticed attempting to detonate the bomb while on approach to Detroit, and was subdued by the passengers before being arrested upon landing. It is estimated that had he succeeded, Northwest 253 would have been the worst accident on American soil since American Airlines Flight 191 in 1979, with a potential 290 casualties.
Aside from its initial teething problems, the A330 has suffered numerous mechanical failures, the most notable of which was Air Transat Flight 236. On August 24th, 2001, the A330-200 developed a fuel leak over the Atlantic Ocean due to an incorrectly installed hydraulic part and was forced to glide for over 15 minutes to an emergency landing in the Azores.
On October 7th, 2008, Qantas Flight 72, an A330-300, suffered a rapid loss of altitude in two sudden uncommanded pitch-down manoeuvres while 93 miles from the Learmonth air base in northwestern Australia. After declaring an emergency, the crew landed the aircraft safely at Learmonth. It was later determined that the incident, which caused 106 injuries, 14 of them serious, was the result of a design flaw of the plane’s Air Data Inertial Reference Unit and a limitation of the aircraft’s flight computer software.
On April 13th, 2010, Cathay Pacific Flight 780 from Surabaya Juanda International Airport to Hong Kong landed safely after both engines failed due to contaminated fuel. 57 passengers were injured. Its two pilots received the Polaris Award from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, for their heroism and airmanship.
Several A330’s have also been written off as a result of fighting and warfare, but thankfully with no fatalities. On July 24th, 2001, two unoccupied SriLankan Airlines A330s were destroyed amid an attack on Bandaranaike International Airport, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. On July 15th, 2014, a Libyan Airlines A330 was severely damaged in the fighting in Libya and sustained bullet holes in the fuselage. Five days later, two Afriqiyah Airways Airbus A330 were hit by an RPG at Tripoli International Airport. One was completely destroyed in the ensuing fire.
Nevertheless, despite its early faults, the Airbus A330 remains to be an integral part and a reliable member of many airline fleets globally. While production of its larger cousin, the A340, has now ceased, the A330’s construction is still going strong, with the latest member, the air-to-air refuelling MRTT, now being deployed among the military forces of Europe. As of 2016, 1,279 of these aircraft have been built, nearly all of which remain in service. With the advent of the newer Airbus A350, one wonders how much longer this nearly 25 year old design will remain in production, but the A330 can soldier on contented in the fact that it is among one of Airbus’ most successful ventures, and a very good piece of kit!