How Airbus got to be number one.
- By Bill Sweetman
- Air & Space magazine, November 2003
(Page 2 of 7)
Most of the British government’s share of the A300 investment money was to go to Rolls-Royce for the RB.207 engine—a paper study at the time. But the company was also trying to sell the smaller RB.211 to Lockheed for its TriStar. Beteille discovered that “the people that I used to discuss the RB.207 with had disappeared. It wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on. Rolls was betting everything on the smaller engine, and they were using the U.K. government’s money for the RB.207 on the RB.211.”
In March 1968 Rolls-Royce won the TriStar business. Beteille was not sure the British government would pay for both engines or that Rolls could develop them even if it got the money. “I was convinced that the venture was dead,” Beteille recalls. The only option was to restart the design, “to do something smaller, either with an existing engine or an engine that was being developed for somebody else. But if I had told the partners that, they would have said ‘It’s dead. Let’s stop it.’ ”
Instead, Beteille gathered 10 engineers and handed them a specification for a twin-engine, wide-cabin jet, written in 1966 by Frank Kolk, chief engineer at American Airlines. Beteille told the team to follow the specification and use existing engines. They came back with a 250-seat airplane that had eight seats abreast rather than nine but could carry the same freight containers as the bigger American aircraft. “We kept the designation A300—it was one way of not drawing attention to what we were doing,” says Beteille. At the end of 1968 the Airbus team announced that they had downsized the new airplane and eliminated the RB.207. The British government walked out, but the British firm Hawker Siddeley remained as a subcontractor, and the German and French governments agreed to split the costs. Meanwhile, Beteille had met Felix Kracht, who was to become another father of the Airbus organization. Kracht, a sailplane pioneer, had experience in international programs from the Franco-German Transall C160 military transport.
By the end of the 1960s, the center of gravity for the Airbus program was located in France, at least in part because the French had assigned important talent and more people to the project. Under president Henri Ziegler were Beteille as technical director and Kracht as production director, and it was the latter two who defined the program as it exists today.
Kracht, who died last year,was instrumental in establishing the technique of assembling large components, fabricated in different countries, at a single location. One of the most expensive mistakes on Concorde had been the use of two final-assembly lines in Britain and France doing exactly the same thing—with an enormous duplication in tooling and overhead.
“No way,” recalls Beteille. “One line was a prerequisite.” That line would be in Toulouse—and not for French gloire, Beteille maintains. “It’s the only place in Europe with enough airspace to do flight tests,” he says. But he adds that if they’d done everything on an assembly line, hundreds of workers would have had to be transplanted from Hamburg and Manchester to Toulouse. Kracht and Beteille thought the workers would be more productive at home.
The solution was called “light assembly”: The body and wing sections would be completed in Germany and Britain, with wiring, fluid lines, air ducts, and insulation in place, so fewer people would be needed in Toulouse for final assembly. And that is how every Airbus is built today. Management was organized according to the same principle: Look at Concorde and do the opposite.
The Airbus partners agreed to delegate all day-to-day decisions to a small headquarters in Toulouse. It would do basic design, assembly, flight test, sales and marketing, and support for the new airplane. It would report to a supervisory board, but would make all decisions autonomously.