The Contender

How Airbus got to be number one.

Air & Space Magazine

(Continued from page 3)

The former rocket engineer—“I was used to missiles, where everything was automated”—made what Adam Brown calls “a very gutsy decision”: The A320 would have fly-by-wire (FBW) flight controls. In the A300, the yoke and rudder pedals were connected by cables to the hydraulic actuators that moved the ailerons, rudder, and elevators. On the A320, the controls would issue commands to computers, which would send electronic signals to the actuators. Concorde had an analog FBW system, and the technology had been used on fighters, but this would be its first use on a mass-produced commercial airplane.

On conventional jets, springs and dampers give the yoke and pedals artificial feel. The pilot has to push harder on the controls to make the airplane climb or turn, the resisting force warning the pilot that the airplane is approaching its limits. The A320, instead, had envelope protection: The airplane wouldn’t stall, overspeed, roll inverted, or do anything the computers would not permit. Since the force needed to move the yoke was no longer necessary, Airbus eliminated both the force and the yokes, which were replaced by video-game-like sticks on the left and right sides of the cockpit.

Fly-by-wire made the A320 clearly different from the 737, and savings in weight and maintenance offset the development cost. Northwest Airlines ordered 100 A320s in 1986, and United Airlines would eventually order almost 200 airplanes. It was Airbus’ first full-scale break into the U.S. market.

The A320 had been in service only a few weeks when, in June 1988, an Air France A320 crashed into trees at the French town of Mulhouse. The pilots, who survived, claimed that they had tried to push the aircraft to perform a go-around but that the engines did not respond. Two similar accidents followed.

The root cause, it turned out, was that the A320 was very easy to fly, and the ease masked the complexity of its automated controls. In its early A320 pilot training courses, Northwest experienced failure rates in the double digits. In 1993, Northwest flight operations director Clay Foushee summed up the A320: “On a gusty day at Washington National, you can look at an A320 fly and then watch anything else. Even with the unaided eyeball, you can see the difference in stability. It will do everything for you very well, but if you just sit there and let it fly itself, something awful will happen.” The solution was to train pilots carefully, with an emphasis on how to use the automated systems. There were no more A320 accidents after 1994.

Boeing took a different approach to its own new design, the 777. Although it had FBW, it did not have envelope protection. The yokes and throttles incorporated electric drives that moved them as if they were connected to cables, even though they were not. Airbus was scornful. “Like putting a steering wheel on a horse,” scoffed test pilot Bernard Ziegler.

“Roger Beteille is a man of vision,” Adam Brown says today. “Thank God that he did what he did, because it’s been fundamental to our success.” The same flight control system has been used for every Airbus aircraft since the A320; they all respond similarly to the controls, so once pilots have been trained to fly one Airbus, they can fly any member of the Airbus family and the airlines save a bundle on training. Says Brown: “There is nothing on earth that will do that except fly by wire.”

When Roger Beteille retired in 1985, Airbus had launched development of the stretched A330 and long-range, four-engine A340—formerly the B9 and B11—and Jean Pierson had replaced Lathiere. Beteille’s parting advice to Pierson: “I told him he should set the target market share to 50 percent—to where we could make profits.”

By the time the A330 entered service in 1994, Airbus had introduced three new aircraft in six years. Although the A300 and A310 were selling well, there was no way that the partners could cover the development costs without government help, and that brought a simmering transatlantic trade dispute to a boil. Boeing had cried foul in 1978 after the Eastern sale, but Lathiere wasn’t interested in a debate. “I think the big bad wolf is screaming,” he said at the Farnborough air show that year, “because Little Red Riding Hood has bitten him in the ass.”

Between 1978 and 1985, the A300 and A310 sold as well as the 757 and 767, and Boeing became more concerned. In a 1985 presentation to visiting aviation reporters in Seattle, Boeing declared that Airbus would lose $18 billion by the early 1990s. “We’ve been very patient for the last 10 years,” said, on that same occasion, Boeing vice president Thomas Bacher of the prolonged trade dispute, “but now we’re getting more impatient. In fact, we’re getting very damn mad.” Publicly, European leaders pointed out that Boeing had received government support in the past—the company’s jetliner business had been founded on the back of Pentagon orders for bombers and tankers—and the company was still allowed to charge research and development work to the Pentagon.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus