Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant reviews the development of the model that represented Airbus’s first entry into the commercial aviation market.
When the first prototype Airbus A300 took to the air on October 28, 1972, nobody could have predicted the impact that the development of the first twin-engine wide-bodied jet would have on the commercial aviation industry.

At the time short-range routes were being operated by single-aisled airliners, chief among them the Douglas DC-9 and Boeing 727. On longer routes, three- and four-engined types, like the Douglas DC-10, the Lockheed L1011 TriStar and the Boeing 747, were replacing the old B707 and DC-8 workhorses. However, there was an obvious gap in the market for a new medium-range airliner and several European manufacturers were looking at projects to cater for this sector.

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

The first ever aircraft produced by Airbus Industries, A300 prototype F-WUAB, makes its maiden flight on October 28, 1972. Airbus image

The aerospace industry had long been dominated by the US; European manufacturers – like British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and Hawker Siddeley in the UK and Breguet and Sud-Aviation in France – had but a limited presence in the market. But with the formation of Airbus in December 1970 things were about to change and now, almost 35 years later, and with the emergence of the final-production A300, the pan-European company has positioned itself as one of the leading manufacturers.

Airbus’s concept of a new medium-range airliner capable of seating around 250 passengers was not a new one and work on the A300 actually pre-dates the formation of the company. During the mid-1960s a number of European manufacturers were tentatively working on new aircraft projects. Hawker Siddeley was looking at the 160-seat HS132 and 204-seat HS134, whilst BAC was studying the 2-11 and 3-11, as developments to its short-haul airliner the One-Eleven. In France, Breguet was proposing the double-deck, four-engined, Br124; Nord the high-wing, 12-abreast N600 which had two cabins separated by a central bulkhead, and Sud-Aviation the Galion, which was planned to be constructed as both a conventional single-deck 200-seater and potentially a two-deck 250-seater.

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

The A300 shares the same basic cockpit as the smaller A310, so pilots are qualified on both types. Airbus image

While collaborative issues over the organisation of the Airbus consortium dominated discussions between the manufacturers, the new European aircraft was quietly taking shape in the background. Initially dubbed the HBN 100, the original airliner was loosely based on concepts already under evaluation around the continent. During 1967 a memorandum of understanding was signed between France, Germany and the UK to further develop the project, but a lukewarm response from airlines ultimately led to the formal project launch being repeatedly delayed.

The problems related to the size of the aircraft. The 300-seater proposed – hence the selection of the name A300 in late 1967 – although favoured by the French and supported by local airlines Air France and Air Inter, had not been warmly received by others. Eventually, in face of overwhelming pressure for a smaller capacity model, a scaled-down A300 was announced in December 1968 with seating for around 250 passengers. Despite having secured no firm orders, there was strong interest in the A300 from airlines. This resulted in the formal go-ahead to move the project into the construction stage being announced in October 1970, two months before the Airbus consortium was legally founded.

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

Air France was the launch customer for the A300 in 1974. Bob Cowell Collection image

During the development process, designers had flirted with a range of fuselage widths but by the time construction work had begun on the first production version, designated the A300B1, a smaller cross-section had been selected. This measured 5.64m and became the standard fuselage dimension that Airbus has applied to subsequent wide-body programmes – the A330 and A340. The A300B1 was 50.95m in length, had a cruising speed of Mach 0.84 and with a load of 250 passengers, its typical range was 2,222km.

The aircraft was to be powered by new engines from General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce in the 200+kN thrust range. During the development stages, the Rolls-Royce RB207, which evolved into the RB211, was the preferred engine, but eventually General Electric CF6-50A was chosen as the launch powerplant as a result of Britain’s wavering commitment to the project.

The assembly of the A300 certainly presented new challenges for the European manufacturers. Although international partners had collaborated on projects before – perhaps the most famous of which resulted in the supersonic Concorde – it had not been done on such a big scale.

Airbus adopted an entirely different approach, with component parts, such as the wing assemblies, taken to the production plant at Toulouse ‘ready to fly’. All the cabling, pipes and equipment were already in place, whereas they would normally have been fitted in final assembly. As a result, only 4% of construction man-hours were actually spent on the final assembly line.

One of the main problems of the workshare was how to get all the constituent parts to Airbus’s chosen assembly location at Toulouse in the south of France. The wing assemblies were produced at the British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) plant at Chester in the UK. These had to be transported to Bremen in Germany to be fitted with moving surfaces, such as flaps and slats by VFW-Fokker. These were then shipped by barge to Lemwerder in Germany where they were flown to Toulouse along with the rear fuselage sections built by MBB. The central wingbox and nose section were constructed at St Nazaire and Nantes in France, and were transported by road to begin with. Tail assemblies had to come from the CASA plant in Spain, whilst the engines came from the US.

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

The prototype A300-600, F-WZLR, made its maiden flight on July 8, 1983. The aircraft featured a redesigned wing with modified flaps, slats, spoilers and fences. Airbus image

To overcome these transportation issues, Airbus sourced four Aero Spacelines Super Guppy aircraft – a conversion of the military Boeing KC-97 – to carry all the sub-assemblies to its Toulouse production facility in the south of France.

Although a number of Europe’s flag carriers had confirmed a tentative interest in the A300, no orders had actually been placed prior to the assembly of the first prototype. In the development stages the Airbus partners had stated that the project would not be launched unless orders for at least 75 units had been received. These never materialised, but still it was decided to proceed with the construction of the first aircraft – a major risk!

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

Pakistan International Airlines introduced four A300B4-203s in 1980. They served for 25 years before being retired for spares in 2005. Bob Cowell Collection image

However, it was not long before airlines began to commit to the project. The long-awaited launch order was finally signed on November 9, 1971, when Air France agreed to acquire six A300s – it subsequently announced orders for a further 17. Iberia followed not long after, agreeing a contract for four A300s in January 1972; while Lufthansa, which had been campaigning for a smaller type, settled on an order for three A300s plus four options in May 1973.

The first A300B1, F-WUAB, was rolled out at Toulouse in August 1972. A number of ground tests were then completed ahead of the public unveiling which was to be in a joint ceremony with Concorde 02, on September 28, 1972. The maiden flight was on October 28. At the controls were Aerospatiale’s Senior Test Pilot Max Fischl, and the Head of Flight Test Bernard Ziegler, with two flight engineers and a flight observer. By the end of the following month, eleven flights had already been undertaken.

A second prototype airframe, F-WUAC, joined the certification programme in February 1973, while a third aircraft, F-WUAD, joined in June of the same year. The latter was a B2 – its fuselage had been stretched by 2.65m to create room for 24 more seats, thus increasing capacity to between 281 and 345 passengers depending upon the configuration. This went on to become the initial production version.

Disappointed with sales performance, Airbus undertook a world tour in a bid to attract more customers – particularly in North America – and in September 1973, the prototype flew to South America to participate in the São Paulo air display in Brazil. This was followed by demonstration flights across the Americas. The tour certainly highlighted the reliability of the new aircraft, with little emerging in the way of engineering problems – an engine was changed in Chicago but only because of foreign object damage. However, the effort failed in its primary function of generating further orders.

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

UPS is the second largest operator of the A300 with 53 A300 Freighters on strength. Bob Cowell Collection image

With the fourth prototype, another B2, F-WUAA, joining the certification programme in November 1973, Airbus embarked on more trials and sales tours. The first example had completed a tour of India in September, before flying to Southern Africa for ‘hot and high’ trials at Johannesburg, Windhoek and Kinshasa. Meanwhile the second had travelled to Helsinki and Rovaniemi in Northern Finland for cold weather trials.

After almost 1,600 hours of flight testing, type certification was awarded to the A300 by both French and German authorities during the first quarter of 1974 allowing its European customers to launch operations. US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval followed in May.

The oil crisis in the early 1970s further hindered sales prospects with only three airlines, Air France, Lufthansa and Iberia, placing firm orders by the time of type certification. Sterling of Denmark, SATA of Switzerland and Transbrasil had all signed Letters of Intent (LoI) for a total of six aircraft, but they did not subsequently order or ever operate an A300.

The first production model, F-BVGA, was delivered to Air France on May 10, 1974, and entered service on the carrier’s regular Paris-London route on May 23. By the end of that year Belgium’s Trans European Airways, which had leased the second prototype, and Air Siam which had ordered two examples – but only took delivery of one – had also introduced the A300 into their fleets. However, despite the successful, trouble-free certification and entry into service, orders were still slow to materialise.

During 1975 Air Inter, Indian Airlines, Korean Air Lines and South African Airlines (SAA) joined the programme and agreed to acquire 13 aircraft between them. In 1976 just a single additional commitment was added to the order book.

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

The last production A300, F-WWAT, makes its first flight from Toulouse on April 18, 2007. It was delivered to FedEx as N692FE. French Frogs Aviation Pictures

Finally there was a breakthrough in the US market. Despite having courted Los Angeles-based Western Airlines for a number of years, it was actually Eastern Air Lines that became the launch customer across the Atlantic, accepting the first of an initial four aircraft in 1977. However, these had not been supplied in response to a firm order; they had been ‘loaned’ to the airline at no cost – apart from interior fittings – for a six-month trial. Eastern was suitably impressed and agreed a firm order for 23 A300s, plus nine options in June 1978. Another eight airlines had also placed orders for 20 jets during 1977 and demand steadily began to increase – by the end of 2008 the order book had grown to 126 aircraft.

By the end of the 1970s the increased-range B4 version, which had been created to widen the model’s market appeal, had become the standard production variant. It was identical in dimension to the earlier B2 but had an additional centre wing tank boosting the range to over 2,000nm (3,700km).

It had become obvious that the A300 could be developed into a family of aircraft, with varied seating configurations and ranges. Three versions were discussed with customers at great length – the A300 B9, B10 and B11. The B9 would involve extending the fuselage to offer seating for up to 330 passengers with a range of up to 3,300km. In contrast, the B10 was projected as a response to earlier airline demands for a smaller version that was intended to carry around 200 passengers. The B11 was to be a longer-range model that would be powered by four unspecified engines. Although none of these projects took to the skies as A300s, they did later become commercial programmes but under the respective banners of A330, A310 and A340.

Airliner Classic: Airbus A300 – the beginning for a giant

FedEx is the largest operator of the A300 with 71 Freighters currently in service. Airbus image

However, the A300 family was still extended, a convertible freighter version – the B4FC – was fitted with a cargo door, enabling it to accommodate standard pallets and containers on both the main deck and in its hold. A freighter version was also being worked on at this time.

In December 1980 a new upgraded version was announced that it was hoped would be more competitive with Boeing’s B767. The A300-600 had many new design features including an all-glass, two-crew cockpit with digital avionics and flight management systems. Externally, there was a redesigned wing that included a new inner wing section and modifications had been made to the flaps, slats, spoilers and wingtip fences. The use of composite materials reduced the weight by an astounding 1.5 tonnes. The model was also powered by new engine technology and, according to Airbus, long-range versions could carry 40% more payload – almost three times as far as the original A300B – while burning less fuel.

The launch customer was Saudi Arabian national carrier Saudia, which had placed an order for eleven aircraft. The first model, a Pratt & Whitney-powered example, flew on July 8, 1983, and following certification was delivered to Saudia on March 25, 1984. The first General Electric-powered A300-600s followed in 1985, the first being destined for Thai Airways International.

Like the earlier B4 versions, a convertible freighter was the next variant to evolve, the first joining Kuwait Airways in May 1984. A longer-range A300-600R was developed for American Airlines, while a full freighter configuration followed as the A300-600 became the definitive version.

The dramatic increase in freight traffic in recent years has resulted in a glut of orders for that dedicated version. FedEx was the first large cargo carrier to see the potential of the aircraft by ordering 25 in 1991. The first A300-600F flew in December 1993 with deliveries starting in 1994. FedEx subsequently added new orders bringing its total purchases to 42, although it maxed at a fleet of 60, having purchased several second-hand examples.

As the commercial aviation marketplace changed and more modern types offered greater efficiency, orders for the A300 began to slow during the second half of the 1990s. Most of the recent orders have been for freighter versions, the last passenger airliner being handed over to Japan Air System in November 2002.

The final and 561st production A300, an A300F freighter for FedEx, was delivered on July 12, 2007. Airbus has a support package to keep A300s flying commercially until at least 2025, some fifty years beyond the first coming off the production line.