The Airbus A300 Legacy, 50 Years After First Flight

Airbus A300B1 first flight in 1972

The Airbus A300B1 took off for the first time in Toulouse on Oct. 28, 1972, a Saturday.

Credit: Airbus

The incident happened early on in the flight-test program. On Dec. 6, 1972, pilots Jacques Grangette and Pierre Baud took off for the 17th sortie of the A300B1. Two flight-test engineers and a mechanic were also on board. Shortly after they started the day’s test program, the two pilots found that the aircraft reacted excessively when they initiated turns. Baud, a former fighter pilot who had joined Airbus just three months earlier, was not too worried, but Grangette decided to cancel the rest of the schedule and return to base.

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In hindsight, there were many instances in which the A300 program—and with it the entire Airbus project—could have failed for technical, commercial and political reasons. Some are more well known, such as the struggle to launch the program via an extremely tedious process spanning most of the 1960s and then kickstarting enough sales momentum in the 1970s to allow a level of production that made some economic sense. That flight on Dec. 6 turned out to be one of the many lesser-known hiccups, but in some ways it was a close call for the program. More on that later.

On Oct. 28, 1972, the first A300B1 test aircraft took off on its first flight, marking the start of an industrial, political and ultimately economic success story that is called Airbus and continues today.

The A300 itself was no commercial success. The 561 orders for all A300 versions and another 251 for the A310 before the program was terminated after 35 years of production tell their own story. At peak demand, Airbus delivered 46 of the aircraft in 1982 but only 19 the next year. From 1997 on, annual output was mostly in the teens. But the A300 was the catalyst for the launch of Airbus and a more united European aerospace industry that would eventually be able to compete with the big players in the U.S. at the time: Boeing, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas. The enormity of that accomplishment is indicated by the fact that only one of the three initial competitors is still building commercial airplanes and that none of the other national or binational European projects such as the BAC 1-11, Caravelle, Concorde or Mercure were successful.

In addition to starting to integrate the European industry, the A300 marked technical and industrial milestones. It was the first European widebody aircraft, and it introduced the concept of only two engines on a widebody, an idea met with massive skepticism by the establishment for years and one of the reasons the airliner’s commercial breatkthrough took so long. “The Americans told us we were crazy,” Gerard Guyot, one of the initial A300B2 and -B4 flight-test engineers, remembers. Boeing followed up with the 767, which entered service in 1982 and later superseded the A300 because of its longer range.

In the early 1980s, Airbus also switched to a two-pilot cockpit from the traditional setup of three on the -B2 and -B4.

“The real reason why this aircraft was successful is because it brought something different to the market,” Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer says. A widebody with two engines was “a new economic proposition,” he asserts. For comparison, Scherer points to the introduction of the Comac C919 this year. While gaining technological sovereignty in aviation is perfectly legitimate for a country the size of China, as  it was for Europe in the 1970s, “[the C919] is an imitation of something that already exists,” he says.

The A300 was the design primarily of three men: Henri Ziegler, Roger Beteille and Felix Kracht. Ziegler was named as the first CEO of the Airbus Industrie consortium, Beteille became chief operating officer, and Felix Kracht, who had played an important role in the background, headed production.

In 1967, Kracht became managing director of Deutsche Airbus, which was to consolidate Germany’s workshare in the upcoming program. Along with Beteille and Ziegler, he was the mastermind behind the A300B, a technically ambitious aircraft. He pushed to use the best technology available, wherever it came from.  “If the Chinese have the best engine, we will use it,” he once said. Beteille, Ziegler and Kracht also agreed that Airbus would not succeed in the long term with only a single product. The A300 would have to be developed into a family of aircraft if the Europeans were to compete with Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. To say so publicly early on did not seem prudent politically, so they kept the idea to themselves initially.

Of course, the idea of the family concept and communality even across different types of aircraft has been an Airbus leitmotiv for decades.

Airbus pilot Max Fischl and flight-test engineer Gerard Guyot
During a 1973 demo tour, pilot Max Fischl and flight-test engineer Gerard Guyot waited for repairs in Mexico City. Credit: Courtesy of Gerard Guyot

Efforts to pull together the project in the first place took years, mainly because of industry politics. The UK was largely focused on developing Concorde, which many expected would be the future of civil aviation. Only Hawker Siddeley showed an interest in the A300 project. Germany was initially lukewarm at best. And even in France, the picture was complex: Dassault was aiming at the civil market with its Mercure project, an aircraft roughly the size of the A320 developed by Airbus later. Like in the UK, France was working on  the Concorde, and anyone not immune to prestige thinking wanted to be on the program. When the first A300 test aircraft was rolled out along with another Concorde prototype in September 1972, no one really paid attention to the Airbus, even though Concorde had been in flight tests for some years.

Key airlines were underwhelmed, too. Air France did not want any political interference in its order decisions. Lufthansa chief Herbert Culmann also made it clear what he would do if he felt that kind of pressure: “If someone wants to force me to buy this Airbus, I will take my hat and leave tomorrow.”

Engine Trouble

The project nearly died several times. The original A300 was planned to have around 300 seats, aimed at large-volume, short- and medium-haul routes mainly in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, rather than the U.S., a market dominated by incumbents Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. The aircraft was supposed to be equipped with Rolls-Royce RB207 engines. But in May of 1968, the British engine-maker presented a price for the power-plant that was out of the question for Beteille and Ziegler. “The difference in price of the RB211 for the Lockheed L-1011 was simply unacceptable, and we realized that Rolls was playing another game without admitting it,” Beteille said at the time. “By continuing in that way, we would have ended up with nothing more than a superb glider.”

The high price was Rolls-Royce’s way of saying that it actually did not want to build an engine for the A300. The company was already building the RB211 for the Lockheed L-1011, a three-engine aircraft that would later compete with the first Airbus.

On Oct. 6, 1968. Ziegler hosted Beteille at his home on Avenue Stephane Mallarme in Paris. The two prepared major changes to rescue the project and decided to put forward the idea of a scaled-down version about 80% the size of the 300-seater. That way, the Airbus partners would spend less on development and be able to choose between two engines: the RB211 and the General Electric CF6. Given the tense relationship with Rolls-Royce, it was no surprise that Airbus came to an an agreement with GE. The Pratt & Whitney JT9D was added later as a second engine option in the program.

Decades later, Rolls-Royce played a role at Airbus as part of the International Aero Engines (IAE) consortium building the V2500 and then delivering the RB211-derived Trent engines for the A330, A350 and A380 widebodies.

On May 29, 1969, the French and German governments agreed on a memorandum of understanding at the Paris Air Show to jointly develop the A300B. At the time, it was not a momentous event: The news was buried in this magazine’s report on the Paris Air Show (AW&ST June 9, 1969, p. 33). But the Airbus project was a reality.

Following the engine sourcing, the quandary over the A300’s wings nearly ended the development program. While UK-based Hawker Siddeley was willing to take on the wing work, the British government refused to provide development money. The German government came to the rescue by agreeing to fund the work, removing one of the last major hurdles to program launch.

Taking Flight

Soon it was time for flight testing, but few people took notice. The first flight was scheduled for Friday, Oct. 27, but dense fog prevented the crew—pilots Max Fischl, Bernard Ziegler, flight-test engineers Gunter Scherer and Pierre Caneill and flight-test mechanic Romeo Zinzoni—from taking off. “No one was interested in the A300,” recalls Barbara Kracht, daughter of Airbus founder Felix Kracht who spent her entire professional career working for the company. In 1969, she was in university and was able to attend the first flight only because it was delayed to a Saturday, when she had no classes.

Not only did very few people actually witness the flight—at least compared to later first flights that were orchestrated as social media events—Airbus’ hometown newspaper La Depeche du Midi in Toulouse also buried the story on an inside page. This magazine did the same (AW&ST Nov. 6, 1972, p. 22).

The A300’s first sortie was remarkable in several ways. Fischl and Ziegler (Henri’s son, hailed by his colleagues as a formidable test pilot and equally capable boss) put the aircraft through a wide range of configurations, speeds and altitudes, switched the autopilot on and tested all the important systems. It was a more comprehensive program than would be undertaken on a first flight today. There was one unplanned aspect: As the weather deteriorated quickly, Fischl had to land the aircraft with a 28-kt. crosswind gusting to 34 kt. As it turned out, that was above the aircraft’s later certification limit. Baud, who witnessed the landing from his position on the apron, says Fischl did well to put the A300 back on the ground under the circumstances.

Christian Scherer, 10 years old at the time, watched the A300’s first takeoff and landing from the rooftop of the old Toulouse airport terminal building. His father, Gunter, was onboard as the flight-test engineer. “[I was] holding my mom’s hand,” Christian Scherer recalls, and noticed that the landing included “quite a bounce” and that the aircraft was “going sideways” on the final approach because of the crosswinds. Only about 25 other people had assembled on that platform.

Baud had just joined Airbus a month before the first flight, and like most of the test pilots, he was still very new to the program when he participated in his own first test flights. One of them, the 17th overall, proved to be a critical one. Grangette, who was in command, instinctively felt that the strong lateral moves could not be right. After landing, the available data was analyzed and extreme loads were discovered on Frame 90, where the tailplane and fin are attached to the fuselage. “Thanks to Grangette’s decision, a disaster was avoided,” Baud says.

The fix was rather straightforward. Frame 90 was reinforced and the settings for the spoilers and ailerons were reduced so that loads would be guaranteed to stay well below limits. The new configuration was validated on the 42nd flight in February 1973.

Another issue took somewhat longer to fix. During avoidance maneuvers at high altitude, pilots discovered a risk of the aircraft pitching up and causing them to lose control, a phenomenon discussed since early in the development. As it turned out, a shockwave disturbed lift at the tip of the wing, leading to a loss in speed and increased angle of attack. Airbus engineers found that the only way to reduce the shockwave was to add a wingtip.

Eastern Air Lines A300
A large order from Eastern Air Lines in 1978 provided the commercial breakthrough for the A300. Credit: Airbus

Much to the chagrin of Airbus, French weekly news magazine L’Express argued that the A300 program should be scrapped because of the allegedly poorly designed wing. The paper’s founder and editor, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, was a strong supporter of the Dassault Mercure project, so other considerations may have influenced his judgment of the wing situation.

The first two prototypes were A300B1s, but to make the aircraft more attractive to Air France, Airbus stretched the fuselage to accommodate three more seat rows, creating the B2. The third test aircraft was already a B2, a version that morphed into the B4 (with an added center fuel tank and Krueger flaps for additional range). The A300-600, introduced a decade later, involved a slight further stretch of the fuselage and featured several upgrades including the the forward-facing crew cockpit, Airbus’ move from a flight crew of three to two.

Tough Sell

Although flight testing was going smoothly overall, sales were not. Airbus was completely new to everyone in the industry. It launched demo tours around the world to introduce itself and the A300. The first was a monthlong Americas trip starting Sept. 15, 1973. Ziegler and Baud flew the aircraft from Toulouse to Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil (via Dakar, Senegal, and Recife, Brazil), to participate in a local air show. Guyot was also on board, as were mechanics, Airbus sales representatives—and a lot of spare parts, just in case.

“We were like an autonomous circus,” remarks Barbara Kracht, who was a member of the Airbus communications staff at the time.

“We were unknown, going from one city to another,” Guyot says.

Airbus was doing demo flights inviting pilots and local VIPs, trying to build trust in the aircraft and a lobby for future orders. “We were all driven by the same pioneer spirit,” Guyot says.

“What fascinated me was the emotional attachment to the mission,” Christian Scherer says of his father and colleagues. He says he was “in awe of the technology” as well as of the team’s ability to bridge cultures and come together. After all, his father was part of the first generation of German aeronautical engineers after World War II, who would not necessarily have been easily welcomed in France. But Gunter Scherer, who was a francophile, was an important player in building that bridge, his son recalls. And the members of French pilot school EPNER—in particular Jean Caillard, who became the elder Scherer’s mentor—received him with open arms. Gunter Scherer and Bernard Ziegler also later became best friends.

The A300B1 toured Brazil and some Caribbean destinations before stopping in West Palm Beach and Miami, Florida. Then, in Mexico City, Max Fischl’s piloting skills were required again: Upon takeoff from the high-altitude airport, an engine failed. Fischl turned the aircraft around, and mechanics repaired the engine. They were able to continue on the all-important U.S. tour as planned, with demos to Pan American World Airways, Trans World Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, among others. But it would be several more years before Airbus would achieve its commercial breakthrough in the U.S.

Following the Americas tour, Airbus sent an aircraft to Southern Africa with stops in Niamey, Niger; Libreville, Gabon; Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, South Africa; Kinshasa, Democratic Repulic of Congo; and Windhoek, Namibia. The Windhoek stop was also used for takeoff performance tests at high altitude.


Certification and Production

May 1974 proved to be full of milestones for the aircraft. Following certification by France and Germany in March, the A300 was certified by the U.S. FAA. Airbus embarked on a third demo tour, this time to the Asia-Pacific region, with many stops in Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. On May 10, Air France took delivery of its first B2 and started commercial services on May 30, operating the aircraft initially on the Paris-London route.

Things did not become easier for Airbus, however.  “Most airlines were reticent about a twin-engine widebody carrying so many passengers,” Baud says. All widebodies at the time had at least three engines, and the Boeing 747 had four. Even the short- and medium-haul Boeing 727 was a three-engine aircraft. Beteille, Ziegler and Kracht were convinced nonetheless that they had the more efficient design and that the aircraft would be easier to repair than one with one engine installed high up on the tailplane. “We had to change the mindset of the airlines,” Baud notes.

That effort took years. During the first six years of production, Airbus built more A300s than it delivered, parking expensive “white-tails” waiting to be sold and handed over. Between 1974 and 1979, Airbus delivered fewer than 90 aircraft. The low point was 1976; Airbus did not receive a single order between the end of 1975 and mid-1977. Production was reduced to a nominal rate of just 0.5 aircraft per month, nowhere near any kind of profitable level. By comparison, after decades of industrial optimization, currently Airbus is not making money at a rate of five aircraft per month on the A350 program.

Into Operation

Air France was the first operator in 1974, followed by Air Siam at the end of the year. Korean Air and Hapag-Lloyd took their first A300s in 1975, and then Lufthansa, Air Inter, Indian Airlines and South African Airways the next year. At least some of the demo tours appeared to have paid off, with a good part of the early deliveries going to carriers in Asia, as Airbus had hoped, given the route structures and need to connect large metropolitan areas with high-capacity aircraft. Air Siam was a case in point: The carrier had leased aircraft MSN 8 for nine months to fly the Bangkok-Hong Kong route—the A300’s first extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards service early on in its operational history. The U.S. remained closed to the A300 for the time being.

In 1975, Bernard Lathiere took over the top position at Airbus from Henri Ziegler. He warned internally that the situation had to improve, and fast. Baud remembers people leaving the flight-test department that year because there was not enough work for everyone. But Lathiere, born in Kolkata (then Calcutta), India, turned out to be in the right place at the right time, as he excelled at what Airbus needed most in the mid-1970s: sales brilliance. Seeing that none of the other U.S. carriers were prepared to go for the A300, Lathiere approached the CEO of Eastern Air Lines, Frank Borman, a former astronaut. The carrier had not made money in 10 years but needed new aircraft, and Lathiere saw an opportunity.

The two agreed on a deal that is legendary to this day and one of the reasons why Airbus still exists. The OEM sent four A300s to Eastern to test in commercial operations free of charge for six months. The test satisfied Borman, and not only did Eastern buy the four aircraft, it ordered 23 more in 1977. The order gave Airbus the credibility it needed to build sales momentum over the coming years and put it in position to expand its portfolio further and build the A320, which was launched in 1984.

Christian Scherer joined Airbus as an intern in the contracts department in September 1984. His first assignment was the final paperwork for the PanAm order for 12 A300B4s. Then, on Dec. 21, four aircraft were delivered the same day. One was going to Berlin for PanAm’s air bridge service, and three more flew to New York via Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. Scherer was on board of one of them. He recalls seeing the three parked next to each other during a refueling stop in a snowstorm at Gander: “That was one of the most emotional moments of my career.”

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.


Excellent article, sir. Thanks for the dive into both technical and human detail. I was lucky enough to fly A320 and A330, as well as their contemporaries: B737, B757, and B767. All are fine aircraft; all are robust airliners. The pilot interface being of primary interest to me, I eventually developed a preference for features of both.
I flew on one of the early Eastern Airlines A300's on the shuttle from New York city to Boston. It was an interesting experience to be on a wide-body for the first time.
I have been following the Airbus story since the 1970s and had the pleasure of meeting Felixstowe Kracht in the early days of the A300. I have spent the last 50 or so years describing Britain's often turbulent relationship with the programme. In retirement this has entailed combing the U.K. national archives for details. Please contact me on [email protected] for recent articles on the year the U.K. nearly killed Airbus and the struggle to rejoin officially the programme some years later.