Forty years ago today the agreement that launched the Airbus A300 was signed at the 1969 Paris Air Show.
Coming during massive focus on the approaching Apollo 11 moon mission, and one year after France and West Germany were adjusting to the aftermath of the student riots the concept of a pan European aerospace entity didn’t quite capture any headlines in the first few dozen pages of most newspapers of those times.
The A300 was only expected to sell around 300 jets, it didn’t fly until 28 October 1972, and it struggled in the market until the second half of the 70s, when large orders began to roll in.
The flying debut of Airbus on the world stage didn’t occur until two Paris Air Shows later at Le Bourget in 1973. There were two people at that show that gave this reporter interviews that included insights that have proven correct.
One was Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican presidential hopeful and accomplished pilot, who flew the demonstrator jet with the Airbus Industrie test pilot Bernard Ziegler and a group of press on board.
In those days there was no security resembling today’s at Le Bourget. You joined a queue on the tarmac, in my case with an ABC TV crew holding an invite valid for any demo, and off you went.
There was a monkey grip arrangement behind the open cockpit area which in turn lead to some lounge style seating in the forward cabin. You could lean right over the flight engineer station and eaves drop on the pilots.
Conditions were cloudly and a bit bumpy, but Goldwater and Ziegler (I’m pretty sure it was Ziegler but I need to find and check my Kodachromes which are in storage) were having a great time flying through the bumpiest sky available while we hung on, camera man with bulky 16 mm film camera, sound recordist with bulky Nagra recorder and large fluffy mike attached to boom handle and myself and however many others could fit in a space that would make a flight safety officer have a seizure.
It was a situation unimaginable in today’s stitched up relationships between media tamers and the ‘zoo.’
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After watching grown men play test pilots we explored the A300. Which was ‘huge’ for the times. And novel. A big twin engined short to medium range widebody. Who would have thought?
There were examples of cabin seating arranged a few rows deep down the cabin, and a wide open space to the rear where a cocktail party was in progress.
Two people from Boeing were there. One said to the other “this is how we would have done it.” But in fact, Boeing did it differently and successfully with the 767 family some years later, which was a narrower but longer ranged family ultimately eclipsed by the A330 family from the mid 90s onwards.
On the ground later we interviewed Goldwater for the ABC. What did he think about the Airbus. “Well,….we’ve had our ass kicked, ..if I can say that.”
The ass kicking was to come somewhat later, as history tells, and it goes on, with Airbus or Boeing trading kicks to this day.
The other interview of interest was with a senior pilot with Ansett ANA at the time. I recall his name as being Peter Gibb, not to be confused with the late Peter Gibbs, who was the spokesperson for Sydney Airports Corporation Limited (SACL) prior to its privatisation.
He ventured the private view that ‘Reg’ , Sir Reginald Myles Ansett wasn’t likely to favour such a large jet but on the record described how it performed brilliantly when he shut down one engine during a take off roll to confirm its single engine capability. Which was why we were able to have an interview outdoors, instead of in a hospital, or at all.
His comments were that the trees at the end of the runway did get bigger, but that the jet easily climbed over them.
At about that time, 1973, Ansett ANA rival Trans-Australia Airlines was toying with the notion of a fleet of five Lockheed Tristars rather than the new fangled Airbus! It did later introduce the A300B4 model in 1981 with Ansett following with Boeing 767-200s.
Airbus Industrie as it was then called went on to built 822 of the A300 line and its variants in the A310 range, and says 620 are still in service. The last of them is expected to remain service capable until 2050.
All of which, in 1973, was not even dreamed of. Airbus was invented to advance and sustain aerospace in a Europe fitfully moving towards some sort of economic union.
And the day after the A300 went on display with a concept many thought ahead of its time, the TU-144 disaster imprinted itself on the 100 year old history of the Paris Air Show, with a tragedy that overshadowed the world flying debut of Airbus.