02 May 2015

Franz Josef Strauss: The Bavarian Politician Who Saved Airbus

Franz Josef Strauss in the cockpit of an Airbus
The early history of Airbus Industrie was very rocky indeed and I had posted previously how the failure of the planned Rolls Royce RB.207 engine nearly killed the A300 before it even flew. The breach of trust that opened up between Rolls Royce and Airbus was so large, over twenty years would elapse before a Rolls Royce engine was available on the Airbus aircraft- that was 1989 when Cathay Pacific Airlines specified the new Trent 700 engine for its A330s. Quite literally, the day after the French, British and German governments signed the agreement to create Airbus on 26 July 1968, the governments were getting a case of cold feet. For the French, that was the year the franc collapsed on the world currency markets and the French government began to have reservations about having three airline projects going on at once- Concorde, the Airbus A300, and the Dassault Mercure. It was clear that it was politically unfeasible to pull out of the Concorde program. Many French officials their faith in the 100% French program of the Dassault Mercure despite the protests of Airbus engineers that the Mercure would be a flop. That left Airbus on the cutting block. The redesign of the Airbus to a smaller aircraft to make off-the-shelf engines possible instead of the RB.207 saved the program as it cut the cost of the program and made it more appealing to potential customers- this was enough to give French officials cause to reconsider and not withdraw from Airbus. 

The British, however, were less than open-minded. In short, money had been put up to help with the launch of the BAC Three-Eleven which used two RB.211 engines. The smaller, redesigned A300 designated the A300B could now also use RB.211 engines, but that also put the new A300B square in competition with the BAC Three-Eleven. Lockheed and BAC were even in discussions on collaborating on the Three-Eleven and with the French economic malaise spreading through Europe, some in the British government wanted to put their bets on collaboration with the United States. Believe it or not, there was discussion by British officials about pulling out of Concorde, but again, like the French realized, that was politically unfeasible. That's not often realized that the British and French were considering pulling the plug on Concorde before it even made its first flight! 9 April 1969 was the first flight of the first British-built Concorde; on the day after, British officials met with their French counterparts to inform them the British were pulling out of Airbus. 

Karl Schiller, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs
British withdrawal from Airbus didn't come as a bolt out of the blue- the indications were there for over a year and the RB.207 fiasco made it clear that it was coming sooner rather than later. Earlier that year in 1969, the Germans made it known to the French that they would be willing to fill the gap in the Airbus consortium should the British pull out. At the time, the lion's share of the A300 was split between Great Britain and France with West Germany getting the remaining stake. Even though World War II had ended 25 years earlier, the German aircraft industry was still a hollow shell of its former self despite the consortium of seven German aircraft manufacturers that teamed together to form the West German contribution to Airbus. That the Germans were willing to step in to fill that possible gap is due to the efforts of two politicians. The first one was Karl Schiller, the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs. Schiller was a quiet, bespectacled economist that had made his name in West German politics focusing on rebuilding the economy. The other politician was more well-known, Franz Josef Strauss. Strauss was a boisterous Bavarian who never seemed to be far from scandal in German politics. In 1956, Strauss become the youngest defense minister in German history and was tasked with rebuilding the German military. The procurement of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter for the Luftwaffe was contentious and a Lockheed lobbyist testified that he had paid $10 million in bribes to Strauss to select the Starfighter. During this time, Lockheed had gotten itself entangled with bribery allegations with several different aircraft procurement programs to gain sales of the Starfighter. Strauss filed a slander suit against the lobbyist, but since the allegations couldn't be corroborated, the issue was dropped. The German magazine Der Spiegel then accused Strauss of taking bribes in the construction of German military facilities. The resulting controversy resulted in Strauss stepping down for having the editor and owner of Der Spiegel arrested and held in retribution. Strauss's political career was all but over had it not been for the 1966 elections that resulted in a coalition government and Strauss being tapped to be Minister of the Treasury to work with Karl Schiller in growing the German economy. 

Both Strauss and Schiller were an interesting pair that had common goals of growing the German economy. Schiller was quiet, Strauss was loud. Schiller was dry and Strauss was animated. Both liked the idea of Airbus as a project to tie Europe together. Strauss in particular had a strong dislike of nationalism as he felt it was counterproductive to economic prosperity- having a central role in Airbus would not only benefit West Germany, it would also economically tie the nation to the rest of Europe for the greater good and keep nationalism from raising its ugly head again. Strauss was a long time supporter of the German aviation industry and he was a private pilot himself. When the Luftwaffe selected the F-104 Starfighter, he was instrumental in getting license production for German industry with Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) building 260 F-104Gs for the Luftwaffe. Given Strauss's aviation connections, he was well aware of the British getting cold feet in 1969. Before the British pull out, Schiller and Strauss had sent ministers to France to let them know that if Britain were unwilling to support Airbus, the West German government was prepared to double its investment to as much as 50% of the program provided the French did the same. Given the economic climate of Europe at the time, that was an astoundingly generous offer on the table in the event of a British withdrawal from the consortium. 

An A300 wing set being loaded for delivery to Toulouse from Hawker's facilities.
Increasing German participation in Airbus in the event of a British pullout was part of what the coalition government from the West German 1966 elections wanted from Franz Josef Strauss and Karl Schiller- how to grow the nation's economy and despite the economic downturn of the time, the British pullout from Airbus presented an opportunity for the German economy. Once the British were out, negotiations began in earnest between West Germany and France on a new 50-50 workshare in Airbus. One of the few sticking points in the deal was that there was quite a bit of difference between the state of affairs of the West German aerospace industry and that of the French industry. Clearly the French were more built out and advanced in terms of their industrial capacity for large commercial aircraft production. This particular issue found its resolution via the solving the problem of the A300's wing which was the responsibility of Hawker Siddeley. The company was aghast with the British withdrawal from Airbus, but early on was very clear that it wanted to stay in Airbus even if the British government didn't contribute. Hawker was willing to fund 40% of the wing design and manufacture out of its own internal funds, but it needed the balance of the 60% to continue with Airbus. That majority portion of the funding for the A300's wing was to have come from the British government prior to their withdrawal. If Hawker was out, a new contractor for the wing would have to be secured and that was something the French didn't want as it was hard enough to convince the French government to continue supporting Airbus. Having to get a new wing would almost guarantee the death knell for Airbus and this was similarly the case for West Germany as well. They were on the cusp of getting a 50% stake in Airbus and there was no way for West Germany to go it alone if Hawker had to pull out and the French pulled the plug on their support. 

And that's at the moment Strauss intervened personally. He pressed the coalition government led by Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger to come up with the extra money to keep Hawker Siddeley in the consortium. Strauss sent word to Airbus that he was willing to double West Germany's financial contribution to Airbus from 500 million Deutschmarks to 1 billion Deutschmarks so Hawker's wing could be fully funded. Needless to say, Roger Béteille and his team at Airbus were quick to take up Strauss on his offer. The influx of German funds allowed Hawker to complete the work on the A300 wing with a fixed price contract for four wing sets- two for testing and two for the two prototype aircraft as well as the tooling and machinery to produce four wing sets per month for Airbus. 

Interestingly at the time of Strauss's intervention to save the Hawker wing, two of Germany's elder aircraft designers, Willy Messerschmitt and Ludwig Bölkow, insisted they had a better wing design than the Hawker wing. Both men were over 70 and claimed their wing was lighter and simpler than Hawker's design and pressed the government to abandon the British design. As one German official had put it, "We tried to prevent situations that could have been damaging for the two men, because basically one should not make famous people look ridiculous." Naturally the question became that if Messerschmitt's wing was lighter and simpler, could it still be strong and stand up to the strain of repeated takeoffs and landings in commercial service? The story goes that Messerschmitt took his design to Britain to lobby for it and was told something to the effect "Dr. Messerschmitt, I believe the fatigue life of a Bf 109 was about fifty hours provided it didn't meet a Spitfire!"

Strauss's work was crucial when Airbus was at its most vulnerable following the British withdrawal from the consortium. Strauss become the first head of Airbus's supervisory board in 1970. Increasing German participation in Airbus was also crucial to the rebuilding and expansion of the nation's aerospace industry. In honor of his contributions to supporting German aviation, the Munich Airport is named for Franz Josef Strauss. 

Source: Close to the Sun: How Airbus Challenged America's Domination of the Skies by Stephen Aris. Aurum Press, 2002, pp 35-46. Images: T-Mobile, Abendzeitung-Muenchen, Trucknetuk.com forum.

1 comment:

  1. Another great article!

    The story of the British answer to Willy Messerschmidt's lobbyist sounds apocryphal. The Brits would not have been stupid enough to antagonize their German ally in such a rude, unforgivable fashion. Especially since in 1945, the Brits and Yankees had been positively drooling over captured samples of another Messerschmidt design, the Me.262.