27 January 2015

The Early Days of Airbus Industrie and How the A300 Got Its Name

Roger Béteille, father of Airbus Industrie
The roots of the formation of Airbus Industrie are tied more to the abilities of one man more than any other individual in the early history of the Airbus consortium- Roger Béteille. A graduate of the prestigious École Polytechnique, he was the technical director of Sud-Aviation in the mid-1960s. Sud-Aviation produced the Caravelle and it was Béteille who was the director of the jet's flight test program. In postwar Europe prior to the formation of Airbus, the Caravelle was only one of two commercial aircraft programs to make money (the other being the BAC One-Eleven). He also worked closely with Hawker Siddeley on the Concorde program- this was an experience that unique among the French technocrats of the time, gave him a close working relationship and mutual respect of the British aerospace establishment. In the aerospace industry of France in those days, someone of Béteille's skills was unique given his flawless English, the respect afforded by the British engineering staff at Hawker, and his political skills in working with several European nations in the course of his career at Sud-Aviation. 

In the summer of 1966 there were three proposed commercial aviation projects that were commanding the attention of the European industry. The first one was the BAC Two-Eleven, a successor to the successful BAC One-Eleven. That summer BAC was riding high on the success of the One-Eleven which at the time was one of Britain's most successful and profitable aerospace programs. But it was already facing significant competition from the Douglas DC-9 and the Boeing 737 and BAC had been lobbying the British government for support to launch the Two-Eleven which would have been powered by a new engine Rolls-Royce was developing, the RB.211, that would also go to the Lockheed Tristar. The Two-Eleven was a larger development of the One-Eleven that for the most part, was intended to get British European Airways (BEA) to drop its interest in the Boeing 727-200. The problem with BAC was that it was heavily committed to the Concorde program and had little financial resources to devote to the further developing the Two-Eleven which is why they were keen on approximately $100 million in launch funding from the British government. 

Hawker-Breguet-Nord HBN 100
In the previous year (1965), the head of Breguet Aviation, Henri Ziegler (who later became Airbus's first president) had inked an agreement with fellow French firm Nord Aviation and Hawker Siddeley in the UK to jointly work on a widebody twin called the HBN 100 that was largely the product of Hawker's engineers at their Hatfield facility. The HBN 100 was to have two variants, one with a passenger capacity for 225 and a stretched one with a capacity for 260. The planned engines were to be either the Pratt & Whitney JT9D that was under development at the time for the Boeing 747 or the Rolls Royce RB.178 which was a three-shaft demonstrator engine called the "Super Conway" that eventually led to the RB.211. At the same time as the HBN 100, Sud-Aviation (Roger Béteille's firm) was working the Galion which was very similar in layout, appearance and size to the HBN 100. The Sud-Aviation Galion evolved from what had started out as an enlarged Caravelle. 

Sud Aviation Galion
In 1966 Béteille invited his friends from Hawker Siddeley to Sud Aviation's facility in Toulouse to see if the design work on the HBN 100 and the Galion might be aligned towards a common joint project. That invitation for Arthur Howes, who headed the Hawker team, to come to Toulouse is what gave birth to the Airbus. It soon become a joint program with engineers from all the involved companies shuttling down to Toulouse as needed as the designs of the Galion and the HBN 100 were more closely aligned. That December at a meeting in London, France, Great Britain, and West Germany- I'll soon get to how the Germans entered the picture- decided that a single consortium would build a widebody twin. At time time, Concorde had two production lines- one in France and one in the UK, and on top of the financial costs of the program, the duplication of effort was something Roger Béteille wished to avoid so that an attractively priced aircraft could be offered to the world's airlines. It was agreed that in exchange for Rolls Royce developing a new engine for their design, the Sud Aviation Galion would form the baseline design to work from with the HBN 100 being sidelined. 

It was obvious at the time that any joint effort would be spearheaded by Britain and France, the only Western European nations at the time that had the industrial capacity for large commercial aircraft design and production. But the West Germans were keeping an eye on the developments and the use of the name "Airbus" in reference to the nascent project actually came from them. Even though it was twenty years after the end of World War II, the German aircraft industry was still in shambles. Many legendary names like Messerschmitt and Dornier were still around, but even those entities were hollow shells of their former selves. What engineering staff hadn't left Germany after the war debated the future of their industry and decided the future lay in collaboration on a civil aircraft project. The year before Roger Béteille invited the British to meet in Toulouse, seven German aircraft companies (ATG Siebelwerke, Bolkow, Dornier, Flugzeug-union Sud, Hamburger Flugzeugbau, Messerschimitt and VFW) formed Studiengruppe Airbus (the Airbus Study Group) to determine what sort of aircraft the future airline market would need. It was this grouping of German companies that contributed the Airbus name to the young enterprise. It was at the following year's Farnborough Air Show that German participation was formalized. Up to that point, the Germans had been working on their own but it was decided that what the French and British had come up with baselined off the Sud Aviation Galion was a suitable candidate for their contribution to the effort. Officially becoming Airbus, each nation decided that one company from each nation would take the lead for that nation's contribution. Hawker Siddeley would lead the British contribution, Sud Aviation would lead the French contribution and the German Airbus Study Group was reorganized into a formal consortium of their own, Airbus AG, to lead the German contribution. 

But what to name this aircraft? Arthur Howes of Hawker Siddeley was partial to the name "Obelix" which was the giant in the Asterix series of comic books popular in those days. It was apparent, though, that the name had to be something that was essentially neutral to British, French and German interests. One evening at a dinner in Sud Aviation's Paris headquarters the upper level of management at Sud Aviation asked why a name for the aircraft hadn't been found yet. Different ideas were punted about before Howes himself spoke up as a joke and said "I propose we call it the HSA 300" and the room laughed as "HSA" was the initials of Hawker Siddeley Aviation. But Howes continued "H- Hawker Siddeley, S- Sud Aviation, A- Airbus, and 300 because it's a nice round number." As everyone enjoyed Howes' joke, it suddenly donned on him- why don't we call it the A300? 300 is still a nice round number closest to the proposed design's seating capacity and if "A" was used, the aircraft would always appear before Boeing in any alphabetical listing. Howes idea proved popular and the nascent enterprise's new design would be marketed as the Airbus A300.

Further reading on this blog on the early history of Airbus:

How American Airlines Shaped the A300
How Rolls Royce Scuttled British Participation in Airbus

Related reading:
American Airlines Picks the DC-10 (American's pick of the DC-10 is intertwined with the early history of Airbus)

Source: Close to the Sun: How Airbus Challenged America's Domination of the Skies by Stephen Aris. Aurum Press, 2002, pp 6-11. Images: Wikipedia, Air International


  1. Nice article!

    "He also worked closely with Hawker Siddeley on the Concorde program"

    I think this needs a bit of expansion, as BAC was the British airframe contractor for Concorde. Was his HSA association through Bristol Siddeley, the British engine contractor?


  2. Starviking, I believe you are correct but I will have to double check and edit the article accordingly. Thanks for pointing that out.