21 July 2015

How a Lot of Airbus Jets Were Born on Boeing Wings

A340 fuselage barrel being loaded into 377SGT No. 3
With the formation of Airbus Industrie and the launch of the Airbus A300 jetliner, the different consortium partners finalized their workshare of the project- the tail section was the responsibility of the Spanish, the British were responsible for the wings, the Dutch fabricated all the moving surfaces of the wing, the Germans built the forward and aft fuselage along with the top section of the center fuselage, and the French were responsible for the nose, flight deck, control systems, the lower section of the center fuselage and final assembly of the A300. Splitting up the construction of a commercial aircraft in this manner wasn't necessarily new to the aerospace industry- after all, Boeing had about 65% of the Boeing 747 farmed out to various subcontractors with over 20,000 companies in just about every one of the fifty US states and some foreign nations. But what was novel in what Airbus was doing was that it was the very heart of the enterprise with the partner nations assuming near-equal risk. This would be how every Airbus jet would be built and each partner nation would build their sections to as near complete as possible. For Boeing, they retained oversight and control over what their 747 subcontractors would be doing and providing. For the A300, each Airbus partner wasn't overseeing each other- they were more or less having to trust that each partner would provide a finished product that met the specifications and could be easily integrated into final assembly in France. This required each firm to work in near-perfect harmony and coordination with the other consortium members. There was no margin for error- it has been said that if a Swiss watch were scaled up to the same diameter as the A300's fuselage, the tolerances on the A300 were much tighter than that of the Swiss watch!

Parts were designed in such a way to facilitate this process, but other steps were necessary for proper coordination. At the Hawker Siddeley plant in the UK that built the wings, for example, they had special jigs that the wings could be "plugged" into that replicated the fuselage center section that they would join up with in the final assembly hall in Toulouse. More difficult was getting each nation to adopt the same production techniques. During the early days, engineers at Airbus joked how easy it was to tell whether a particular join in the aircraft was done by the French or Germans. But it had to work and with great perseverance, the A300 was coming to shape. 

Surprisingly, in the early days of Airbus, the biggest problem they faced in getting the A300 into production was the logistics of having factories in France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain and the Netherlands all separated by significant distances. The straight line distance from Germany's Hamburg production facility to the final assembly hall in Toulouse was 900 miles. It was originally planned that all the large sections would be transported by sea- this was why the German Airbus facilities were in Bremen and Hamburg which had easy sea access and the Hawker facility had good road links to the port at Liverpool. Toulouse, however, is about 100 miles inland with no sea access. The original plan was to transport the fuselage and wing sections up the Garonne River from Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast. Because of the depth of the river and the size of the components, they would only be able to up about 50 miles from Bordeaux at which point the components were transferred to a road convoy- to minimize disruption along the route to Toulouse, it had to be done at night and numerous telephone poles, trees and power lines would have to be relocated. Some of the transport vehicles would be near 100-feet in length and it wasn't long before Airbus officials came to their senses and realized that this was a very inefficient and time-consuming process to get airframe components to final assembly. 

Airbus Skylink, Felix Kracht's solution for Airbus' logistical problem
The A300 production manager was a German engineer named Felix Kracht. Before joining the nascent Airbus in 1968, Kracht had worked on harmonizing production methods and standards on the Franco-German C160 Transall military transport program. About the time that the A300 program had been launched, Kracht was familiar with Aero Spacelines and its founder, Jack Conroy. Aero Spacelines was established by Conroy to convert Boeing 377 Stratocruisers into outsize cargo transports for NASA. Not only did ASI design and convert the aircraft, they also operated the aircraft as well. The first conversion was done in 1962 using a retired Stratocruiser and was called the Pregnant Guppy which transported both Titan II stages for the Gemini program and Saturn stages for the Apollo program. By 1970 a bigger and more capable Guppy had made its first flight- longer and more capacious than any of Conroy's other designs, the new Super Guppy Turbine (377SGT) was turboprop-powered. The first 377SGT made its first flight after conversion on 24 August 1970 and the second 377SGT first flew on 24 August 1972. By this point, however, ASI was in financial trouble and that's where Felix Kracht and Airbus stepped into the picture. He astutely realized its capacious fuselage and swing-nose loading were the perfect solution to the logistical problem of getting large airframe sections to Toulouse for final assembly. In 1970, Kracht had arranged for Airbus to purchase the first 377SGT with delivery in 1971. The purchase deal included a contractual commitment from ASI to build a second 377SGT as a back up for Airbus to serve as a back up for the first 377SGT. With ASI in dire financial straits in 1973 as the Apollo program was winding down, Airbus purchased the second 377SGT built. Plans then evolved once A300 production had been launched for a third and fourth 377SGT to be built for Airbus. By this point ASI was in no position to complete construction of two more aircraft, but they did complete sub-assemblies which were then completed in France. The third 377SGT first flew in 1979 and the fourth and final 377SGT first flew in 1980. 

Operating the Super Guppy fleet wasn't cheap, but in terms of time savings and efficiency, the cost was worthwhile compared to any sea/ground-based transport option. As the battle with Boeing heated up in the late 1970s, Boeing criticized what was called the Airbus Skylink program but Airbus responded by overlying a map of Boeing's subcontractors over a map of the Airbus partners to show the distances flown by the Super Guppies was shorter than the distances from Boeing's subcontractors to final assembly in Seattle. By the 1980s, though, the age of the Super Guppy fleet was becoming a significant cost center for Airbus. In 1991, the French company Aerospatiale and the German company DASA formed a joint enterprise to develop and build a replacement for the venerable Super Guppy fleet, ironically based on the A300. Construction of the Airbus Beluga began in September 1992 with the first flight taking place in 1994. A total of five Belugas have been built with the last one completed in 1999 which allowed for the retirement of the Super Guppy fleet. 

377SGT No. 4, now N941NA operated by NASA
Super Guppy No. 1 was retired in 1996 and resides at the British Aviation Heritage Museum at Bruntingthorpe awaiting proper restoration. Super Guppy No. 2 was also retired in 1996 and is on display at the Airbus facility at Toulouse and is under the care of the group Ailes Anciennes Toulouse ("Toulouse Old Wings"). The Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace at Le Bourget was offered Super Guppy No. 2 initially, but they had to decline on account of space considerations. Super Guppy No. 3 was retired in 1997 and is on display at the Deutsche Airbus facility at Hamburg Finkenwerder, Germany. Super Guppy No. 4, however, continues to earn its keep, but no longer for Airbus. In an International Space Station barter agreement, Super Guppy No. 4 was transferred to NASA in exchange for delivery to the ISS by the Space Shuttle components from the European Space Agency. Now with tail number N941NA, the NASA Super Guppy transported ISS modules destined for in-orbit assembly and currently transports launch payloads. 

As an interesting note on Super Guppy No. 4/N941NA- when Aero Spacelines was building the sub-sections for Airbus, the company found that there were no more spare Boeing 377 Stratocruisers that could be cannibalized to form the lower aft fuselage. The dismantled original Pregnant Guppy that first flew in 1962 was still available and was purchased for its lower aft fuselage which was incorporated into Super Guppy No. 4/N941NA. Now here's what's interesting- the Pregnant Guppy was converted from the third Boeing Stratocruiser prototype that made its first flight in 1948! That means that not just a significant portion of Airbus jets produced made their "first flight" on the third Stratocruiser prototype (so to speak), but so did some of the modules of the ISS. 

Further reading: 

Related reading:

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

Sources: Close to the Sun: How Airbus Challenged America's Domination of the Skies by Stephen Aris. Agate Books, 2002, pp 56-62. "All About Guppys" at www.allaboutguppys.com. Photos: Wikipedia, Airbus.

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