Of sales and sidesticks

(The following article first appeared as a Comment in the 12 March 2013 Flight International)

When Flight International analysed the prospects for Airbus’s vaguely-named “SA” single-aisle twinjet in 1980, it declared that the “crucial question” facing the programme was “whether such an aircraft can compete against the attractions of aircraft such as the 737-300″.

If the internet had been around back then, Airbus’s response might simply have echoed a popular web-based meme: “challenge accepted”.

And how. After the A300 had hesitantly knocked on the door during the US-led manufacturing party, the A320 – controversial in its concept, but brilliant in its execution – simply gatecrashed it.

More than 1,800 have been delivered to North America, and nearly 1,000 more are still on the books. And just to underline the point, if such emphasis is even necessary, the future production line at Alabama means the new-fangled video-game jet won’t just be competing against the 737 – it will be carrying its own “Made in the USA” stickers.

The A320 has become so ubiquitous and its features so familiar in other modern jet designs, that the young pilots training to step into its cockpit today might not appreciate the stir its arrival created, a flavour of which Flight International captured when it flight-tested the type in 1987.

Fly-by-wire technology, electronic display screens, computers which gave the impression of knowing more than they rightly should. Not forgetting the ­replacement of the sturdy control yoke, with all its two-handed reassurance, with a delicate sidestick. To some old-school captains it must have felt like nothing short of digitally-driven emasculation.

Sidesticks and software, the future-shock advances which defined the A320, are as much a part of the aircraft’s legacy as its efficiency and economics. This aircraft, externally modest and unassuming, internally symbolises an entire Airbus philosophy and, from the outset, has fuelled arguments about the wisdom and benefits of advancement and automation.

With the A320, a smouldering transatlantic airliner battle blossomed into flame. How appropriate that, 25 years on, it finds itself clashing with another ambitious upstart from the other side of the ocean, the Canadian-built CSeries, with its own array of fly-by-wire architecture, whizz-bang avionics and – in case you missed them – sidesticks. If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, the A320 ought to feel incredibly smug. ■

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