When Airbus Industrie rolled out its first A300 at Toulouse in September 1972, the aircraft received perhaps less attention from the assembled crowd than it deserved. Parked opposite was one of the prototype Concordes, which was still grabbing headlines around the world. Yet, while the sleek supersonic airliner may have turned heads, it was the A300, the world's first widebody twinjet, which in fact was destined to herald in a new future for Europe's civil aircraft industry.

Like the Concorde, it was a gamble - a calculated risk challenging conventional wisdom. Unlike those of the Concorde, sales of the A300 were eventually to take off, laying the foundation for the Airbus widebody family.

The key to the family concept lay with a major decision by former Airbus president Roger Béteille. Recognised by many as one of the main driving forces behind Airbus, it was he who saw the virtue of establishing a fuselage diameter which was able to accommodate standard LD3 containers while still providing plenty of width, and hence comfort, for passengers.

"The problem was that, for a given size of aircraft, there is always a technically optimum fuselage diameter," says Béteille. "Circular is the lightest section, and therefore the best - but only if the cabin can be properly organised. A circular section for a 200- to 300-seat aircraft produces a best diameter of 5.54m. We had a lot of discussion about that, because there was a school of thought which saw the wider fuselages of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Boeing 747 as offering a better solution. In the end, though, we settled on the minimum diameter compatible with the lightest aircraft possible."

This raised a problem, however, which was that LD3s would not fit under the cabin floor "-so weincreased the diameter by 100mm and raised the cabin floor. It meant we had a 300kg weight penalty, but, as a result, the aircraft became a much better tool for the airlines".

The decision to develop a short/medium-range twin, instead of a three-engined aircraft like the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed TriStar then under development in the USA, reflected Béteille's conviction, which had been supported in several UK and French design studies, that a twin was essential for meeting the tough airline requirements on operating economics. A major influence came from the then American Airlines president Frank Kolk. "He was a real expert in the selection of aircraft," recalls Béteille. "Kolk and his team had written a detailed specification for the 200- to 300-seat requirement - and their 'ideal' aircraft was a twin. Much of it formed the basis for the A300 design."

In the event, it was a long time before American Airlines committed to buying Airbus aircraft - but there is little doubt that the influence of the Kolk specification was a major factor in helping the aircraft gain credibility in the USmarket.

The first A300 to fly was the result of a "secret" design study by Béteille on a smaller aircraft than the 300-seater originally envisaged, to be powered by the Rolls-Royce RB.207 turbofan. R-R's stronger commitment to the TriStar, with its smaller RB.211, coupled with Béteille's realisation that the 250-seater "-which was what the market really wanted" could be powered by the existing General Electric CF6-50, saw the aircraft then being planned being replaced by the "B" version, which was flown for the first time in October 1972.

Following the Air France requirement for improved direct operating costs, the fuselage was stretched to accommodate 252 passengers in two-class configuration, this aircraft becoming the "B2". The stretch "-was made under pressure from Air France chairman Pierre Cot and, within three days, Airbus had presented the B2 in revised configurations", says former Airbus vice president of new products policy co-ordination Derek Brown, adding that it was a "-a good example of Airbus' commercial flexibility".

The B2 was the first Airbus model to enter service, with Air France, in May 1974. Later, the A300B4 was introduced with an increase in range to 5,550km (3,000nm) against the 2,220km of the original B version, while maximum take-off weight grew to 165t. The first B4 was the ninth aircraft to come off the production line, and was certificated in March 1974 for delivery to the first customer, Germanair, a year later.

Later, the B2 received several modifications, most significant of which was the incorporation of Kruger flaps to improve take-off performance. The Pratt & Whitney JT9D become a firm second optional powerplant on the A300 from 1977: although several customers specified the engine, this version was never as popular as the original GE-powered aircraft.

In October 1974, Airbus landed its first major non-European customer, Korean Air, which placed orders for six B4s. "It was difficult to sell the A300 in the early days as everyone was convinced that the product support wasn't going to be good," says vice president strategic planning Adam Brown. The orders from Korean Air, and later Thai International, were important as it got the aircraft operating thousands of miles away from our base and enabled us to prove that our support worked."

One of the most important landmarks in the entire Airbus programme was passed in July 1977, when the A300 finally touched down in Boeing and McDonnell Douglas' backyard. After months of careful negotiations, Airbus had finally secured its first North American customer - Eastern Airlines.

"The Eastern order opened up the North American market and clinched the future of the A300 and Airbus-Eastern saw the potential of the big twin and there was no comparable US aircraft on offer," recalls Derek Brown. "The A300 complemented Eastern's TriStars and although Airbus had to offer a sharply commercial deal, Eastern ordered 34 aircraft," he says.

Having provided the world with the first widebodied twin, Airbus was also the first to develop a high-capacity airliner with a two-person flight-deck, which was introduced on Garuda's A300s in 1982. The so-called Forward Facing Crew Cockpit (FFCC) had borne out Béteille's conviction that a modern airliner "-had no need of a flight engineer-I had always believed the size of an aircraft had nothing to do with crew tasks".

By the mid-1970s, the Airbus team was considering three derivatives based around the A300 fuselage, called the B9, B10 and B11. The first was a major stretch of the A300, the second a short-fuselage version and the third a four-engined very-long-range aircraft.

It was decided that the B10 was required by the market first, and after a failed attempt by Boeing to convince Airbus to develop the aircraft jointly (when the B10 became, briefly, the BB10), the A300-B10, later becoming the A310, was launched in July 1978 - just one week before Boeing's similarly sized, twin-engined, rival, the 767. The A310, some 13 frames shorter than the A300B4, was the first real extension of the Airbus family, and was a vital step in convincing airlines that Airbus was in the market to stay.

The A310 was offered from the start with both the General Electric CF6, and Pratt & Whitney JT9D (a R-R RB.211-powered version was also studied). Lufthansa and Swissair both placed order commitments at the launch (selecting the GE and P&W engines respectively). This was the first time in European aviation history that airlines had ordered an aircraft so early in the programme. The A310, and later the A320, maintained a technological approach which has become an Airbus hallmark, following Béteille's philosophy that "-you cannot compete with a dominant or monopoly player if you don't offer something different".

The main advance was in the wing, which was a completely new high-performance design from Hawker Siddeley (which was then absorbed by British Aerospace, joining the A310 programme as a full member of the consortium on 1 January, 1979). The wing, which featured a distinct twist at the root, and was smaller for its function than any previous design, combined the two requirements of a healthy, 7,000km range, with efficient short-range performance.

While optimising the A310's performance for its short- and medium-range missions, the small wing hindered the aircraft's ultimate long-range capability. "In hindsight, I think we should probably have put a larger wing on the A310," says Adam Brown, "as the smaller design lacks fuel volume and area to provide very long range sought by customers in more recent years."

Other innovations on the A310 included new, smaller, horizontal tail surfaces with a carbonfibre composite main structure manufactured by CASA, carbonfibre composite fin and common engine pylons able to accommodate for the first time both GE and P&W engines.

The A310 went into service with a new, two-crew, cockpit based around the FFCC. The digital flightdeck was based around six screens, two in the centre dedicated to central aircraft monitoring and a further four at the sides for navigation and primary flight display. New, push-button, technology was introduced, combining, and therefore simplifying, many of the tasks previously needing separate operations.

The development A310 had its first flight on 3 April, 1982, painted in Lufthansa colours on one side, and Swissair's on the other. The baseline A310-200 entered service with the two carriers in March 1983. A longer-range version, the A310-300, was given a go-ahead in March 1983 and introduced by Swissair in December 1985.

Meanwhile, the Airbus team had decided that the technology improvements which yielded the A310 should be applied to the A300B4. The result was an aircraft with at least twice the productivity of the original A300, featuring the improvements from the A310 and a new, ergonomic, cockpit design by Porsche. The A300-600 was launched in 1980 and delivered to the first customer, Saudi Arabian Airlines, in March 1984. Besides offering total commonality with the A310 cockpit, the A300-600 featured increased use of composites, a major aerodynamic clean-up to reduce drag, carbon brakes and wingtip fences. The fuselage parallel section was stretched by three frame pitches, while the rear section, taken from the A310, was shortened by two pitches, the change providing space for an extra container, and more passengers. An increased-range version, the A300-600R which featured a fuel trim tank in the tailplane, was introduced by American Airlines in April 1988.

Airbus has offered cargo versions of the A300 and A310 since the early days of the programmes, but the first major freighter order was not received until July 1991, when FedEx placed firm orders for 25 A300-600R freighters, with reconfirmable orders and options for a further 50. Deliveries to FedEx began in April 1994, and the express-parcels specialist has also undertaken a major conversion programme of ex-airline A310s. BAe and Dasa Airbus both offer cargo conversions for the A300, and between them have commitments for the conversion of more than 60 ex-airline A300B4s.

While the A310-300 and A300-600 remain in production, orders are now running at a trickle. Airbus is considering replacements, but has not yet seen adequate market demand. "The A300 market has grown to that of the [250-seat] A330-200, while liberalisation has seen the traditional A310 markets replaced by the A321," says Adam Brown. "While the A300/A310 set the yard-stick for medium-range widebody operations, it lacks the range and operational flexibility of the 767-we may eventually see them missing from our product line-up." Brown adds that any new-generation 200-seater will need not-yet-extant technologies to justify its development: "The new engines being developed for the A340-600 form part of the equation", he says.

Source: Flight International