Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Jubilee for the Airbus' Workhorse: the A320

On February 22, 1987, a legend took to the air for the first time. It was not the fanciest western fighter jet with the fastest speed or newest gadgets. It was not the largest transport to defy gravity and lumber into the air. It was a homely looking airliner, which would place Europe on the pinnacle of commercial aviation, start up a new generation of pilots and passengers who prefer to fly with the comforts of the newest gadgets; such as mood lighting, and computer managing systems.

"What, no steering column? Fighter jet-like control sticks?! Awesome!"

It was one of the first airliners to take into consideration the ergonomics of the pilots themselves. It was also the first airliner to fly with digital fly-by-wire technology (meaning the controls in the cockpit are managed digitally to machines that control the surface of the aircraft rather than pulleys directly connected to the cockpit). This aircraft was developed with the technology and ideas that pushed the threshold of commercial aviation. And most importantly, it gave the American dynasty of airliners (built by McDonnell Douglas and the Boeing Company) a run for their money. European airlines finally had a reliable airliner that has proximate access to its engineers and parts.

At the time, there were only a few aircraft that were being built to transport passengers between short and medium routes: The Boeing 737 series, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series, the Fokker (quit snickering, I bet you also chuckle at a can of Heinz Spotted Dick). 70, the Fokker 100, and the Tupolev Tu-154M. Before anyone asks, I am solely including aircraft that can do short AND medium range routes built around the 1980s. The British Aerospace 146 series, the de Havilland Canada Dash 8 series, the Embraer 120, the Fokker 50, and the Antonov An-74.

For the record, I am a Boeing fan, just like I like Coca-Cola over Pepsi-Cola, or personal computers over Apple Inc. hardware. My preference has been for the Seattle, Washington based company. There are exceptions, however, as I believe that some Airbus aircraft a superbly brilliant. Their first aircraft, the A300, revolutionized the aviation industry by showing that medium and long range aircraft can run more efficiently on two engines. Or the Airbus A340-300, which showed that an airline can fly passengers on long range routes with the engines of smaller jetliners (the CFM-56 engines that power the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320), Or the A330, which show that beauty can go hand in hand with designing Spartan efficiency. 

But there is something to respect about the interesting design of the Airbus A320. It was the first airliner to rely more on the computer than the pilot. Before this specific aircraft, the priority of the airliner workload depended on the pilots with the electronics assisting them. But Airbus went the opposite direction, believing that technology was finally capable of commanding the majority of controls of the aircraft, with the pilot ensuring that all goes well. It revolutionized the commercial aviation industry but also polarized it as well. Many pilots and airline managers favored relying on the experience and capabilities of the pilot and hated this concept. This made them turn towards airliner manufacturers like the Boeing Company. Other pilots and airline managers, meanwhile, loved this concept and flew this aircraft. This polarization grew in strength when other airline companies, like Fokker and McDonnell Douglas, folded and left the medium range market with two workhorses, the Boeing 737 (with the New Generation series like the -600, -700, -800, and -900) and the Airbus A320 series (with a variety of sizes ranging from the smallest, the A318, the smaller, the A319, and the biggest of the series, the A321).

There were some problems with pilots embracing and working with the new technology. One of the finer examples was when a pilot miscalculated the capabilities of the A320 computer and crash landed it when it flew on autopilot into the trees during one of its first flights.

Air France flight 296...I have a blog post déjà vu sensation. As if I had already written about this before.

But the airliner worked. It flew with famous airlines, was the first airliner of a start-up company, or was the final aircraft on a doomed airline.
And yet, few people knew Braniff flew A320s. Or worse yet, few remember or know of the existence of Braniff International Airways

In fact, some make headline news:
Miracle on the Hudson River: US Airways flight 1549

Whatever the case, the Airbus A320 has had a marvelous 25 years of flight. Here is to another 25 years.

Image Credits:
Wikimedia Commons: