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America ruled commercial aviation, but then came Airbus

Fifty years ago Wednesday, Europe began to challenge the US monopoly on building commercial airliners with the development of the Airbus A300.


During the earliest days of the commercial jet age in the 1960s, the global aviation market was dominated by two American companies: Boeing and Douglas Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas). Airliners like the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 rocketed between continents, making the world smaller and allowing people to fly who had never done so before.


Air France's first A300 flight was from Paris to London.


But as the decade closed, just as the massive Boeing 747 first took to the skies, Europe wanted in. Though France, the UK and the Netherlands were building their own jets like the elegant Caravelle and the mighty VC-10, most European airliners were still buying American planes.

Realizing that they needed to combine resources if they were to compete, several British, French and German companies, including the two firms that built the Concorde, formed Airbus 50 years ago Wednesday, May 29. And almost five years later on May 23, 1974, its first aircraft, the Airbus A300, entered service with Air France.


An A300 that formerly flew with Pan Am is on display at the Aeroscopia Aeronautical Museum (Musée Aeroscopia Aéronautique) in Toulouse, France near Airbus headquarters. 

Kent German/CNET

Europe strikes back

When it first flew in 1972, the A300 was designed to compete squarely with the Douglas DC-10 and the Lockheed L-1011. Also a wide-body aircraft, it could carry a similar passenger load (around 266) on short- and medium-range routes within Europe. But unlike its trijet American rivals, the A300 had only two General Electric CF6 engines, making it cheaper to operate.


A300s under construction at Airbus' main assembly plant.


Like all subsequent Airbus planes, sections of the A300 were produced throughout Europe and ferried to the company's final assembly plant in the southwestern French city of Toulouse. Though eventually entire A300 sections would be transported in Super Guppy freight aircraft, the prototype aircraft was driven to the factory in a convoy through tiny French villages. It was an unusual scene that would become a normal occurrence when Airbus started building the A380 in 2007.  

Now playing: Watch this: On the road with an Airbus A380

After an initial burst of sales in Europe and Asia, A300 sales slowed in the mid-1970s. Airbus even took the plane on a world tour to promote it to airlines. But the A300 got a break in 1978 when Eastern Airlines became the first US customer with an order for 23 planes. Pan Am followed the same year, giving Airbus a foothold in a critical market.

That initial success went on to birth an Airbus family. A shortened version of the A300, called the A310, flew in 1982. Airbus later adapted the A300 into the BelugaST transport aircraft. Later, in the 1990s, it also adopted the longer range A330 and A340 into the BelugaST. (The giant double-decker A380 is another beast, literally, altogether.)


For its Golden Anniversary today, current Airbus planes joined France's Patrouille de France aerobatic demonstration team for a formation flight.


The A300 also changed as it progressed. Initially it had a three person flight crew -- pilot, co-pilot and engineer -- but later versions eliminated the flight engineer position. Also, while A300 pilots used control columns to fly the plane, Airbus cockpits later adopted sidesticks for control starting with the short-range A320 in 1987.

Today the A300 is out of production and though most passenger versions have left service, FedEx and UPS still operate fleets of the successful A300 freighter. An A300 also flies with the European Space Agency as a zero gravity training aircraft. But the A300's biggest legacy is Airbus' success as an airplane manufacturer. Because now its Boeing, which absorbed McDonnell Douglas in 1997, and Airbus that are locked in a fierce rivalry. (But that didn't stop Boeing today from wishing Airbus "Happy Birthday.")

It took time, but Europe definitely caught up.