I love this picture.
Put on your beret and grab a baguette - today we're flying a French airplane.

Well, it's actually French, German and a little bit British even. I'm talking about the A300 or simply "The Bus" as we call it at my company.

That plane sitting next to you that looks a lot like a 767 but isn't, is probably an Airbus A300. I got to fly these for a couple years before the economy went south in 2008 and I was assigned to the lower-paying (but beautiful) 757.

I plan on doing a more extensive Airbus vs Boeing comparison at some point, but for today I'll just talk about the A300.

I won't go too much into the development of the A300. It's already been nicely covered here A freight in the night - the A300B4-103F.

The short version is American Airlines wanted a more-efficient wide body airliner with only two engines. McDonnell-Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing were all busy building DC-10s, L1011s and 747s at the time so they weren't interested. They gave European upstart Airbus the contract and the end result was the A300.

So arguably the 767 is a "copy" of the A300 and not the other way around as many people think.

Easily mistaken for a 767
In a lot of ways it was ahead of its time. It has most of the elements of a "modern" airliner. Two-person "glass" cockpit, two high-bypass turbofans, an integrated Flight Management System (FMS), structural use of composite materials (more on that later) and a very efficient wing.

Now, there are a lot of different flavors of A300 out there. The original ones had a three-person cockpit with a flight engineer and had traditional "steam gauges".

A few years later they made a shortened version called an A310, at the same time introducing a two-person cockpit with a mix of flat-panel displays and round dials. The later A300-600s also went with the same cockpit as the A310.

You can tell an A310 because it kind of looks like a tadpole. It's as wide and tall as an A300 but a lot shorter.

At my company, on any given night I might find myself in an A300-600 (biggest), an A310-200 (oldest) or an A310-300 (newest). We were able to do this because they all had the same cockpit, the same systems and thus a common type-rating.

Engines were a mix of several GE and Pratt & Whitney flavors. I preferred the GE's. The Pratts took forever to start, but worked fine once you got 'em going.

Get up close to one and it's a lot bigger than you think. I could walk under the belly without hitting my head on anything. The landing gear struts are massive. The same guy who designed the Eiffel Tower must have worked on these.

Preflight is pretty simple. There's not a lot to inspect, unlike the 727 where you had to crawl up inside and look at the innards.

Once inside, you're a ways up. I've flown heavier planes but never one where you sat up so high. The cockpit is roomy enough, once you get into the seat, but it's a little tight getting in and out. They don't make cockpits any bigger than they need to - they're rather use the extra space to carry more passengers or freight.

Everyone associates Airbus with side-stick controllers and fly-by-wire, but the A300 has a more traditional yoke and hydraulic flight controls.

A300 Cockpit
The cockpit is a mix of old and new. There are flat-panel displays but some instruments are still round dials. The two lower displays allow you to bring up schematics of all the aircraft's systems. I thought this was a really nice feature because you could see, for example, the position of all the valves and the various air temperatures in the pressurization system.

It has a lot of thrust, and the climb rate is impressive. The 757 is a hot-rod but the Bus will out climb it to at least 30,000 feet.

Not much happens after that, unfortunately. It goes up in a hurry but once you get there it's slow. Top speed is around .82 mach and it cruises at .80 mach. These days everyone else pretty much cruises at .80 to save gas so it's not that big of a deal.

It's easy enough to hand fly. The controls are very light, almost too light, and the plane is very responsive for something so large.

It's really meant to be flown using the automation. The FMS can control both the vertical and horizontal path of the aircraft. You program it and it takes you where you tell it to go. Unfortunately the processor is roughly equivalent to a Commodore 64 and you can confuse it if you throw too many changes at it too quickly.

It has all the bells and whistles you'd expect in a modern airliner - autothrottles, autobrakes, autospoilers. Fuel management is largely automatic. It will even shift fuel to the tail to get an aft CG for better cruise economy.

It's easy to become too reliant on all that automation. Once in a while it's good to turn all the magic stuff off and keep your manual skills sharp. Sometimes I'd have to remind myself that I flew around for 20+ years before I so much as saw an autothrottle.

It lands easy enough. You're sitting so high up that it can be hard to judge your height above the runway. I would rely on the very British sounding voice that counted down the radar altitude. When "Nigel" said "20 feet" I'd start to flare and when I heard "10" I'd finesse the last few feet to (maybe) get a smooth landing.

That massive landing gear is very stiff-legged, so teeth-jarring landings were not uncommon. The autospoilers deploy very aggressively, so if you touch one wheel first the other mains are coming down right now whether you want them to or not. The landing gear is very sturdy. It's normally bad form to land in a "crab" but if you do the plane will just shrug it off.

It will stop in a hurry, especially if you use the "medium" setting on the autobrakes. We would take these into fairly small airports like Burbank (5800' runway). It even has electric fans to cool the brakes after landing.

I do have a few nitpicks with this aircraft. I already mentioned that it's slow. I thought it had a rough ride. The wing is very stiff and in turbulence it will ride like a speedboat going through choppy water. At higher altitudes the airspeed margin between maximum and stall speed is fairly narrow. When faced with weather your options might be to climb and take your chances or stay in the mid 30's and take the beatings.

Then there's that composite tail. This was the first major use of composites in an airliner and there have been issues with it.

The infamous A300 crash in 2001 (AA 587 out of JFK) was probably due to the First Officer incorrectly "walking" the rudder from full-stop to full-stop to full-stop after encountering wake turbulence.

The rudder on an airliner is stressed for full deflection at maneuvering speed - but it's not stressed for that kind of back and forth. Note that even Boeing flight manuals warn against such a maneuver. Also the rudder controls on the A300 were very sensitive. Except for takeoffs and landings - I didn't even put my feet on the rudder pedals.

I certainly never felt unsafe flying them. Every plane his its strengths and weaknesses. You just have to know what they are and how to handle them.

I'm told that the our maintainers don't like the Airbus. They're mostly 1970s technology and there are a lot of mechanical relays that can break. We're getting rid of our older A310s because they're getting to the point where they require a lot of work to keep them going.

From a dollars and sense standpoint I can see why the company likes these. They can carry a lot of freight (up to 100,000 pounds or so) for not a lot of fuel.

I mostly enjoyed flying them. The routes were good, especially flying around Europe. It wasn't a sports car like the 727, but it was a nice comfortable family sedan that got the job done.

C'est bon.

Originally posted to Major Kong on Wed Jan 30, 2013 at 06:26 PM PST.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force and Central Ohio Kossacks.


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