European plane manufacturer Airbus kicked off celebrations to mark its 50th anniversary with a spectacular flying formation over its home base in Toulouse last week.

The formation consisted of models from current Airbus families including the A220, A320NEO, A330NEO, A350, A380 as well as the Beluga XL transporter. The special flight also included Dassault Alpha jets from the Patrouille de France, the display team of the Armée de l’Air, the French Air Force.

The creation of Airbus came at a time in the Sixties when aircraft manufacturing was dominated by the American giants of Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed. European aircraft manufacturers had struggled to gain any real success since the end of WWII, with British aerospace manufacturers having long been hampered by strict design requirements from the British Government for their state owned airlines BOAC and BEA – the forerunners of today’s British Airways.

The result of this governmental involvement was that, while Britain created some fantastic aircraft, such as the Vickers VC-10, nobody else really wanted to buy them.

In a time when Europe was still healing following the war, it was felt in general that there was strength in unity and a clean-sheet approach was certainly the way to go to take on the Americans. Sadly, the British Government pulled out of the first Airbus project but reluctantly allowed the British aerospace company, Hawker Siddeley, to continue as supplier of the wings for the new aircraft.

History was finally made on 29th May  1969 when French Minister of Transport, Jean Chamant, and the West German Minister of Economic Affairs, Karl Schiller, signed an agreement which saw the creation of what would become Airbus. The first aircraft from the European consortium, the twin-engine, twin-aisle Airbus A300, first flew in 1972 and was aimed to be a lighter, more economical rival to the three-engined McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.

The UK had fully re-joined Airbus by 1979 and it was the next decade that would cement the company as a true aviation giant with the arrival of the narrowbody A320 in 1987. Aimed as a modern rival to Boeing’s then 20-year-old B737, the A320 brought along new technologies that were previously only seen in military aircraft. Fly-by-wire flight controls and composite construction techniques gave the A320 an unmatched advantage and the new plane had amassed, staggeringly, over 400 orders before it had even made its first flight.

Airbus continued to move forwards and saw the first flights of its A330 and A340 long haul aircraft in the Nineties, while 2005 saw the creation of the gigantic, double-deck A380. This behemoth of the skies may not have been the sales success that Airbus imagined, but it pushed the boundaries of what was possible and, for airlines like Emirates, it’s an aircraft that has been and shall continue to be a great success story.

Whilst the A380 is due to go out of production in 2021, Airbus has a new flagship in the form of the A350 which serves as an advanced, efficient, long range, widebody aircraft. The A350-900 ULR (Ultra Long Range) currently boasts the title of flying the longest route in the world, Singapore to New York, covering the 9,537 miles in just over 19 hours.

The A350 is also currently engaged in a battle of technical innovation and ingenuity against Boeing’s next generation of B777 that sees these aerospace leviathans vie to win Project Sunrise, a unique design challenge from Qantas. Laid down by the Australian airline in 2017, Qantas aim to launch non-stop flights from Sydney to London by 2022, with an order for the aircraft that will undertake these ground-breaking flights expected to be placed sometime in 2019. It’s a fascinating one to watch and has the potential to change how we all think about long-distance travel.

Times are certainly changing but, throughout its 50 years in existence, Airbus has continued to push the boundaries of technical excellence and has been a true masterclass in European integration and ambition. Airbus has risen to the challenge time and again and their pioneering spirit has advanced the aviation industry to deliver us all a superior, smarter and safer way to travel. We look forward to 50 more years of innovation and the continuing healthy rivalry with Boeing that helps advance the frontiers of aviation. Happy birthday Airbus!

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