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Airbus v Boeing – A Pilots Perspective.

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As the autopilot disconnect horn chirped in the flightdeck I had to remind myself not to move the sidestick too much in response to the turbulence that was tossing my Airbus 330 around the sky like a cork in a rough sea.  I left the auto thrust on and let the ground speed mini function work it’s magic while I fought the urge to move the controls back and forth in response to every wing drop, trusting the flyby wire system to do its job while I used minor inputs to keep the widebody aircraft on glide path through 1000 feet. 

The winds weren’t anywhere near the max crosswind of 45 knots, but there were reports of wind sheer on final and the gusty 30 knot cross wind was going to be the strongest I’d landed in in my second month operating the Airbus 330. 

Just over a year ago I had begrudgingly made the transition from my beloved Boeing 737 NG to the Airbus 320 aircraft (and eventually a330). I had many reasons to be enamored with the Boeing workhorse, it was my first Airline command, I had been an instructor on the aircraft for 4 years and knew the aircraft inside and out, I enjoyed the schedule and most importantly it was a joy to fly. 

The main difference I found very quickly was the flight control system, not just the side stick but the entire fly by wire system and the rationale behind it.  In the 737 If I were to be working a heavy crosswind like the one mentioned above I’d be working the yoke back and forth like a champ to keep the wings level as there isn’t a fly by wire computer telling the flight control system to keep the wings in the last attitude commanded by my inputs as on the Airbus. 

The Airbus vs Boeing debate is age old, I’ve heard many a comment including from a Boeing fanboy instructor about the inferiority of the European design, heck I’ve even agreed with some of the critiques and now as an experienced Airbus training pilot I still agree with a few.  I miss my direct control of the aircraft, the ability to know exactly what the auto pilot (or new copilot) was doing by just having a few fingers on yoke and a relaxed hand on the trust lever loosely following along with the AP control inputs while I keep my head outside in busy airspace or on final approach. 

It took me about five sim sessions to stop just being skeptical of the Airbus, and start to appreciate the positive aspects of their approach to building an airplane.  For starters, the flight deck is significantly more comfortable a workspace, less cramped and while the side stick took some getting used to, it’s location allows for the amazing tray table (no longer eating my meals on my lap like an animal has its perks!) and the ability to move your legs around.  It also allows for you to use the quick reaction checklist (QRH) much more efficiently since you can just leave it open to a particular page and not have to stash it on the dash or worry about it falling off your lap while flicking switches.  (More checklist on usage below)

The main difference as touched on before is the flight control “law” system utilized in the ‘bus’.   Where as in a normal aircraft if you want to turn left 25 degrees you turn the control column to the left apply a slight back pressure to maintain altitude and hold some measure of input in to maintain the turn upon reach 25 degrees, not so the Airbus.  Instead you move the sidestick to the left, no need to apply backstick until above 30 degrees, and upon reaching 25 degrees angle of bank you can release the stick and the flight control system will maintain the “requested” angle of bank and pitch attitude.  It is not uncommon for Airbus pilots (especially new ones like me last year) to forget the aircraft is not on auto pilot when you can set a heading and attitude and take your hand off the stick and watch the aircraft hold both perfectly.  Any deviation (ie a wing drop due to turbulence) and the system will counter it automatically to maintain the selected path.  Hence my reminder on short final on a windy day not to “fight” the turbulence with opposite control inputs as I would on the Boeing, but to let the system do it’s job. 

There are multiple levels of complexity to the flight control system on the bus that would take many more pages to describe (and many more years of flying on my part to fully understand) but a few examples are, flare mode, Alternate law, soft cruise mode, direct law, alpha protection etc.  but suffice it to say a control system like this is reliant on a complicated network of computers (5 flight control computers on the 330 and 7 on the 320) heck losing both Radio Altimeters is actually an event in the Airbus as it will eventually force you into direct law on final (which can at times feel like balancing on the head of a needle control wise) meanwhile the only thing affected on the Boeing in normal operations would be the auto callout system. 

One other main difference between the Boeing and the Airbus is the way critical information is presented to the pilot, the annunciation system on the 737 would not look out of place on an older era 727 or even 707, when a system failure not directly in line of sight of the pilot (ie – on the overhead panel) is triggered a master caution annunciation illuminated on the glare shield directing the pilots attention to a small illuminated annunciation telling the pilot where to look on the overhead panel.  As an added bonus only systems directly above the pilot or co pilot are displayed on their respective annunciator, so as a Captain if there is an issue with the pressurization system it will be highlighted on the first officer’s  annunciator, you then look up to see which specific system is malfunctioning by the presence of an amber light on the overhead panel for example a Gen 1 fault.  This may sound straightforward in theory (and I believed it so for the 5 years I operated the 737) but time is wasted determining the fault and it can be open to miss identification as well.  A typical fault illuminating looks something like this;

*master caution illuminates on the glaresheild*

Pilot 1 – “Master caution what’s the problem”

Pilot 2 – reads the annunciator panel – notes ELEC illuminated “master caution electrical”

Pilot 2 – looks overhead “GEN 2 FAULT” – “Master caution reset”

Pilot 1 – “GEN 2 Fault Non normal checklist “

Now let’s juxtapose this with a fault on the a330 or 321 (the systems are identical), the ECAM or Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor system presents the pilot in s single screen the fault, rectification and relevant systems affected and CAT 2/3 approach status.  All in one.  Lost that same generator and you’ll get a chime directing you to the ECAM, there “GEN 1” fault will be displayed along with the checklist with the items disappearing  from the screen as they are accomplished.  If you can reset the system via ECAM then the relevant systems effected are also displayed under a “Status page”  this greatly streamlines identifying and correcting system malfunctions, newer Boeing designs have their own version of the ECAM system, which I cannot comment on as I have only flown the 737. 

There are a myriad of differences between the two types that a single article could not cover, and I’d say both have their strength and weaknesses, one thing I really appreciated was the ease of transitioning to the a330 from the 321, the flight decks are so similar that unless you are specifically trained on one or the other you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if you were blind folded and dropped into either flight deck.  There are some systems differences mainly with hydraulics and electrical but otherwise, procedures, memory items ECAM operation flight control law are all nearly identical.  And while hand flying the Airbus can feel a lot more like asking a computer to do it for you, the ease of operation allows one to manage the aircraft better, with better situational awareness.

I realize that my experience may be different than yours and my opinions here can be subjective, however I have enjoyed operating both types.  In the end whenever I get asked the age old question “which do you prefer”, my typical answer is;  “ I miss flying the Boeing, but I prefer operating the Airbus”

Steve Zago is a Scudrunners contributor, he currently flies the Airbus 330 for Air Transat based in Toronto.