Bernard Ziegler’s Innovative Impact on Air Travel: Manifold

Times Obituary, 9 June 2021 ….

Ziegler oversaw the advance of technology on aircraft such as the Airbus A320. In 1993 Bernard Ziegler flew what was then the longest recorded flight by a civil aircraft when he piloted an Airbus 340-200 around the world in 48 hours, stopping once in Auckland.  Yet the veteran French fighter pilot and director of the multinational aircraft manufacturer Airbus was self-deprecating about his abilities in the cockpit, attributing most of the skill involved to the automated systems he had developed. “After all, airline pilots are no more than taxi drivers,” he said.

The aeronautical engineer did more than anyone to modernise and automate the control of passenger aircraft, but he had to take on the pilots to do it. Some took it personally that Ziegler had  developed  systems  to  replace  manual  flight  controls  with  computers  that  could send commands to stabilise the aircraft’s fins without the pilots’ knowledge and even override their errors.

XXX … The new Airbus A320 before its inaugural flight on February 22, 1987…. JEAN- PIERRE MULLER/AFP V IA GETTY IM AGES

Jetstar 320 in flight

Ziegler’s most significant innovation was the use of fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control computers in commercial aircraft. These replaced mechanical levers that pulled cables and rods operated by hydraulics with electrical signals known as “wires”. It was based on technology that had first been developed by NASA in the 1960s for the lunar landing training vehicle, which Neil Armstrong famously crashed. Eventually, FBW was incorporated into the Anglo-French programme to develop the supersonic aircraft Concorde.

Many of the same engineers who went on to work for Airbus pushed for its introduction on a wider scale in passenger aircraft and none pushed harder than Ziegler.

The first Airbus application of electrical fly-by-wire was on the A310 launched in 1982. With the introduction of digital fly-by-wire on the A320 in 1987, controls were no longer directly driven by the pilot’s control column of levers.

Pilots would now fly the A320 aircraft using a flight control stick (often called a joystick, much to pilots’ annoyance) positioned at the side of each pilot. The side stick would trigger mechanical levers that are converted into digital signals, still giving the pilot the feeling of controlling the aircraft manually in pitch and roll. The stick could also work on autopilot in a cockpit where computer screens had replaced the traditional dials.

Ziegler was also instrumental in the introduction of flight envelope protection, a failsafe system preventing the pilot from applying forces on the aircraft outside of the safety margin. With the system in place pilots could not stall the engine, overspeed, spin or overbank because each manoeuvre would be checked by the computer and errors would be corrected.

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