In Memoriam: Who Was Airbus Engineer Bernard Ziegler?

Earlier this week, commercial aviation lost one of its most pioneering engineers with the passing of Bernard Ziegler. The Frenchman had played a pivotal role in developing the fly-by-wire system for which Airbus products have become well known. Let’s take a look back at Ziegler’s life and the aviation milestones that it encompassed.

Bernard Ziegler
Ziegler’s extensive career encompassed both military and commercial aviation. Photo: Airbus

The son of an Airbus founder

Bernard Ziegler was born in the western Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt on March 12th, 1933. His father was none other than Henri Ziegler, who became one of the founders of European manufacturing juggernaut Airbus in December 1970.

The company’s other founding fathers were Roger Béteille and Felix Kracht, although Ziegler had the honor of being its first President and CEO. He was one of the key players in the A300 program. This aircraft put Airbus on the map by being the world’s first twin-engine widebody jetliner. It entered service with Air France in May 1974.

Eight years after Henri Ziegler’s passing aged 91 in July 1998, Airbus honored his work and legacy in 2006 by naming its new delivery center in Toulouse, France after him. At its opening ceremony, the company’s CEO at the time, Gustav Hombert, underlined his importance by stating that “there would be no Airbus without Henri Ziegler.”

Airbus Delivery Centre
Airbus named its new delivery center after its founder Henri Ziegler in 2006. His son, Bernard, developed the manufacturer’s famous fly-by-wire system. Photo: Getty Images

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Bernard Ziegler’s education and military years

Having established the influential role that Henri Ziegler played in European commercial aviation, it is unsurprising that Bernard Ziegler followed in his father’s footsteps. He first studied engineering at Paris’s prestigious École Polytechnique, graduating in 1954.

Following this, Ziegler attended the École de l’air at Salon-de-Provence Air Base (Base aérienne 701) in the south of France. Here, he underwent a year of military pilot training, after which he joined the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) as a fighter pilot.

Ziegler returned to his studies in 1961, but not before he had served in the Algerian War, being decorated with several medals and honors along the way. He then studied at the Institut supérieur de l’aéronautique et de l’espace (Higher Institute of Aeronautics and Space) and the École du personnel navigant d’essais et de réception.

Dassault Mirage G
Bernard Ziegler flew fighter jets on the front line and as a test pilot during his decorated military career. Photo: Dassault Aviation Collection via Wikimedia Commons

The latter of these, which Ziegler joined in 1964, is a leading base for French test pilots. He made his own mark there by becoming the chief test pilot for the two-seat Dassault Mirage G fighter jet in 1968. However, a switch to Airbus was just around the corner.

The switch to Airbus

With the Airbus A300 program gathering momentum, it needed a test pilot. Having helped to found the company in December 1970, Henri Ziegler brought his son Bernard onboard to be the new manufacturer’s chief test pilot. He joined the multi-national company in 1972, and, as well as testing the A300, Ziegler also did the honors for the A310, A320, and A340. Particularly in the case of the latter two designs, Ziegler would achieve remarkable success.

For example, towards the end of his career, Ziegler was part of the record-setting ‘World Ranger’ team. This saw Airbus complete an aerial circumnavigation of the globe from Paris in 48 hours and 22 minutes in June 1993. While this was not a record-breaking circumnavigation in terms of speed, it stood apart from previous attempts with its refueling strategy.

Bernard Ziegler
Bernard Ziegler joined Airbus as its chief test pilot for the A300 in 1972. Photo: Airbus

Specifically, the ‘World Ranger’ made just one stop during its aerial circumnavigation. With five center fuel tanks and just 22 people onboard, the A340-200 involved flew directly from Paris to Auckland, New Zealand in just 21 hours 32 minutes.

After five hours on the ground, it then returned to the French capital in 21 hours 46 minutes. All in all, the ‘World Ranger’ set two records, becoming both the first-ever non-stop Europe-New Zealand flight, and the longest-ever flight by an airliner at the time.

A fly-by-wire pioneer

Airbus models are known today, among other things, for their fly-by-wire (FBW), side-stick controls. The first of its (or in fact any) aircraft to be powered by such a system was the A320, which entered service with Air France in April 1988. Ziegler was a driving force behind the decision to implement such technology on Airbus designs.

Airbus A340-200
Bernard Ziegler was part of the team that flew an A340-200 directly from Paris to Auckland in 1993.        Photo: Anthony Noble via Wikimedia Commons

The company stated that:

[Ziegler] realized the full potential that digital FBW could bring, including flight envelope protection incorporated into the control software. Ziegler’s legacy lives on with digital FBW on all current-generation Airbus aircraft, and its adoption as the standard on all modern passenger aircraft globally.”

Interestingly, Airbus used the A300, for which Ziegler had been the original chief test pilot, as a testbed for such technology. It added that:

As a test pilot, [Ziegler] flew the first flight of the first A300 in 1972. The program was later an early testbed for FBW which transfers the pilot’s commands to the aircraft via digital signals. FBW provides significant benefits through commonality, improved flight safety, reduced pilot workload, fewer mechanical parts, and real-time monitoring of all aircraft systems.”

Bernard Ziegler
Bernard Ziegler’s achievements were honored at the 2012 Farnborough Airshow. Photo: Airbus

The later years

Ziegler eventually retired from Airbus in 1997, by which time he had worked his way up to the position of Senior Vice President of Engineering. His retirement marked the end of a career that spanned more than four decades, of which he spent 25 years at Airbus.

Following his retirement, Ziegler’s pioneering efforts in the fly-by-wire field were honored at the 2012 Farnborough Airshow. Here, he received the Flightglobal Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his innovation and contributions to commercial aviation. He passed away on May 4th, 2021, aged 88 years old, and his funeral took place today.

In memory of Bernard Ziegler, March 12th, 1933 – May 4th, 2021.

Were you aware of Bernard Ziegler’s instrumental role in developing Airbus’s fly-by-wire system? Perhaps you remember his record-breaking journey to New Zealand in 1993? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.