For someone with all the technical knowledge of a flea, a visit to an aircraft factory might not seem like a high priority. But when my former university’s SW France alumni group proposed a visit to Airbus in Toulouse, I thought, ‘Why not?’ And I was pleasantly surprised.
Airbus is a leading aircraft manufacturer and Toulouse’s biggest employer. It constructs a whole stable of passenger planes, ranging from 100 up to 525 seaters. Its best-known is the gigantic A380, which has a maximum take-off weight of 560 tonnes and a wingspan of about 80 metres. How on earth do they get something that big off the ground? And how does it stay up?
The day started eventfully, since the directions were a bit vague. We drove around an area NE of Blagnac Airport featuring only high wire fences and massive hangers. It was a bit like a post-apocalyptic setting where all the people have been vaporised. Just when we thought we were completely lost, we saw the ‘Let’s Visit Airbus’ visitor centre in the distance. Finding the restaurant for the pre-visit lunch in the featureless dormitory town of Blagnac was also an interesting experience.
However, we made it and the group members presented themselves at the appointed time. We had had to supply personal details beforehand and then show an ID. Photographic devices are strictly forbidden on the visit, presumably to prevent industrial espionage. However, I should think that the main competitor, Boeing, must already be pretty clued up on what Airbus does. And vice versa.
Test flight conditions
First up was a visit to the telemetry unit, reconstructed in the visitor centre. This is where they monitor all the vital measurements when the plane is tested. We saw footage of the A380’s maiden flight in 2005. Is it really that long ago? We actually saw it fly over our house on its test flights.
The crew were kitted out in fireproof suits, helmets and parachutes. Nothing like giving people confidence. On the maiden flight, among other things they have to find the point at which the plane will stall. Who’d be a test pilot?
Before the plane could be granted a safety certificate, Airbus had to prove that it could be evacuated via chutes within 90 seconds. They packed an A380 with 853 people and they got out in 70+ seconds. I’m a bit sceptical: they all knew it was going to happen; they were all able-bodied; and nobody stayed behind to retrieve their computer, credit cards, iPad etc from the overhead lockers. I can’t help feeling it wouldn’t go quite so smoothly in reality.
Moving swiftly on, we piled onto a bus which took us the short distance to one of the enormous hangers where they assemble the A380s – 2.5 aircraft per month (i.e. 30 per year). The parts come in from Germany, Spain and the UK, often following a complex journey involving boat to Bordeaux, barge and road convoy (you wouldn’t want to get stuck behind one of those). They also use the dolphin-like planes called Belugas to transport the parts. Each wing requires 20,000 rivets. That should prevent them falling off, then.
It’s all carefully orchestrated. The fuselage of the planes at this point is still coloured light green but the tail fins are already painted in the colours of their eventual owners. They install all the electrical and hydraulic systems and plenty of other things I don’t understand and then fly the planes to Hamburg to be fitted out with seats etc and painted.
Discount for quantity
Someone asked our guide how much an A380 costs. What would you guess?
“The catalogue price,” our guide said (there’s a catalogue?), “is $414 million.”
Emirates have ordered more than 100, which makes the mind boggle, even if they get a discount for quantity. Small change to them, I suppose.
I regard flying as a necessary evil but I’ve never liked it, however safe people say it is. And just how big can these aircraft get? A final statistic: the maximum fuel capacity is 310,000 litres. A few turns at the petrol pump.
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