Size does matter

The biggest passenger plane ever is taking to the sky. John Carlin tells the inside story of the A380 - and the men who have made it fly
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The Independent Online

Fernando Alonso looks out of his office windows at the brand new airplanes on the tarmac, freshly painted in the colours of their airlines, ready for delivery. There are big A340s, mid-sized A330s, smaller A320s: the high-selling models that have pushed Airbus ahead of Boeing in the battle for domination of the global aircraft market. They'll be heading off to the four corners: to Aer Lingus, Qatar Airways, Iberia, South African Airways, Singapore Airlines, America West.

Fernando Alonso looks out of his office windows at the brand new airplanes on the tarmac, freshly painted in the colours of their airlines, ready for delivery. There are big A340s, mid-sized A330s, smaller A320s: the high-selling models that have pushed Airbus ahead of Boeing in the battle for domination of the global aircraft market. They'll be heading off to the four corners: to Aer Lingus, Qatar Airways, Iberia, South African Airways, Singapore Airlines, America West.

"Look at them!" says Alonso, who knows their inner secrets better than anyone, his eyes shining, dreamy, affectionate. "Aren't they beautiful?"

But the plane he loves above all is hidden, tucked away inside the biggest building in Europe. It's the newest Airbus, the biggest, the fattest - and maybe not the most beautiful. The A380, the biggest passenger jet ever built, has just been given into his care. It has been 10 years in gestation, from conception, to construction of its parts in England, France, Germany and Spain, to final assembly here at Airbus in Toulouse, where Alonso has worked as a test pilot and engineer for 22 years, rising to director of flight testing and development.

Now, and for the next year, the double-decker giant - 50 per cent greater in volume than the largest Boeing 747 - will be his responsibility, his baby.

"The A380 is, for me, a dream," says Alonso, 49. "I have seen this airplane develop from beginning to end. And now I am responsible - I and my team, because this is a great team effort - for the final fine-tuning."

The fine-tuning in flight - a hair-raising business to the outsider, pushing the airborne metal beast to its limits and beyond - is about to begin. If all goes to plan, the A380, unveiled in January, will fly for the first time at 10.30am today. Aboard will be the Spaniard and five others. "For the first flights, we'll look like astronauts," Alonso says. "We'll wear fireproof suits, helmets and parachutes." Parachutes? "Oh yes. And we'll be sitting on top of a dinghy each. And there's a special escape door in case we do have to jump." What are the possibilities of that? "Oh, no," he shrugs. "We take all these measures for insurance reasons, more than anything else."

Will he feel no fear? "I'll feel excited. Really excited. But at the same time I'll be so busy, so focused on the job at hand, that the excitement will not be as great for me as for the thousands of people who will be watching the plane take off."

Alonso has spent "half his life" working in the Iron Bird. This is a huge hulking metal contraption that replicates in every detail the functioning of the A380, from wings to tail, engines and landing gear. The man in the simulator cabin is "flying" the new plane. Already, through hundreds of hours spent in this cabin with computer screen, keyboard, mouse and 150 buttons and switches, Alonso has contributed vital information to the engineers.

"We give the operational flavour the specialist engineer does not have," he says. "We look at the plane's responses in their totality once it is in the air. We test the Iron Bird to its limits, simulating a complete engine failure, for example, and drawing information from what happens that we can then contribute to the improvement of the plane's overall safety.

"The difference between this 'development simulator' and the simulators used by pilots is that, while in those we teach the pilots what to do, here we teach the plane to fly."

When the first flight takes off, and during the 90 hours or so per month Alonso will be flying in the A380 over the next year, he won't be sitting in the flight deck. His position as chef d'orchestre (his words), will be 10 metres behind the pilots, where Business Class would be.

The plane seen on television around the world today will look pretty much as it will when it enters service. (More than 150 A380s have been ordered.) Yet inside, it all looks scarily unfinished.

Stepping into MSN1, as the first Airbus is known in the company, you see none of the sights you'd expect: no carpets, no seats, no lockers, no subtly lit ceiling. Instead, there are metal edges with every rivet visible; boxes of inscrutable engineering devices; metal pipes; and rivers and rolls of wiring (800km of it), much of it dangling from the Meccano ceiling.

In front of Alonso's seat are eight large screens on which he keeps his eyes on the 6,000 things he has to watch. One monitor is connected to 10 cameras on the plane's exterior, watching all the key areas. He sees a mosaic of 10 images, but if he wishes to zero in on one, he touches the screen and the image fills the space.

His job as chef d'orchestre requires him to be in permanent contact with the chief violinist - the pilot. "I'll ask the pilot to do this manoeuvre or that, to bank 30 degrees left, or to climb - and then the pilot will tell me how the plane responds, whether it is too brusquely, or to slowly, and we will adjust that in the air, and I will feed information to the software accordingly."

The ability to communicate crisply with the pilot is critical. "That is why a flight-test engineer must also be a test pilot. Not all test pilots are engineers, but for my job you must be both.

Alonso - who considers himself profoundly fortunate in his job, "one of the privileged of the earth" - studied aeronautical engineering in Madrid. He began his career with McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, California, where he went on a scholarship and remained two-and-a-half years and obtaining his pilot's licence. He joined Airbus in 1982, 10 years after the company was founded.

"Passion is indispensable for this job, and one of the things that makes me particularly passionate is the European aspect of Airbus. It is the perfect example of how Europe really can and does work. There are no quotas here: you are chosen on merit. This job I have used to be filled only by Frenchmen, yet there is nothing that says a Frenchman must fill it - so when someone came along of a different nationality with the credentials, he got it."

Charles Champion, a Frenchman, is overall head of the A380 project, the vice-president in charge. He's bright, energetic, fun and as excited to be working on the giant as Alonso - to whom he now defers all key judgements on the plane.

"Obviously we want the plane to fly as soon as possible for commercial reasons, but Fernando will have the last word as to its safety and viability. He is the key guy in the flight-engineering side. His role is to be tough with us. We want to fly the aircraft, but we'll fly it when he says it's ready."

Champion is proud of the European success story of the A380 and Airbus generally, but he confesses he has no idea just how many nationalities are involved in the creation of an A380. "Take a passenger door: Japan, the Czech Republic and South Korea are involved, and France. The wings are made in Britain chiefly, but parts come from all over - Holland, Sweden, Finland. And the engines: many will come from Rolls-Royce, but just as many from the United States."

What is known is that Airbus does business with at least 1,500 suppliers in at least 30 countries - but the total figure is almost certainly much higher.

Alonso and his team will be flying four test planes, three of which will move on to commercial airlines. The first - MSN1 - stays with the flight-testing department. A fifth initial plane will never take flight: it will be tested on the ground to the absolute limits - literally, to breaking point. All five planes are tortured: this one is tortured to death.

For the first flight, Alonso will be satisfied with the minimum. "Look, it will be up to me to decide the right time, when we're ready to go. Though of course there is input from lots of others too. There are hundreds of people involved in those first flights, including 400 data analysts on the ground.

"But in the end I decide when we go, I draft the flight order. And so, with all that responsibility, I'd be happy on that first flight with very little. We take off and the gear retracts: with that alone I am already happy."

What Alonso calls "the campaign" could last more than a year. "First is getting to know the plane in flight. We gradually increase the speed, for example, going to speeds well beyond the limits imposed on commercial pilots. The first weeks we'll fly an average of 25 hours a week on each of the four planes."

Then the planes are subjected to stiffer and stiffer tests. They will be flown in 45C heat in the Sahara and at minus 45C in northern Canada; landed and taken off at 14,000ft altitude in La Paz. They'll land on runways 10cm deep in water. They will fly inside ice-filled clouds to freeze up the wings and flaps as much as possible. They will artificially ice the wings for added testing.

One of the scariest things they'll do is take off with the tail tip touching the ground, showering sparks. "The idea is to see how slowly it is possible to go while still taking off. This is not for fun, believe me! This is to give us the most accurate possible indications as to the limits of safety, limits commercial pilots will then operate very well within."

How dangerous is it? "There is a level of uncertainty, yes. Because if you go beyond the limits, by definition, no one has been there before. But we approach our work in gradual fashion, leaving ourselves always an escape route."

Alonso could not do his job if it did not still excite him the way it did the day he started. In the giant hangar where the plane is assembled, Alonso pauses to contemplate the complex monster he take on its inaugural flight. His eye is caught by the wing. "Look at that!" he exclaims. "A masterpiece. If I were British, I would be proud of my country." It is like a piece of sculpture by Frank Gehry or Richard Serra, whose mighty, undulating metal works are on exhibit at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

"Yes, it is a work of art," Alonso says. "But it is beauty with a purpose. It carries vast quantities of fuel. And, in flight, the tip is three or four metres higher relative to the fuselage than it is on the ground."

That's how Alonso sees it, although he understands the science and mechanics of hoisting a monster like the A380 into the air, and keeping it there for 15,000km, better than anyone. "But you know," he confides, "it's still magic that they fly. You see them being built; you see them with their rivets showing in Toulouse in these last days before the big take-off, and then you see them fly. It is always amazing. Always."