Superjumbo takes off for first flight

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The Independent Online

The world's biggest passenger plane took to the skies for the first time today.

The world's biggest passenger plane took to the skies for the first time today.

The Airbus A380, which will be able to carry 555 passengers, took off smoothly at Toulouse Blagnac airport in southern France.

In brilliant sunshine and clear skies, the £150 million double-decker superjumbo left the tarmac just before 10.30am local time.

The A380 is partly British-produced, with the wings designed and built in Filton, near Bristol, and Broughton in north Wales.

Thousands of aviation enthusiasts lined the runway to watch the historic take-off and cordoned-off areas around the airfield were packed with people.

In the city centre, thousands more watched the aircraft via a giant television screen in the main square.

The vast aircraft rolled into view at about 10.18am local time (9.18am UK time) and sat on the runway for a tantalising 12 minutes in front of the expectant crowd.

The six-strong crew had boarded the aircraft an hour and a half earlier wearing bright orange flight suits and quickly strapped on parachutes.

They were led by Airbus's flight division senior vice president Captain Claude Lelaie and chief test pilot Captain Jacques Rosay.

At 10.27am, the chase plane took off and the A380 rumbled into action two minutes later.

There were rousing cheers and applause from the crowds as the aircraft left the ground just before 10.30am and climbed steadily into the clear sky.

The enormous aircraft, which is 240ft long, 80ft tall and has 260ft wingspan, took off in a north westerly direction with its undercarriage down.

Although its maximum take-off weight is 560 tons, it weighed 421 tons for today's maiden flight.

The A380 is expected to stay in the air for between two and four hours and will carry out a series of checks.

Peter Chandler, deputy project pilot for the A380, said most of the tests would be carried out at 10,000ft and within 100 miles of Toulouse.

If all is well, it is understood the aircraft may fly as high as 36,000ft and head towards the Atlantic.

The A380 is carrying 20 tons of testing equipment and nearly two miles of electrical wiring.

Mr Chandler said the plane rolled out of the assembly plant three weeks ago and its hydraulics, electrics and taxiing ability had all been tested on the ground.

It had run to 130 knots on the tarmac, close to the take-off speed of 150 knots.

Today's test will focus on how the aircraft handles, how the engines respond and the pressurisation within the plane.

Mr Chandler stressed that the flight was not just a high profile event for the media: "This is just the next step in the development stage which has been in process for some years."

Aviation expert Sean Maffett said he was overwhelmed by the take-off, describing it as a "teary moment".

He said: "I thought it was just fantastic when those 22 wheels lifted off the ground for the first time - it was just an incredible moment.

"I thought it was a very moving moment, very exciting and there were huge cheers all around from everybody."

Mr Maffett, who flew from Birmingham yesterday for today's event, went on: "The extraordinary thing was the aircraft made almost no noise at all. It is a very quiet aircraft which is able to comply with the new noise regulations at Heathrow."

The A380's size can be compared to a football field - the aircraft is so big that the wing tips would reach just inside the goalposts and its fuselage would stretch beyond the width of the pitch.

The A380 was powered by four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines.

As Airbus launched its high profile aircraft, American rival Boeing announced two new major contracts with Air Canada and Air India.

As well as ordering current Boeing jets, the two airlines have placed orders for Boeing's new aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner.

The Dreamliner is far smaller than the A380 and can take just 300 passengers but will be able to travel further than current commercial aircraft.

Boeing believes that the lower capacity long-haul aircraft will be the key to the future.

Tests were being carried out at 10,000ft as planned and the chase plane inspecting the outside of the aircraft had not spotted anything to cause concern.

Minutes after take-off the undercarriage had been fully retracted.

"Everything seems to be going well and the pressurisation seems to have worked," said Mr Chandler.

Noel Forgeard, chief executive of Airbus, was delighted by the A380's success.

"What I would like to emphasise is that it has been, and will continue to be, a fantastic collective effort between all the designers within Europe.

"There is a fantastic spirit between them."

But he warned there was still some time to go before the aircraft would be seen in commercial action.

"We have months and months of flight tests before we can begin our commercial service in the second half of 2006."

Mr Forgeard dismissed claims that Boeing's Dreamliner would be in competition with the A380.

"There is nothing similar - they are two different categories," he insisted.