TOULOUSE — At 10:42 local time under overcast, drizzly skies at Toulouse Blagnac Airport, the Airbus A350-1000 flew for the very first time, on Thursday, before scores of proud employees, dignitaries and invited media.
Airways was on the scene to witness the historic debut of Airbus’ longest twin-engine jetliner.
The takeoff itself went flawlessly, and the residual water on the runway from overnight rain shower made a very attractive spray created by the exhaust of its engines. It was followed during the flight by a Dassault Falcon 20 chase plane.
The aircraft (F-WMIL • MSN 59), powered by Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engines, the highest-thrust production powerplant ever built by the manufacturer, returned to its base at 15:22 after four hours and twenty minutes flying over Southwestern France during which the crew explored the aircraft’s handling and flight envelope. The progress of the flight was also monitored on ground in real-time via a direct telemetry link.
The crew on board this maiden sortie was commanded by Hugues van der Stichel and Frank Chapman, Experimental Test Pilots and Gérard Maisonneuve, Test-Flight Engineer. The staff at the Flight Test Instrumentation station behind the cockpit were Patrick du Ché, Head of Flight & Integration Tests; Emanuele Costanzo, Head of A350 Development Flight Tests; and Stéphane Vaux, Flight-Test Engineer.
Once the airlines was parked nose-to-nose with the first A350-900 built (F-WXWB • MSN 1), the pilots disembarked and made some comments along with Airbus President and CEO Fabrice Brégier.
“We didn’t want to land because the aircraft was so comfortable,” said van der Stichel. And in fact, the aircraft landed a few minutes behind the original schedule.
van der Stichel also praised the maneuverability of the jetliner. “The aircraft was very smooth, and I can tell you we are very lucky. The sun is over there, and the Pyrenees are white [with snow].”
Chapman also commented about the flying characteristics of the A350-100, describing these as “remarkable (…) in terms of handling and performance. One of the things that is interesting to us as pilots, is to see how a stretch affects handling. I am pleased to say it was remarkably similar to the -900. It was a real pleasure.”
Stéphane Vaux gave an update on the tests that were performed. “We opened the flight envelope from the minimum speed, 140 knots, to the maximum speed at flight level 100, then we climbed to flight level 250 at 340 knots, which is the maximum speed [at that altitude],” he said.
“What a great flight. Congratulations, guys. This is the second member of the 350 family, but we don’t get used to it, so there was as much emotion as there was for the first flight of A350-900.” Fabrice Brégier said.
The CEO also admitted that the A350-800 has been put on hold.
To date, only 16 aircraft of the shortened long-haul variant of the A350 have been ordered. Some customers, such as Hawaiian Airlines, swapped its order for the A330-800neo, while American Airlines upgraded its order for 18 of the type into A350-900s.
Brégier and other Airbus executives claim that the lack of interest on the Airbus A350-800 relies on the economics of the A350-900 Ultra Long Range (ULR) variant, expected to launch with Singapore Airlines in 2018, and the A330neo program.
We are on track, we do not change our targets
Back inside the Airbus Delivery Center during the flight, executives from Airbus and Rolls-Royce spoke to the media. Airways asked to Francois Caudron, SVP marketing at Airbus about the prospects of a stretched A350-2000. “Today is clearly about the 1000, and 1000 is right there in the market sweet spot . We continuously explore the possible evolution of the aircraft. The market is clearly where the 1000 is, but it’s good to have the project in the back pocket,” Caudron responded.
Caudron was also asked on whether Airbus is on track to achieve the fifty A350s delivery goal in 2016. “We are on track. We do not change our targets,” he said.
Airways also heard from Airbus Chief Test Pilot, Christophe Cail, who assured that this first flight “”It is not just any first flight. It’s a first flight of a first prototype. It is an exceptional moment for the crews as you can imagine. Even if the spotlight is on the flight test team, we do not forget all of the other teams who have contributing to making this happen.”
As he spoke about the test program, Cail also provided updates sent by the flight test crew. He announced that the crew was so comfortable with the plane, that they raised, lowered, and raised the gear about an hour into the flight, a rather uncommon practice during a first flight.
The Longest Twin-Engine Widebody Ever Built by Airbus
The Airbus A350-1000 is the longest fuselage version of the A350 family aircraft, and is to seat 366 passengers in a standard three-class layout at 7,950 nautical miles (14,720km).
Devised as a replacement of the Airbus A340-600, the new variant also comes as a competitor to the Boeing 777-300ER and Boeing 777-8X.
Airbus began the assembly of the A350-1000 in September, 2015, less than a year after the delivery of the first A350-900, to Qatar Airways. Final assembly on the first of three test aircraft began this February. Partial assembly of structural components occurs offsite, as several pieces are fabricated by contractors. Airbus relies on its fleet of A300-600 Beluga freighters to handle the delivery of very large components to the final assembly line in Toulouse.
The wings for the A350-1000 are made in Broughton, North Wales. Airbus says the A350-900 and A350-1000 will have the same wingspan, though many of the parts making up the wing have been modified following the A350-900. The trailing edge of the wing has been extended, allowing for extra weight and range.
The A350-1000’s development program will be shorter, with 1,600 Flight Time Hours (FTH). MSN 59 will be assigned all the tests related to performance, including the flight envelope, handling qualities, loads and braking. The second aircraft to fly, MSN 71, will also be assigned performance tests such as braking, engines, systems and autopilot. The third and last aircraft to fly, MSN 65, will be fitted with a fully functional passenger cabin to evaluate the cabin and air systems. This last aircraft will also perform the “early long flights” and route-proving tests.
As of this date, the orders for the A350-1000 stand at 195 from 11 customers, including launch customer Qatar Airways with 37 units, followed by United Airlines, the sole operator of the variant in the Americas, with 35 aircraft. Virgin Atlantic is the most recent customer with 12 aircraft ordered.
In its most recent forecast, Airbus estimates that the twin aisle market for the next 20 years is about 2,600 aircraft, with a strong demand from the Asia-Pacific market.