TOULOUSE — The first half of 2013 and has certainly been a busy year in the annals of commercial aviation. In January the worldwide fleet of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was grounded; not taking to the skies again until May. On Valentine’s Day, American Airlines and USAirways announced a blockbuster merger creating the world’s largest airline and effectively ending the legacy airlines consolidation game in the United States. In early March, Bombardier rolled-out the CSeries CS100, the first in a line of airliners that could not only be a game changing regional jet, but possibly challenge the Airbus A320 / Boeing 737 duopoly. These headlines alone would make any year exceptional, but only midway through the year another major event loomed large. On June 14th Airbus embarked on flying for the first time what’s likely the last “totally clean sheet” large airliner for the rest of this decade – the A350 XWB. Even with roughly 2 days notice, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss this historic event. I, along with many had suspected June 13th or 14th would be “D-Day” for the A350 so I had my bags packed and reservations on hold just in case. As we would learn later, Airbus had this week as a target for the last 9 months. Much has been already written about the A350 over the last 7 years and its maiden flight, I want this piece to take you with me on what it was like moment by moment to be there and witness aviation history. First, let’s go back to the future for a little A350 XWB refresher.
Launched in late 2006 with an order from launch customer Qatar Airways, the Airbus first A350 XWB “Extra Wide Body” challenges both the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Boeing 777. This is a similar position now occupied by the now 20 year old but still extraordinarily successful Airbus A330 and the now discontinued A340. The A350 XWB’s use of advanced durable, lightweight, and low-maintenance materials such as carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, advanced aluminum, and titanium comprise more than 70 percent of the aircraft. Airbus claims the lighter weight fuselage and wings, coupled with the new more efficient Rolls Royce Trent engines not only makes it 25% more fuel efficient then aircraft it is due to replace, but is substantially quieter as well (up to 14 db below ICAO Chapter 4 regulations). With the reduced fuel burn and NOx emissions 35% below the CAEP6 environmental standard, the A350 is a thoroughly “green” aircraft. Airbus’ latest twin marvel deploys new technologies right out of the gate such as Continuous Descent Approach (CDA), yet retains a very familiar Airbus flight-deck operation. A330 pilots will take 9 days to transfer to the A350, 8 days for A340 pilots, and only 5 days to transition from the Airbus A380 with whom the A350 shares much technological innovation.
The extensively redesigned cabin features 787 features like larger windows (the largest ever on an Airbus), a lower-pressurized and higher humidified cabin, enlarged overhead bins, LED mood lighting, and higher sculpted ceilings. Airbus believes that its “eXtra Wide Body” is an advantage leading to wider aisles and seats, even in economy. There are crew rest loft options above the forward and rear cabin for the flight and cabin crew respectively.
Though the A350 entry-into-service date will be some 3 years behind the 787, Airbus is keen to apply lessons learned from its chief rival. The most obvious of these applies to the batteries. The first few A350s will use lithium-ion battery technology that caused such severe headaches on the 787 but new build production aircraft following MSN-3 will switch to the heavier but more conventional nickel-cadmium design. The A350’s electrical architectural demands aren’t as high as the 787.
There are initially 3 models planned in the range: the A350-800, -900, and -1000 seating between 270 and 350 passengers in typical three-class layouts with maximum range between 8,480 and 10,300 nautical miles. The A350-90 is a direct competitor to the 777-200 ER, though the A350s fuselage is slightly narrower. In a typical 3-class 9-abreast layout, the -900 seats 314 passengers. Thus far, the -900 is the most popular selling version by a 4:1 margin over its stable-mates. As the first model to fly, it is scheduled for entry-into-service by launch airline Qatar in the second half of 2014. The largest and next to fly variant is the upgauged A350-1000. With its larger wing and up to 350-passenger capacity in a 3-class configuration, the -1000 will take dead aim at the 777-300ER, upcoming 777X – 9, and replaces the now discontinued A340-600. Indeed, Airbus pitches the A340-1000, due in 2017, as a 747-400 replacement. Cathay Pacific, United, Singapore, and British Airways orders have confirmed this mission with their orders for the stretched A350. The smallest member of the range, the A350-800 will seat 270 passengers in a typical 3-class 9-abreast lineup and take on the 787-9. Prior to the Paris Air Show, The A350 family has already secured 613 firm orders from 33 customers worldwide including additional industry luminaries Air France/KLM, USAirways, Hawaiian, Emirates, Ethiad, Aeroflot, Air Lingus, TAM, Singapore Airlines, and Thai. Airbus clearly hopes the first flight will only add to its recent sales momentum.
In comparison to its larger Airbus sibling, the A380; and its arch rival from Seattle the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the A350 has had a relatively smooth development phase. The European company didn’t subcontract and outsource the production process quite to the extent that Boeing did with the 787. Airbus, still chastened by the over-budget and long delayed A380 production process and fairly in-flight issues, isn’t gloating, but instead managing expectations by still calling A350 development “challenging”.
The final assembly of MSN-1, the A350 prototype began on April 5, 2012. On February 7, 2013 the European Aviation Safety Agency certified the A350’s Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines. Less then 3 weeks later, the first A350 rolled out of the final assembly line on February 26, 2013. By March 26, 2013 Airbus announced the APU and RR Trent’s had been installed on MSN-1. April bought 2 major order announcements: a new A350 customer in the form British Airways’ parent International Air Group and additional aircraft from Singapore Airlines. After a flurry of production news in the month’s before, Airbus went into “radio silence” about the MSN-1’s final assembly.
Suddenly, things really began to heat up in May as the Paris Air Show approached. On May 13th, the first A350 msn1, rolled out from the paint shop. Instead of a splash rollout, Airbus didn’t notify the press. French network TV 3 captured fuzzy video of the aircraft, and then Airbus releasing pictures later in the day of the A350 surrounded in a relatively subdued house livery surrounded by employees. By foregoing the traditional rollout event, the media frenzy went into overdrive that Airbus would attempt to fly the aircraft for the first time just before the Paris Air Show, to permit a fly-over at the world’s premiere aviation event. Pictures of the A350 XWB logo emblazoned on the under-belly of the aircraft only added fuel to the fire of speculation. This would mean the aircraft would embark on its first flight and the test program just one month after roll out. Not only would this short window be formidable, but almost unprecedented in modern times. By comparison the 777 took 2 months to go from roll out to first flight; The Airbus A380 took 3 ½ months, and the Boeing 787 took nearly 2 ½ years. The simplistic livery and lack of formal roll out signaled an expedited timetable. Despite constant comments by Airbus executives that a “Paris Air Show fly over would be nice but not necessary”, that “the plane will fly when it is ready to fly”, and vague statements that “the first flight will come sometime in the Summer”, it was clear Airbus in fact is in fact shooting to steal some of the thunder from Boeing’s once again airborne Dreamliner.
On June 2nd, Airbus reported that the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-84 engines, capable of 84,000 pounds of thrust, were run for the first time on the A350 XWB (MSN1) following the start-up of the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) as part of the preparations for the aircraft’s maiden flight. 2 days later, Airbus released the names of the 6 initial international test flight crew under the command of Peter Chandler, an Experimental Flight Test Pilot with Airbus since 2000 and Chief Test Pilot since 2011. The same Monday June 4th, the aircraft was photographed moving under its own power, with high speed ground tests captured a day later. On Tuesday June 11th, Airbus reported that the initial ground taxi tests were complete, and that the A350 would take to the skies for the first time on Friday June 14th at 10:00AM Toulouse (CEST) time. June 13th had been a possibility, but an ill-timed French Air Traffic Control strike reportedly impacted those plans.
Within minutes, I cleared my calendar, confirmed my flight reservations and made plans to leave for Toulouse the next day. With the ATC strike, this was no easy task but I was determined to be there, finally arriving late on Thursday June 13th. At 7:30AM on Friday June 14th, and a jet lagged mess I was on a bus (the kind with 4 wheels) at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport heading for the Airbus Henri Ziegler Delivery Centre from where we would witness this historic milestone. It was hard to believe, the first Airbus A300, the world’s first twin engine wide-body jet had flown for the first time 41 years ago, and now the then nascent European upstart, along with Boeing is one of the world’s two leading airliner manufacturers. As we made our way to the opposite side of the airport, we noticed throngs of plane spotters lining the runways. The favorable weather forecast called for light winds and partly cloudy skies, in direct contrast to the cold, cloudy day before which seemed like it could threaten the best laid of plans. In this case, timing would be everything.
We were ushered into the Henri Ziegler Delivery Center named for one of the founders of Airbus and its first president. The atmosphere inside was positively electric and confident. Airbus had closely guarded their first flight secret, but the meticulous staging revealed that the event had been in the planning stages for some time. The facility, complete with security and check-in counters looks like a cross between a general aviation terminal and small commercial airport, complete with 2 jet-ways and 2 concourses fanning out on either side of a central hall. All Airbus A320s, 330s, and 380s are delivered here. A321s and A319s are delivered in Hamburg. Despite the historic occasion, there was business as usual deliveries going on for new Japanese LCC Peach Air, Brazil’s TAM, Air New Zealand, and Australia’s Jetstar.
The main atrium overlooking the tarmac was arranged with a riser, podium, and a large projection screen as the centerpiece. 2 large-scale A350 models including a one-of-a-kind cutaway flanked the stage. The audience was configured for VIPs and press workstations complete with wi-fi. The press corps and guests could barely be shook from the generous selection of pastries and juices for a brief 9:00 AM announcement regarding the day’s agenda. Stehan Schaffrath, the VP of Media relations and master of ceremonies had to announce over and over for people to take their seats. Airbus decided on a firm 10:00AM CEST departure and it was going to be happen whether the press were ready or not.
At 9:15AM, we were transported via busses for a 5 minute ride out to a large field parallel to runway 14R/32L where Airbus’ third-generation wide-body twin would make it’s maiden take-off. Along the way, we passed a former Air France Concorde at the delivery center that poignantly how far we had come in flight in terms of technology, fuel efficiency, etc. It also served as a stark reminder that time had moved on, and in some ways we had taken a step back since the world’s only successful passenger carrying civil SST had its wings clipped nearly 10 years ago.
The scene of the press, VIPs, executives, employees, and customers standing in a brown grass field in front of the A330/340 Final Assembly Hall felt much like the Warped Tour, except there were many more business suits and cameras with large lenses. I wondered out-loud whether anyone was working in Toulouse today. A few members of the press said it was half the turnout of the A380’s first flight back in April 2005, but it was still an impressive showing.
We all jockeyed, and somewhat aggressively, on top of tables Airbus had setup for photographers. Every airplane that took off became the focal point for test shots, especially a Cebu Pacific Airbus A330-300 that we learned was being delivered. We learned that Airbus set a record that day with this particular A330 configured in a high density, single-class 416-passenger configuration – the most ever on an A330.
At 9:50am CEST, with winds 6 mph out of the NNE, A350 MSN-1 lined up on the threshold of the runway. Peter Chandler, Airbus’ Chief Test Pilot, and Guy Magrin, Project Pilot, and three flight test engineers: Fernando Alonso, Head of Airbus Flight & Integration Test Centre; Patrick du Ché, Head of Development Flight Tests; and Emanuele Costanzo, lead Flight Test Engineer for the Trent XWB engine went through their final pre-flight checklists.
At precisely 10:00am began their take-off roll. The Rolls-Royce Trent’s were so quiet that the cheers from the audience were the only clue that the big twin had begun its maiden flight. Weighing in at “only 221 tons”, F-WXWB rotated in less then 30 seconds and leaped into the sky to cheers, tears, and applause. It was a powerful moment, only interrupted by thousands of camera shutters.
A chase plane and numerous helicopters followed the XWB out on its climb. Over the next 4 ½ hours they beamed down impressive, live multiple-camera coverage of the A350 in-flight to the more then 50,000 people watching the Airbus live web-stream and millions others watching on TV across the globe. It is safe to assume that this was the most covered first-flight in history.
While the flight and telemetry engineering crews were busy doing their thing, Airbus kept its guests fully entertained and engaged with an A350 Program Briefing back at the delivery center. Airbus 350 XWB Test Pilot Frank Chapman took to the stage. He drew some laughs when he said he had “placed banana peels around areas where Airbus Chief Peter Chandler would be walking”. Chapman was the relief pilot, but even though he wasn’t “manning the stick” that day, he was clearly elated at the morning’s events as he began the flight test briefing. He noted that “though this is an incredible moment, it is only the first hour of a year-long, 2,500 hour, 5 flight test campaign…The cockpit and many other aircraft systems are much further ahead then the A380 was on its first flight”, Chapman said echoing the day’s company theme of “lessons learned.” Taking the high road, Chapman nor any of the Airbus executives publicly made any mention of the 787’s battery issues and their affect on the A350 program.
As for today’s first test flight, Chapman reported it “is operating in medium levels of the performance envelope that widen with new tests upon successful completion of each step. We will take it steadily and go slowly. We must understand exactly where we are before we take next step and work out to extremes. We measure handling flight qualities as we change each configuration such as retracting the flaps or raising the gear”. The take-off and initial phase of the flight occurred with the flight computers disconnected in what’s called “direct law”. F-WXWB flew to around 10,000 feet and around 200 knots. Then the landing gear was successfully retracted, along with the flaps as the aircraft was cleaned up for higher speed, higher altitude tests. Next, the flight computers were switched online. 1 hour and 55 minutes into the flight we were given a live status report of the flight test by Captain Chandler direct from the flight deck. “It’s a beautiful day for flying here at 13,000 feet over the Pyrénées. All is on schedule. The aircraft is behaving extremely well. Our landing gear retracted successfully. Soon, we will climb to 25,000 fleet for high-speed configuration”. The flight test was originally planned to be longer in duration and higher, climbing to 43,000 feet but this would have “kept you all too long waiting for the landing” said Chapman. Of course with any first flight there are going to be issues, but these weren’t going to be reported by anyone from Airbus.
Chapman then moved on to describing the next stages of the flight test program. He reported that the first virtual flight would happen in July with cabin crew and passengers. Among the developments, MSN-2, already well under assembly, would be the first A350 with a cabin fit and that this airframe would be subject to the hot/cold tests as the lab in Pensacola where Boeing had carried out similar tests on the 787. MSN-4, when completed, will be fitted with light instrumentation to test for noise and avionics. MSN-5 will be the chosen aircraft for route proving, where the aircraft flies the exact routes of its customers. Upcoming flight tests include:
- VMU – Velocity Minimum Un-stick. Lowest speed/high angle of attack test of the lowest speed the aircraft will take-off. This is used to calculate the V speeds.
- Crosswind tests – A350 and A380 have auto-compensation for crosswind handling. These tests are carried out in Iceland because there are 2 runways at 90 degrees of each other and there’s always wind.
- Water Trough Tests – operate in intentionally created very wet conditions for take-off and landing to test brake systems, hydraulic lines, and engines.
- VMCG – Minimum Control Speed on the Ground. What is minimum speed where there’s speed for safe take-off if an engine fails? First, nose wheel steering is removed, rudder is introduced for control, instant shut down cutting fuel to the engine at high power, and then deviation from centerline is measured. This test is used this to calculate V speeds. It is more risky for twin-engine aircraft, then 4-engine aircraft like the A380. Chapman said “As pilots, we love doing this exercise as long as there aren’t passengers aboard.
Chapman made no mention of when the next test flight would occur, including the much-speculated fly-over of the Paris Air Show the following week.
Chris Young, the Rolls-Royce Project Director on the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines provided the next briefing. Young boasted “The Trent XWB is the world’s most efficient jet engine. It takes in tons of air a second. The fuel is burned at half the temperature of the surface of the sun. Each of 68 turbine blades generates the power of a Formula 1 car.” Indeed, today’s first test flight was operated at the maximum 84,000 pounds of thrust on each engine at take-off.
Knowing a well fed press and VIP contingent is a happy one, Airbus feted its guests with a lunch that consisted of wine tasting, champagne, and gourmet small plates such as pate’, oysters, and other palate pleasing delicacies. We all would have enjoyed more being onboard MSN-1, but the catering was certainly a nice treat.
Following lunch, Didier Evrard, the EVP and Head of the A350 Program took the stage for the final briefing. Clearly pleased thus far, Evrard remarked “This (first flight) is one event, a very significant event, but the program is a fast moving body and this is just the first step. Our next challenges are maturity at EIS and production ramp-up. The A380 program has been rich in lessons for this program and has led to us to deeply rework our practices”. Given the Paris Air Show the following week, Evrard offered no real headlines but did provide some interesting facts worth recounting here.
The A350 has 613 firm orders from 33 customers (a number likely to be revised upward at the Paris Air Show).
- MSN-2 and MSN-3 would both be joining the flight test program in the Fall.
- A350 XWB production is already at 1 airframe per month, but will ramp up to 3 per month by the end of 2014.
- Final assembly of the first A350-1000 commences at the end of 2015. The first flight in mid 2016 will be followed by entry-into-service in 2017. Evrard said the upsizing is a low risk expansion (from the -900) by stretching current fuselage by 13 frames in front of and behind the wings. He concluded “Development is on track.”
With the A350 MSN-1 due back within the hour from its maiden sortie over Southwestern France, it was time for everyone to head back out to the viewing area adjacent to the runway. I sprinted across the field to be in the first photography position for the landing, even though the threshold point would be at some distance from our cameras. Traffic at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport came to a standstill foreshadowing the planned runway fly-over as cameras began pointing skyward. At precisely 1:50pm CEST the flight crew performed a breathtaking fly by at around 800-1000 feet before pulling sharp right bank and climb away from the crowd toward its eventual base leg which produced an excellent view of the underbelly A350 branding. It was an amazing event, seen more than heard owing to the A350 XWB’s quiet noise footprint. Seriously, the raucous cheers and applause almost drowned out the Trent engines.
Within minutes, the A350 was visible on short-finals in the distance out of the South. A collective hush (really!) fell over the crowd as at precisely 2:05pm MSN-1 flared then greased down onto the runway completing its historic 4 hour, 5 minute first flight. Thrusters were deployed right in front of the photographer’s area much to our delight as the pilots applied brakes and gradually slowed. The crowd went absolutely wild with hand shakes, back slaps, boisterous applause, and even hugs. Many in the crowd were waving A350 first flight flags that proclaimed “We Did It!”. The crowd reacted at a fevered pitch like Airbus had just won the Super Bowl or World Cup.
Many people started making it back towards the busses and the delivery center when we noticed the A350 taxiing back towards us, but this time the flight deck was open and a crew member was proudly waving the Airbus flag. Despite the company’s sober comments that this first flight was strictly about tests and proving, Airbus was clearly putting on a show!
Back at the Ziegler Delivery Center, the party atmosphere kicked into high gear as the swelling (and sweating) crowd awaited the arrival of the guests of honor. The A350 emerged in the distance dramatically from the heat haze rising off the asphalt. The scene reminded me of a “Mad Max” movie. MSN-1 was first met by Airbus ground and technical crew. These folks who work around airplanes everyday themselves became paparazzi, taking pictures of their company’s newest star.
The A350 finally blocked in at the center of the ramp surrounded by a swarm of welcoming guests. Once the engines shutdown, we could see the pilots waving at the crowd through that, dare I say “sexy” windscreen. The air stairs were rolled up to F-WXWB and after what seemed like an eternity under the sweltering sun, the flight crew in their bright orange flight suits emerged triumphantly to introductions, applause, and air-horns! I looked up at the video helicopters half expecting them to drop confetti!
With fists pumped, arms raised, and wide smiles, the crew were all excited. After a few photo opportunities, they made their way down the stairs through the crush of the exuberant crowd to the podium where Airbus President and CEO Fabrice Bregier said: “I congratulate the whole A350 XWB development team for having completed the first flight preparation in a record time. I also wish to thank the first flight crew today for taking this aircraft where it wants to be – in the sky.” He added: “I would also like to extend my gratitude to all our teams in the design offices, at program and manufacturing level, the ground crews as well as our colleagues in airlines and suppliers and many others who helped define this all-new aircraft.” He said they “had this first flight date in mind for 9 months and thanks to the miracles of the entire A350 team, we made it!”
It was virtually impossible to get near the flight crew because of the mob of press and autograph seekers, so I stood back taking in the moment and photographing as much of the scene as I could. After much of the crowd disbursed, I stayed behind to talk to a few people key to the A350 program. Airbus Sales Chief John Leahy remarked, “The airplane really sells itself. It makes my job very easy”. Yes, this could be construed as sales hype but the numbers speak for themselves. As to answering questions surrounding a fly-over of the Paris Air Show and an additional A350 orders, Leahy remained tight-lipped but did sport a Cheshire Cat grin.
Finally, I was able to spend a few minutes with Peter Chandler, Airbus’ Chief Test Pilot. He disclosed the aircraft flew up to Mach .8, the maximum airspeed at that altitude and was cleared to go fully to 43,000 feet and the airframe’s peak airspeed of .89. Chandler said the plane was ready to fly 2 weeks prior, and that they firmed the June 13th-14th dates contingent on weather a week earlier. With the weather looking less then ideal on June 13th and to build in a day of margin, they opted to make the first date on Friday June 14th. I asked him if he had any trepidation about the first flight. Chandler said in fact it was the opposite, “I was of course very excited, but highly confident. I slept like a baby the night before and rolled into ‘the office’ around 6:30am. The plane wanted to fly and so did we.”
The party continued inside the Delivery Center. With few looking on and no fanfare, a tug unceremoniously hitched up MSN-1 and towed her away. With somewhere around 2,496 hours left on the flight test program, the A350 XWB program has a lot of work ahead of it to meet the entry-into-service date 1 year away. If there’s any concern about that aggressive timetable you couldn’t see it on Chandler’s face who as we parted company told me “I don’t see anything that gets in the way of our projected EIS. This is a very mature plane even at this early stage.”
June 21, 2013 Update
Exactly 1 week after MSN-1 flew the historic A350 first flight and only a few days after its June 19th 2nd test flight, the aircraft made a historic pass over the Paris Air Show. MSN-1 made a single pass on Friday June 21 at 1:25 local time along LeBourget’s runway 21 at a height of 600ft. Departing Toulouse at
10:50AM local time, This was MSN-1’s third test flight. It flew over the Mediterranean coast and in the vicinity of Montpellier and Lyon. MSN-1 was oiloted by Peter Chandler and Captain Guy Magrin who had performed the maiden flight. The A350 XWB’s fly-by was performed with the authorisation of the France’s DGAC civil aviation authority, and supported by Paris Air Show organisers – who allocated a slot in Friday afternoon’s aerial display. The President of France Francois Hollande was in attendance.