In a world where new aircraft at air shows are about as rare as profitable US airlines, the mammoth Airbus A380 continues to hog the limelight wherever it goes. Singapore’s Asian Aerospace was no exception and, after witnessing another flawless A380 flight demonstration, Flight International did not hesitate when invited by Airbus to tour the star of the show.
Our main guide was the affable Airbus flight test division vice president Fernando Alonso who had flown as flight test engineer on the first flight of MSN001. Sadly admitting to having no family links whatsoever with the world champion Formula 1 racing driver who shares his name, Alonso proudly showed us around his charge, test aircraft MSN004 (pictured above) and the first A380 to receive a full airline livery.
Escorting us along a main deck (pictured below) stuffed with banks of flight tests stations, data storage units, power management devices and water barrels used for ballast and controlling the aircraft’s centre of gravity, Alonso‘s enthusiasm was almost infectious.
Up close and personal, the first impressions of the main deck are its sheer width and spaciousness. Although cluttered with racks of data gathering and telemetry devices, as well as several hundred kilometres of orange test wiring, there is no disguising the voluminous potential of this goliath. The vertical sidewalls are a striking feature, allowing a maximum width of 6.6m (21ft 7in), and contrasting with the curved interior sides of virtually any other aircraft we had seen.
Overhead, the exposed ducting of the air conditioning system rattled sharply every few minutes as the system was purged to blow out the ice that formed quickly inside the piping in the heavy humidity of the Singaporean afternoon. Now and then an errant shard would escape the confines of the non-standard piping, and bounce around the floor like a short-lived pebble.
Heading aft, we were given our first opportunity to view the vast spread of the wings from inside the fuselage (pictured above), and truly appreciate its massive 845.8 sq m (9,100sq ft) area as well as its dramatic inboard dihedral. Gazing out at the most expansive wing in commercial history was one thing, climbing the spiral aft stairway (part of which is pictured below) was yet another. Following Alonso up the stairs, which are recessed into the curvature of the aft pressure bulkhead, we emerged on to the upper deck
It was up here, perhaps more than on the main deck, where the true feeling strikes you of being on an aircraft completely and dramatically different from anything else you’ve experienced - let alone flown. The effect contrasts strongly, for example, with that of climbing to the club-like, narrow body top deck of the Boeing 747.
To all intents and purposes at the top of the A380 aft stairs the cabin of an A330 stretches out in front of you (pictured above), and to either side you glimpse a wing (pictured below) that appears to be proportionally sized, rather than being in reality a whole deck below you!
Wondering if the horizontal stabiliser is easily visible from the top deck we peer out of a window and clearly see the tip of the right hand unit (pictured above). Hardly surprising really, considering the A380’s stabiliser span is around 2m wider than the wingspan of the 737-200. Going forward we then descend another unique feature, a wide, double stairway taking us down to the spacious vestibule area by door one (below).
Here A380 experimental test pilot Peter Chandler takes over the tour and guides us up several steps to the forward mezzanine area housing the flight deck. The cockpit door opens up to - not surprisingly - one of the largest, roomiest flight decks ever designed for a modern jet transport. Chandler’s 'front office', instantly familiar to Airbus pilots because of its side stick controllers, incorporates eight liquid crystal display panels and two oddly bulbous protrusions on the pedestal either side of the power levers. These are the famous keyboard cursor control units or (KCCUs), which are fancy names for a cursor control trackball and selector device that allows the crew to point and click their way through the flight in comfort, no matter what the turbulence outside.
While my colleagues attempt to elucidate from Chandler if the industry has come up with a less politically correct term for these anthropomorphic bulges, I look to see if the wingtips are visible from the cockpit. It turns out there are no naughty names for the KCCU (yet) and no sight of the wingtip - unless you really press your face right up against the glass, suggests Chandler. I point my camera over the top of the glare shield to see what the view over the nose is like (below). It turns out this is the one area where the view belies the size of the behemoth behind us. The ramp appears quite close, thanks to the mid-level positioning of the flight deck, and the rather snub-nosed profile of the A380.
All too soon it is time to leave. A TV camera crew “needs another shot” and we are getting close to press conference time ourselves. Before we go, however, we take a final stroll round and under the aircraft with A380 product marketing director Richard Carcaillet. For a while we stand, enveloped in the balmy embrace of the Singapore afternoon, in a sort of awed silence beneath the imperious tail (below), rising to an amazing 24.3m (six stories) above us. “You really have to see it, to believe it,” says Carcaillet. For once, we journalists have simply nothing more to say.