Airbus aims to finally start assembling first A350 centre wingbox in August

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Airbus expects to begin assembling a key subsection for the first A350 in August as it strives to keep on the programme's revised schedule and achieve a first flight in mid-2012.

Under the adjusted plan revealed in April, construction of the centre wingbox for A350 number one was scheduled to begin around mid-year at Airbus's plant in Nantes. This was three months later than originally planned after Airbus decided to use some margin to fine-tune the design of the fuselage structure. However, a manufacturing issue with metallic parts has delayed the start of assembly slightly further, with it now to begin in August, says A350 programme chief Didier Evrard.

a350-wingbox 

 © Airbus/computer rendering  by EIAI
The first centre wingbox is about to become a reality

"There was a problem with the machining of some aluminium lithium fittings by a supplier, but this is fixed so we can start the centre wingbox assembly for MSN001 in August," he says. "This was the latest we could start the assembly process without impacting the programme."

A key milestone in the XWB's production programme was the commissioning of the tooling for keelbeam in Nantes in June, says Evrard. "This is a large piece of machinery that enables the lower shell of the keelbeam and the lower panel of centre fuselage to be laid up in one go. We'll start using this tooling in August so we can begin assembling the first keelbeam before year-end."

Meanwhile, the tooling for the four carbonfibre wing covers (two upper and two lower) have been delivered from the USA to Airbus's plants in Illescas, Spain, and Stade, Germany. These will be used to produce the first wing covers in August.

"The next six months will see all the critical first composite parts for MSN001 being constructed," says Evrard. "There will be one pre-production run [of components] to test the integrity, then we'll do MSN001."

Final assembly of the first A350 will begin in Toulouse in September 2011, with first flight in mid-2012 and deliveries starting to Qatar Airways a year later.

Unlike Boeing's schedule with the 787, Airbus's objective is to begin full-scale fatigue testing at the start of 2012, six months before the first flight. Boeing is yet to begin this exercise, but says it aims to start "very soon".

Airbus secured a memorandum of understanding for 15 A350s from HK Airlines at Farnborough for delivery from 2018, through the conversion of part of its existing commitment for 23 A330s. Meanwhile, Kuwaiti lessor ALAFCO has switched its 12 A350-800s to the larger -900 variant. Separately, the airframer's Chinese composite manufacturing joint venture has contracted Spain's Alestis Aerospace to supply parts for the A350's belly fairing. Production in China is due to begin in 2012.