Airbus braced for A350 ramp-up as MSN5 nears flight

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Airbus is expecting to fly its final flight-test A350 by the end of the month as it prepares for production ramp-up, with the final assembly line already handling aircraft up to MSN10.

Certification of the first customer aircraft, MSN6, has commenced with the European Aviation Safety Agency while the fifth test airframe, MSN5, is set to start the route proving part of the certification campaign.

MSN5 will be “the most visible” aircraft in the final parts of the test effort, said A350 programme chief Didier Evrard, speaking during a briefing in Toulouse.

This aircraft – which, like MSN2, is cabin-equipped – will be used for extended operations (ETOPS) checks, as well as a number of technical tests such as those for electromagnetic interference.

Evrard says the test aircraft will continue to be “busy” until August but that certification remains “on track” for the third quarter. The first four airframes have logged over 1,900h. Evrard says that more than 70% of the certification documentation has been submitted to EASA and that all of the paperwork will have been handed over by the end of summer.

While there remain inevitable uncertainties in such a critical programme, Evrard says there is “no reason not to be confident”.

Initial early long flights of the A350-900 – with Airbus pilots but Lufthansa and Air France cabin crews serving volunteer passengers – were “very successful and rewarding” and have generated “very good feedback”, he states, notably about spaciousness and ease of crew service.

There is progress on weight reduction of the airframe, says Evrard, with the aircraft currently at 119t, about 3.3t above specification.

Two initial Qatar Airways aircraft are approaching completion, the first of which is due to be delivered by the end of this year.

Evrard says the ramp-up is in evidence with the final assembly line at Toulouse currently running at a rate of two per month. Airbus intends to raise this to “close to rate three” at the beginning of 2015, he says, but acknowledges that there is still “high pressure” on the supply chain.

The final assembly line is handling MSN10 while some of the larger production centres – the UK wing plant at Broughton and facilities at St Nazaire and Hamburg – are working on MSN17 and MSN18.

But some major components are already being manufactured for aircraft far down the line, such as the vertical fin for MSN29 being built in Stade, the tail cone for MSN38 in Illescas, and structures for MSN39 in Nantes.

Spirit AeroSystems, which manufactures the centre fuselage, had been a source of concern to Airbus in the early stages of the A350 programme.

But Evrard says the company had progressed, with Airbus’s assistance, and has achieved “much better control” of quality and supply, and he is confident that it will be able to meet the ramp-up demand. Spirit says it is “working closely with our customer to support the rates on this important programme”.

Evrard says that 2.5% of 213 suppliers within its A350 chain have been subject to a transformation plan to reduce risk, while another 7.5% have been undergoing joint improvement efforts.

Production of subassemblies for the larger A350-1000 will start in the fourth quarter. The first carbonfibre lay-up in Nantes, as well as the first metal cut, are due to take place in the “coming weeks”, says Evrard. Tooling is in place for the aircraft, some of it dedicated while other assemblies will use -900 tools.

Airbus is using the results of -900 flight-test and static data to optimise the design of its bigger sister. But the -1000 will also benefit from increased simulation, rather than physical testing. Airbus will not repeat the iron bird, wing-bend or ground-vibration tests for the jet.

Evrard expects the first -1000 to enter the line around MSN60, and for its flight-test campaign to take “a little bit less” than a year. Dedicated flight testing with the higher-thrust Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engine will begin in summer 2015 with first flight of the -1000 scheduled for 2016.