Flying Airbus's gentle giant - test-pilot's first impressions

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Whether on ground or in the air, handling the A380 is a breeze, says Flight International's test pilot Mike Gerzanics

Flight International was last week among the first group of aviation magazines invited to fly the A380, and we discovered this giant airliner behaves more like a small one from the pilot's perspective. In a preview to next week's full Flight International flight test report, our pilot Mike Gerzanics talked to Max Kingsley-Jones about his first impressions flying the world's largest airliner.

© Photography by Max Kingsley-Jones
The taxi cameras enable easy placing of the nose gear on the centerline

The 3h 30min flight from Toul­ouse was made in the first A380 test aircraft (MSN001/F-WWOW) on 14 September. Equipped with Rolls-Royce Trent 972 engines rated at 72,000lb thrust (320kN), this aircraft has accumulated over 1,000h and 800 flights since its maiden sortie on 27 April last year.

The fully automatic engine start procedure is quintessentially Airbus although for the first time on a fly-by-wire Airbus the start master switch is on the overhead panel rather than the centre console behind the thrust levers.

Gerzanics says that taxiing the double-decker with its 79.6m (261ft) wingspan is relatively straight-forward despite its size, thanks to the well-positioned taxi cameras, the feeds from which are shown on the pilot's primary flight display (PFD) and "allow the nose gear to be placed accurately on the centre line". He adds that "while it is a large aircraft, the position and height of the cockpit above the ground, and the landing gear geometry, make it extremely easy to taxi on congested ramps and narrow runways".

The take-off weight for the sortie was 390t (of which 90t was fuel) - well below the 560t maximum - and the departure was made from Toulouse's 3,500m-long 32L. V1 for the take-off with flap "Config 3" was 130kt (240km/h), Vr 140kt and V2 145kt.

© Photography by Max Kingsley-Jones
Mike Gerzanics (left) at the controls of the first A380 test aircraft (MSN001/F-WWOW)

Gerzanics says that the fly-by-wire controls make the "overall handling qualities more akin to an A320 than an A340".

Although the A380 flightdeck configuration borrows extensively from its predecessors, it is more expansive thanks to its wider nose section, which provides enough room for much larger flight management system (FMS) displays on the centre console, says Gerzanics. "These enable graphical en-route flight planning changes, a feature not found on other Airbuses. He adds that "the primary flight and navigation displays are also much deeper, enabling them to provide vertical flightpath information and other features to give increased situational awareness".

But Gerzanics is disappointed with control integration: "The FMS, electronic centralised aircraft monitor (ECAM) and on-board information terminal all have separate control units.

© All photography by Max Kingsley-Jones
The bugged landing speed for the 350t arrival at Toulouse was 131kt

The A380's flightdeck, although well advanced over previous Airbuses, still lags behind the latest cockpits available on Dassault and Gulfstream business jets."

The A380 continues the normal Airbus trend of full envelope protection, he says: "The FBW flight control system makes potentially disastrous asymetric loss of thrust at low speed quite benign."

In the cruise at Mach 0.80 each Trent 972 engine was consuming 3,200kg/h (7,100lb/h) during our test flight at FL300 (30,000ft). At this height the A380's high speed performance was sampled, with no buffet experienced at its Mmo/Vmo speed of 0.89/340kt. The protection system gradually increased pitch to prevent further acceleration until speed is manually reduced.

© All photography by Max Kingsley-Jones
The centre console incorporates new larger FMS displays and controls

The low speed handling was also impressive, says Gerzanics. "Despite its size, the A380 displays agility in the radar traffic pattern close to the airport - it is a big aircraft that 'flies small'."

On final approach, the large chord wing and expansive flaps allow for markedly low approach speeds for such a large aircraft, he adds. "At a landing weight of 350t, with full flap (Config 4) the A380 travelled down the final approach with a 2.5° pitch angle."

The bugged landing speed (VLS) was 131kt, and the rate of descent on touchdown was less than 2ft/sec (0.6m/sec) - the 20-wheel, multi-bogie main landing gear absorbing the arrival smoothly. "Touchdown de-rotation is much smoother than the A340-600, partly due to reduced pitch angle at touchdown and the shorter distance between main and nose gear," says Gerzanics.

With the A380, Airbus has created a docile giant with performance that belies its huge dimensions, says Gerzanics: "It was a surprise that this huge aircraft was such a delight to fly, and that ground-manoeuvring also presents no dramas."

Read Max Kingsley-Jones' blog on the test-flight.