The world's biggest airliner, the Airbus A380, is on course for flight testing next year

As the aerospace community prepares to gather at Farnborough, 1,000km (620 miles) south in Toulouse the finishing touches are being put to the prototype of the world's largest airliner - the Airbus A380. If all goes to plan, by the time the industry regroups at Le Bourget in less than 12 months, two A380s will be in flight test and the aircraft a quarter of the way to certification.

But the European manufacturer faces a number of hurdles as it prepares to fly the A380 and clear it for entry into service [EIS] - due in early 2005 and the second quarter of 2006, respectively. Not only are there the issues associated with making the world's first double-deck, twin-aisle airliner ready for passengers, but also the fact that the aircraft embodies more technology and composites than any Airbus before it. And, more than ever, the manufacturer will be working in the glare of the world's spotlights to prove its doubters wrong by ensuring the introduction is smooth. Planning and work is already well advanced to guarantee it will be. In fact things have gone remarkably smoothly so far, with the complex air, land and sea transport plan working as advertised and the production schedule minute-perfect.

The only setback in recent months has been the decision by two key A380 customers, Air France and Virgin Atlantic, to defer deliveries. Virgin partly attributed its 18-month delay to concerns over the state of readiness of some major airports for the giant - in particular Los Angeles (LAX).

As part of its preparation for the A380's introduction, Airbus has identified more than 60 airports that will handle the aircraft before 2010, and Airbus executive vice-president, A380 programme, Charles Champion says: "Many are ready to handle the A380 today, while others are preparing to accept the aircraft at entry into service." Although he remains optimistic that LAX will be ready in two years' time, Champion concedes: "We are not completely out of the woods yet."

Another concern thought to have prompted Virgin's decision to slip deliveries was the prospect of suffering the growing pains of being an early operator of a new aircraft. And the impact of any delays or cancellations will only be magnified with an aircraft the size of the A380.

But again Champion is confident the foundations are in place for a smooth introduction. "The A380 will be a mature aircraft at entry into service [EIS]," he says. Airbus aims to give the aircraft a "virtual dispatch reliability" of 100% from day one by devising a complex, interactive support structure for its service introduction, which will integrate the manufacturer, its spares centre, the operators and suppliers, along with on-board diagnostic systems to second-guess failures and all but eliminate aircraft-on-ground situations.

Since the early days of the A3XX programme (the A380's project name before launch), Airbus has kept both existing and potential customers in the loop by holding a number of customer focus group (CFG) and working group (WG) meetings around the world each year. The first four CFG meetings were held in 1996, and "by the end of 2003, 145 CFGs and WGs had been completed", says Champion. "We are now focused on maintenance, customisation and EIS readiness." Testing is under way at plants across Europe, involving Airbus factories as well as suppliers. Structural testing has been carried out on major components, and static testing is under way on a complete airframe (designated manufacturer's serial number (MSN) 5000 and dubbed ES - "essais statiques") in Toulouse. This airframe was the first A380 to be assembled in Toulouse and was moved from the assembly line to the adjacent hangar for structural testing on 27 May.

The A380 ES airframe will be used for structural tests that will feed back data before the A380's first flight next year. Once flight testing begins, the ES will provide data for the certification programme.

Test programme

ES will begin a two-year test programme in November, with nine weeks of initial trials before it starts a year-long certification test programme. After certification, ultimate load tests will be performed on the fuselage and wing through to structural failure.

The sixth A380 built is also destined for a life on the ground, this time as a fatigue test airframe at IABG in Dresden, where it is due to arrive towards the end of this year. IABG will start round-the-clock fatigue testing in October next year, and the structure will undergo the equivalent of 60,000 flight cycles by 2008. IABG aims to perform the equivalent of 900 flights a week.

By the conclusion of the 26-month fatigue test in 2008, 47,500 cycles should be completed, which is equivalent to 60,000 actual flights because a fatigue load enhancement factor of 1.1 will be used.

A number of full-size test rigs have been designated "Zero", referring to the fact that they are fully representative system ground-test items that are undergoing testing ahead of the first flying A380, "Aircraft One" (MSN001). Airbus UK is the designated landing gear integration manager, and began six months of intensive systems tests on "Landing Gear Zero" - a complete A380 main and nose undercarriage - at Filton in early July.

Once these "safety of flight" trials are completed at the end of the year, long-term endurance and maturity tests will begin.

Meanwhile, the A380 iron bird - "Aircraft Zero" - was completed at Airbus's Saint Martin site in Toulouse late last year and began testing in December. Under test are all the major control actuation systems and the landing gear retraction system. The aircraft will be linked to one of three A380 development simulators currently being completed nearby, to enable pilots to "fly" the iron bird.

The passenger systems are being tested in "Cabin Zero" at Airbus Deutschland's Hamburg Finkenwerder site. A dedicated building at the plant contains a cabin integration test rig and test items for the A380's air-generation units, electronic system, water/oxygen system, air distribution system and bleed from the auxiliary power unit. It also contains an Arctic cell.

"The test items are broken down by module, enabling them to be tested independently or combined for a test of the complete cabin systems," says Champion.

Engine testing

Flight testing of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 - one of the two engine types that will power the A380 - began on 17 May in Toulouse on the A340-300 development aircraft. The other engine, the General Electric/Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance GP7200, is due to fly on GE's Boeing 747 flight-test aircraft before the year-end.

Champion says the final element of systems testing will be carried out by the A380 development aircraft during the flight-test programme, due to begin in February next year.

Three A380 airframes have entered the final assembly line at Toulouse, and the rate is running at about one a month - compared with a maximum of four a month when the line reaches its peak. The first aircraft to be completed was the static test airframe, and the second - MSN001 - will be the first of four flight-test aircraft. Once their role in flight testing is completed, all the development aircraft except MSN001 will be brought up to production standard and reworked for delivery to customers.

Champion says the delivery of the first three aircraft subassembly sets went "better than expected…the road transit from Langon to Toulouse is planned to be carried out over three nights, but it has been completed in just two. We are now going to review the transport process."

Final assembly of the A380 is undertaken in two stations at the Jean-Luc Lagardere site in Toulouse. Uniquely for an Airbus, all the major structural assembly (wing, empennage and fuselage joins) occurs together, and is undertaken at the first station (41/40). The aircraft is then rolled to another area within the assembly hangar (station 31/30) for structural completion - equipment installation and system testing. Here "power-on" occurs ahead of the aircraft being moved outside to station 18, where further testing is undertaken ahead of production flight tests (station 15) and a ferry flight to Hamburg Finkenwerder for competition and painting.

Subassemblies for the first flying aircraft, MSN001 came together at station 41/40 on 27 May, and the complete aircraft was rolled out on its own wheels and moved to station 31/30 on 7 July, making way for structural assembly of the second flight-test aircraft (MSN004) to start at 41/40. That began this month.

MSN001 is due to reach the "power-on" milestone this month and the aircraft will then undergo several months of ground testing and the installation of flight-test equipment before having the starring role at the A380 roll-out ceremony, due late this year or early next.

Although the dedicated paint shop for the A380 is at Finkenwerder, Airbus will paint the first two A380s in one of the production hangars in Toulouse. The third aircraft and onwards will be flown to Finkenwerder for painting, although Airbus will retain a painting capability in Toulouse.

The first batch of A380s will be R-R-powered because this is the lead variant, due for delivery to launch customer Singapore Airlines in the second quarter of 2006. "Four Trent-powered A380s will be dedicated to the initial development flight-test and certification campaign," says Champion.

The first two A380s - MSN001 and 004 - will be equipped with extensive flight-test instrumentation and used for airframe/systems development and certification. The first aircraft is nominally scheduled to fly by early February, with the second following towards the end of March, although Airbus emphasises this schedule is flexible and could change depending on the result of tests in the coming months.

Flight-test programme

The flight-test programme, which will run to about 2,000 flight hours for the initial R-R-powered version, has three elements to it: the first, lasting about two months, is to obtain initial understanding of the behaviour of the aircraft; the second, lasting about six months, runs parallel to the ground-based structural tests and comprises final development and optimisation of the aircraft systems; the third phase will be dedicated to aircraft certification.

The first two aircraft will be tasked with 12 months of initial flight testing, ahead of airworthiness certification, which is scheduled towards the end of the first quarter of 2006. MSN001 will focus on systems, handling qualities and autoland, and 004 will be used for powerplant and performance testing, as well as autoland.

Early flights will initially be used to explore handling, to freeze the A380's aerodynamic configuration. This will include general evaluation flying; anemometric calibration; initial cruise performance measurements; ground effect tests; initial flight envelope expansion and handling qualities evaluation; aerodynamic model identification; initial autopilot/autoland evaluations; and initial engine and systems evaluation. Once the flight envelope clearance is achieved, general performance and development flying will get under way.

The next two A380s to fly - MSN002 and 007 - will be used to concentrate on cabin testing. These aircraft are due to make their first flights in April and May, but will immediately be ferried to the A380 completion centre at Finkenwerder, where they will undergo outfitting and painting before joining the flight-test programme in the third and fourth quarter of next year, respectively.

Before the ferry flights to Finkenwerder, the A380 development aircraft will be tasked with carrying out an initial braking evaluation to ensure it can operate comfortably into the 2,685m (8,800ft) runway at the Hamburg plant.

"MSN002 will be fitted with a complete cabin and will perform extensive testing for the development of cabin and associated systems," says Champion. "It will perform an early long-range [ELR] flight programme with non-revenue passengers on board."

The ELR plan follows that of the A340-600 test programme, which saw the aircraft operating into major airports with a representative load of passengers early in the test programme to provide feedback before the traditional route-proving effort (which, for the A380, will be undertaken later in the programme by MSN007).

MSN002 will have a "medium level" of instrumentation, and will be tasked with a six-month flight-test programme to check cabin systems, internal and external noise, and cold weather trials for both the systems and structure.

As well as running the Toulouse-based ELR programme, 002 will also undertake compatibility checks at various major airports that will have to handle the A380 soon after its introduction, such as Frankfurt Main, London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle. It will also carry out internal and external noise tests. The latter - for certification purposes - will be conducted with the aircraft in take-off and landing configurations, and some will be carried out with fairings attached to the landing gear to identify the reduction in aerodynamic noise that they can offer.

Airbus aims to certificate the A380 to the most stringent departure noise legislation - the "QC2" limit at London Heathrow. The manufacturer will run an early evaluation of aircraft noise, with a noise development test planned in the first quarter of next year at the beginning of the flight-test programme. Champion says MSN007, meanwhile, will be "lightly" instrumented and will undertake a three-month test programme focused mainly on route proving.

The next batch will be the fatigue-test airframe and the first two customer aircraft - MSN003 and MSN005 - both of which are for launch operator Singapore Airlines, which is due to put the A380 into revenue service early in the second quarter of 2006.

The maximum energy rejected take-off test required for certification will be undertaken at the end of the flight-test programme because it can sometimes result in major damage to the aircraft.

The GP7200 test aircraft (MSN009) is due to fly in November 2005 and will be one of two A380s tasked with the development and certification programme for this version. MSN009 will undertake performance and powerplant tests, while a second aircraft, fitted with a complete cabin, will perform the route-proving campaign. Airbus says certification of the GP7200-version "will be in time for entry into service [with launch customer Emirates] in the last quarter of 2006".

By then, the first A380-800 freighter will be in final assembly and the focus will shift to ensuring that version is ready for service entry. The first example, a GP7200-powered aircraft, is due to fly in the second quarter of 2007 and enter service just over a year later in mid-2008 with launch customer FedEx Express.





Source: Flight International