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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 03:39 GMT 04:39 UK
Airbus shows off 'super-jumbo'
By Tom Symonds
BBC News transport correspondent

Airbus A380
The first passenger flight is not expected until December

The world's biggest passenger airliner is an inherently European enterprise - bits of it are built all over the continent.

But it would not fly without its British-built wings, and airlines also have the option of fitting Rolls-Royce engines.

Perhaps its strange then that it has taken a year for Airbus to bring the A380 to the UK.

But when it comes, it will fly over the factories at Broughton in North Wales and Filton in Bristol.

The aim of the flight is to test the facilities at Heathrow that have been laid on for this enormous aircraft.

About 450m has been spent on strengthening runways, widening taxiways and building a new pier of four gates with double airbridges so that up to 850 passengers can board the plane's two decks as quickly as possible.

So the A380 is not a cheap visitor. But it is very likely to become the "workhorse of the skies" in future, as common as Boeing's jumbo jet, the 747. So airports have to invest significant sums to prepare for it.

Stress test

At the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, where the body of each A380 is assembled in an astonishing five days, they are working through the aircraft's flight test programme.

There have been a few hitches.

Airlines demand the innards of their planes are built to a custom specification. The electrics have to be tailored to the entertainment systems, lighting and seating the airlines plan to install.

It all took longer than expected, adding six months to the programme.

In a stress test during which the wing is bent to simulate the pressures of flight, a crack was noticed.

But it developed at the outer limits of the plane's specifications, and shouldn't pose problems to the test programme.

Flight simulator

Airbus test pilots are now fine tuning the super-jumbo's controls. At the company's Toulouse headquarters Captain Ed Strongman let me take control of the A380's simulator.

We sit in a box on hydraulic stilts, peering out at computer generated fields and towns below.

[British Airways] is fairly lukewarm about adopting Airbus's giant.

The plane is flown using a one-handed joystick, that makes it feel more like a video game than the real thing.

A slight movement of the hand and 400 tonnes of virtual aircraft turns smoothly over a virtual southern England.

Better still, a click of a button puts the autopilot on, and we can sit back as the plane follows its course.

Captain Strongman tells me the size of the aircraft is pretty much irrelevant.

Modern planes have computers that calculate what the pilot wants to do, and make the necessary adjustments, to keep the aircraft level and the journey smooth.

Unlike an airline disaster movie, pilots don't have to wrestle with the controls.

Passenger flights

As well as testing, for Airbus it is now all about shifting orders.

The A380 sold well when it was first announced, but orders have dropped off recently. That is often the case at this stage.

Airlines who wanted to sign up before the new plane enters service have already done so. The rest will wait and see.

One carrier doing just that is British Airways.

The airline is currently reviewing its fleet of predominantly Boeing aircraft, and it is fairly lukewarm about adopting Airbus's giant. Winning over Britain's biggest airline would be a major coup.

As for the world's air passengers, they'll have to wait a little longer to travel in this two-storey mammoth of the skies. What will it be like to queue with up to 850 people to get on board?

The first passenger flight isn't expected to be until December this year; it wll probably be a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Sydney.

See inside an Airbus A380 flight simulator


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