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What Next for the A380?

  • Friday, 28th January 2005
  • Reading time: about 10 minutes

Following last weeks unveiling of the Airbus A380, we provide an overview of the mammoth international operation involved in the construction, transportation and testing of the composite jumbo.

Airbus designed an entirely new final assembly complex to assemble the whole aircraft on one single station instead of several, gaining time and productivity. Airbus also elected to use the competences existing at its european centres with the assembly taking place in Toulouse and customisation in Hamburg. In Toulouse the various sub-assemblies produced throughout Europe are put together.

Construction and assembly
A380 sections are made at plants around Europe and transported by ship, barge and road to Toulouse, in southern France.

The UK designed and built the wings for the A380 Airbus’ two sites in the UK, Filton, near Bristol and Broughton, North Wales.

Filton is the centre for the multi-national integrated wing design team and the aircraft component management teams for both the A380 wing and A380 landing gear.

Filton also has a rib manufacturing facility where 40 of the 124 composite wing ribs in an A380 wing-set are manufactured. Broughton is the ultimate destination for the 32,000 components which comprise a set of A380 wings. These components and sub-assemblies are assembled into a complete wingbox – measuring over 45 metres along the leading edge for the A380. The wingboxes are then equipped with more components, including the installation of fuel, pneumatic and hydraulic systems and wiring.

The 83,500 square metre Broughton factory, believed to be the largest factory built in the UK in recent years, was built to house wing assembly for the A380 as well as other aircraft manufacturing activity. At more than 400m (1,310 ft) long, 200m (656 ft) wide and with a peak height of 35m (115 ft), the floor area of the West Factory is equivalent to 12 full size football pitches.

France produces the centre wing box and front section of the fuselage. Several major components of the A380 are manufactured and assembled at Airbus sites in Nantes, St Nazaire, and Méaulte prior to technical final assembly in Toulouse’s Final Assembly Line.

In Nantes, a 10,000 square metre (107,640 square feet) workshop houses the manufacture and assembly of the centre wing box, the first to be made from carbon fibre reinforced plastic, and regarded to be one of the innovative features of the A380.

At St Nazaire, the fuselage assembly hall has been increased by some 5,000 square metres (53,820 sq ft) to assemble, equip and test the forward and centre section of the A380 fuselage. To be constructed the central fuselage alone requires five separate large components, including the centre wing box and landing gear bays which are manufactured at Nantes and another Airbus site at Méaulte. Airbus has installed a laser-based measuring system to ensure components are joined with maximum accuracy.

Germany produces the fuselage and vertical tail unit which are manufactured and assembled at the Nordenham, Stade, and Hamburg sites in North Germany. The fuselage shells are produced in Nordenham and are then shipped to Hamburg in large special containers using a roll-on-roll-off system.

Once in Hamburg, the fuselage shells are assembled in the newly-built Major Component Assembly. The Hamburg plant delivers three A380 fuselage sections: the forward section behind the cockpit, the rear fuselage section, and the upper half of the fuselage shell above the wings which is transported to St Nazaire for further assembly. At the Stade “composite” site the vertical tail plane for the A380 is manufactured, as well as landing flaps shells and pressure bulkheads.

The plant has become the central processing facility for carbon fibre reinforced plastic over the last 20 years with the A380 tail plane among the largest composite structural components for passenger aircraft in the world.

Spain contributes the horizontal tail plane, the rear fuselage tail cone and the belly fairing for the A380.

After arrival of all the parts in Toulouse, all sections are moved into position on the jigs in the main assembly hall for final assembly. When all the parts are in position, a 1,200 tonne jig, with five levels and four lifts to facilitate access, envelops the aircraft. The three sections of fuselage are joined together while the wings joined to the complete fuselage after being moved into position first by overhead cranes and then laser alignment. It takes around 4,000 rivets to join one wing to the fuselage.

The aircraft will stay in the Final Assembly Station for one week when at an average production rate of four aircraft per month, before being moved out of the hall, through its vast 90m-wide sliding doors, and then into the adjacent huge hall, where there is room for three A380s to have their systems completed and tested, and a mini-cabin installed. The engines are also fitted at this location.

Over the following weeks a series of very extensive tests are conducted to ensure that all electrical and hydraulic systems, as well as all moving parts such as the rudder, spoilers and elevators, are in full working order. As with all Airbus models, all sections are fully tested checked and controlled at their respective production sites. The purpose of the checks on the final assembly line is to ensure that all parts work well together. Once these final controls completed, the aircraft is moved outside to have its cabin tested. Air is pumped into the cabin to increase pressure to far beyond what the aircraft will be subjected to in service to test for leakages.

Once all tests have been completed the aircraft is handed over to the Flight Test Department to be prepared for its first flight.

Testing Update
The first A380 to fly has almost completed its ground tests and will shortly be handed to the Flight Test Department at Airbus. Then it will begin up to 1000 hours of test flights leading to final certification. It will later be joined by four other development aircraft which will perform more than 1000 additional hours of test flights between them.

After being assembled, MSN001, the first of four initial production models assembled by Airbus, spent three months at the A380 Final Assembly Line having all its essential systems fully tested, including its hydraulics, landing gear and electrics. Safety tests are also performed at this point on the fuel pipes to check for leaks and ensure the system is operating correctly. All these tests are due to be completed by the first week in February.

While ground tests have been carried out on MSN001 the Flight Test Department has been performing tests on A380 equipment installed in the “iron bird” development simulator. The test pilots and flight test engineers have been flying a “virtual first flight campaign” using actual A380 on-board computers and all the real cockpit systems to be found on the aircraft. By the time they take MSN001 up for the first time they will have flown their first flight profile in the simulator to get familiar with the expected behaviour of the aircraft.

The second A380 to come off the line, MSN002, is currently undergoing four weeks of ground vibration tests, which are essential for the first flight clearance and certification programme. Around 900 “acceleration sensors” are installed on the aircraft’s lifting surfaces, decks, engines, systems and landing gears. More than 20 “exciters” force the structure to vibrate so that the way it responds can be closely monitored.

The first A380 airframe to have been assembled is being used for the Static Tests. This frame will never fly and is not equipped with either hydraulics or avionics. It is now undergoing a series of rigorous structural tests which will feed back aircraft loading data to the flight test team before the first flight of MSN001. These tests are being performed in a purpose-built building next to the Assembly Line and are being carried out by test specialists CEAT. The first phase of static tests which must be completed before first flight clearance is two-thirds of the way through its nine-week programme. These include tests to establish how the aircraft’s wings and whole fuselage behave when subjected to both normal loads and exceptional loads such as they may encounter during flight in extremely rare circumstances. In December the wings were successfully submitted to the normal weight of the aircraft in flight.

Once the initial phase is complete the team will begin a year-long certification test programme, looking at how the aircraft resists ultra-high loads under a wide range of flying and rolling conditions. Post-certification a series of tests will be run to load the aircraft’s fuselage and wings until they break. These tests allow engineers to check that the ruptures occur where they are predicted to occur and to aid future aircraft development programmes.

Another airframe is being used for Fatigue Tests in Dresden (Germany). Sections for this frame were ferried by boat from Hamburg to the Test Centre in Dresden, where these tests will be performed from September 2005. The aircraft has been assembled in a new hangar at Dresden airport specially built by aeronautical testing specialists IABG and its partner IMA. The aircraft will undergo the most extensive fatigue tests ever carried out on a complete aircraft frame.

The aim of these tests, which will last 26 months and represent the effects of 47,500 flights, is to simulate the flight cycles i.e. the effects of pressurisation and depressurisation which the aircraft will be subjected to during service, but in a much shorter period. To achieve this, the aircraft is fitted onto a test rig which comprises 1,800 tonnes of steel.

Four A380s – all to be used as test aircraft – are now assembled and production of major components for others at Airbus’ sites around Europe is progressing as planned. The first A380 to fly has completed many of the ground and systems tests it must undergo and will soon be handed over to the Airbus Flight Test Department. This aircraft was painted in Airbus colours and revealed to the world at the Reveal launch last week.

A380 Fact sheet
Typical passenger/cargo load (tonnes) 555
First + (Business +) Economy layout (22+96+437)
Maximum passenger load 853

With typical passenger/cargo load (15,000 km) 9,700 miles (Boeing 747=7900 miles)
Number of engines 4 (Trent 900 or GP7200)

Fuselage diameter (m) 7.14 (horiz)
Overall length (m) 72.7
Wingspan (m) 79.8
Overall height (m) 24.1
Wing area (sq m) 846
Wing sweep (degrees) 33.5
Typical cruise speed (Mach) 0.85
Maximum operating speed (Mach) 0.89

(Standard and highest option)
Maximum take off weight (tonnes) 560
Maximum landing weight (tonnes) 386

150 Tonnes (Boeing 747 56 Tonnes)
Maximum payload (tonnes) 84 (Structural)
Maximum fuel capacity (litres) 372,000
A380 consumes 12% less fuel per passenger than 747. A380 claim that the A380 will be the first long-haul aircraft to consume less than three litres of fuel per passenger over 100 km, a rate comparable to an economical family car.

COST of A380 is £150m each compared to Boeing’s 747 which cost £107.

Launch date Dec-00
First airline delivery (Singapore Airlines) Spring 06 <

To date, Airbus has received 139 firm orders for the A380 (or A380F) from 13 customers. In alphabetical order they are:
Air France: 10
Emirates: 43, (includes two freighters)
Etihad Airways: 4
Federal Express: 10 (freighters)
International Lease Finance Corporation: (five A380s and five A380 freighters)
Korean Air Lines: 5
Lufthansa: 15
MAS: 6
Qantas Airways: 2
Qatar Airways: 2
Singapore Airlines: 10
Thai Airways International: 6
Virgin Atlantic Airways: 6

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