August 16, 2019
Collecting a brand new aircraft from the manufacturer is a big moment for any airline. Here's what goes on behind the scenes of a delivery flight. In this case, our very first Airbus A350
Have a look at our little video below. It shows Captains JJ Burrows and Nick Smith flying our first Airbus A350 from the factory in Toulouse on its delivery flight to London Gatwick.
On the flight deck, it’s business as usual. Everything is going to plan and all is calm. Behind the flight deck door in the aircraft cabin, the atmosphere is very different. With only 19 passengers on the giant jet, a bit of a party is underway: onboard are some of the engineers and team leaders responsible for making the project happen, and this homecoming flight is the fruit of all their labour. Bringing a new aircraft type into service is a huge undertaking, so who could blame them for having a bit of a celebration? As the seatbelt sign is switched off, the Champagne corks are popped, top-class nibbles are distributed and more than a couple of tears are shed. Here’s why.
The A350 project started when our fleet planning and commercial teams identified the requirement for replacement aircraft. They’re constantly analysing our operation to make sure we have the right types and correct numbers of aircraft to take you where you want to go. As our fleets of Airbus A340s and Boeing 747s reach their twilight years, we decided to replace them with the Airbus A350, and announced it to the world via a PR flight from Gatwick to the 2016 Farnborough airshow with Richard onboard. Then the hard work started, and this massive project sprung into life.
In the cabin, interiors, galleys and inflight entertainment systems had to go from drawing board to real life. Seats were chosen and designed, then crash-tested at high g-forces. The livery had to have sufficient contrast on vital signage, and everything needed to meet the highest fireproofing standards.
The electronics had to work flawlessly. The software was sourced and tested, data downloads were synced with our ground systems, and processes and procedures brought into our existing operation. Much was new to us including how we collect and analyse data. The electronic flight bag that provides the pilots with all their information had to be built for this aircraft (it involves a laptop docking station called ‘the toaster’)! And every step of the way, there were incredibly stringent certification tests and approvals.
Training had to be designed and planned for thousands of people, including pilots, engineers, airport teams, cargo loaders and cabin crew. Everything from safety procedures to onboard service was designed and tested, much of it using brand new equipment. Pilots were sent to fly for other airlines who were already operating the A350 while engineers were trained at Airbus in Toulouse and back in the UK on their sophisticated training programmes.
New training rigs were built at our in-house training centre. We had to get the aircraft fully compliant with all safety and security requirements. In engineering, we needed to modify the hangars, buy in the tools, get the spares in place (our first Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine arrived a week ago) and make sure we had engineering support around the world. There were hundreds of manuals and procedures to write, security cards to design and print, and a million other details to finalise. Back in the office, our marketing and sales teams focused on making the aircraft a success. Phew.
While we were busy getting ready, Airbus was building our complicated, high tech masterpiece. Different parts of the aircraft are made in different countries and are then flown into Toulouse where they’re assembled into the finished article. When that’s done and everything installed, it’s off to the paint shop before emerging for the final few weeks of the process.
At every step of the way our team of engineers, working alongside Airbus, make sure the aircraft is perfect in every way. Our aircraft assets manager Paul Reilly was the first Virgin Atlantic employee to ride in our new jet when he took off on the first test flight to make sure everything was working correctly. He sent back some extraordinary photos, including this one of a French military jet which popped up to take a look at our new pride and joy.
When Airbus are happy everything is as good as it can be, the aircraft enters what is possibly the most intense part of the process – acceptance week at the factory in Toulouse. Three years and eight months, 400 people, 11 workstreams and it all comes down to this. To say this week can be quite tense is an understatement.
We have a small team on the ground in Toulouse during acceptance week. Their main job is to go over the aircraft inch by inch. Every nut, every bolt, every connection is inspected in a carefully laid out plan. Like anything of this size and complexity, there are things to attend to, and the chosen engineers Paul Reilly, Ian Arnell, Stu Moreton and Paul Christodoulou slowly work through the list. With G-VLUX being the ‘head of Version’ aircraft – in other words, the first of its type into our fleet – there’s a certain amount of extra work because so much of the interior and systems are completely new.
A couple of days before handover there’s another critical moment in the programme: the customer acceptance flight. Performed by Captain JJ Burrows and A350 technical pilot Captain Chris Rosher, and overseen by our flight ops engineering manager James Matthews. This is a standard flight that takes place for every aircraft delivery, but the flying is anything but routine. It’s an unusual flight which JJ described as a great honour to fly. On the three-hour outing the aircraft is put through its paces and all the systems and flying controls are tested. Running through the packed test schedule, the aircraft is flown at high speeds and low speeds to test the overspeed and stall warnings, then flown to its limits so all the warning horns are tested (gulp).
The air pressurisation system is tested to the point where the oxygen masks drop, and all the systems are checked to make sure everything is operating normally, and the wheels and flaps come up and down at the right speed. To no one’s surprise, G-VLUX performed flawlessly. She was then handed back to Paul and his team for final inspections.
As the team on the tarmac were wrapping up their work, flying into Toulouse were the next group involved in acceptance week – our finance team, lawyers and the big bosses. The next part of the process was to take place in a small room behind closed doors.
Buying an aircraft is a financial transaction of epic proportions. We’re not allowed to say how much the A350 costs but it’s nine figures. Overseeing the purchase was Ahsan Gulabkhan, a legal director in our general counsel office who’s been working on the project since the beginning, making sure all the contracts and paperwork were in order. From early on, that also involved working with Shane Dohery and the treasury team who look at the different options and find the best way to finance this massive investment.
It’s not just the aircraft either. Contracts were drawn up for the Rolls Royce engines and many other suppliers. There are countless ways of pulling this all together, and it can take up to a year to get all the different finance structures in place. Often the transaction involves a back-to-back sale where we sell the aircraft on to lessors. It’s incredibly complicated stuff.
Once the Transfer of Title day arrives, everyone gathers in a room and runs through a carefully prepared script. The first thing Ahsan does is make sure our engineers have completed their technical document review and are happy with the aircraft. After a final check of the documents it’s time to press the button, and there’s a tense and hopefully short wait while that monster amount of money floats around the ether. When Airbus confirms it has reached their account, the documents are signed and dated. It’s finally ours! It’s then time to register the aircraft with the UK authorities before a celebration dinner featuring speeches, gifts and very nice French wine.
The delivery centre at Airbus is its own mini terminal building complete with check-in, security and boarding gate. With a sweeping arc of mirrored glass, it seems to have been built with the sole intention of making the aircraft look as beautiful as possible. As the team waited to board, more than a few people looked on wistfully. At moments like these even those who’ve worked in the industry for years take time to marvel at this feat of engineering they’ve helped create. It was a proud moment and a major milestone in a long, tough project.
And then, finally, our new A350 said hello to her first ever passengers. After waving goodbye to the lovely people of Airbus, cabin crew Lisa Condell and John Lobo-Pires welcomed the team onboard for the short hop to London Gatwick.
At last, there was time to relax, chat, enjoy a glass of Champagne and experience this quiet, efficient and magnificent machine in all her glory. And yes, she really does have a new car smell. Here’s a few photos from onboard the flight home:
On arrival at a very windy Gatwick, JJ touched down smoothly in front of a crowd of aircraft enthusiasts who had come out just to see our new shiny machine. Welcome home, G-VLUX. For most of the team, there’s little time to rest as they’ll be back in Toulouse any day now to start the acceptance process all over again. G-VPOP, Mamma Mia, will be here in a couple of weeks. For everyone else at Virgin Atlantic, we’re all incredibly proud of this flying machine and what she’ll deliver to you, our customers. On 10 September G-VLUX will be jetting off to New York marking the start of a new era. Bon Voyage, Red Velvet.