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First test flight of our Airbus A350-1000

By: Dave Gunner

May 28, 2019

50 years since the Airbus story began, our newest aircraft, the A350-1000 XWB takes to the skies for the very first time.

Our Airbus A350-1000 took to the skies for the very first time yesterday when it performed a test flight from Toulouse-Blagnac airport.  It was a special day, not least because the flight took place almost 50 years to the day since the signing of a historic agreement that launched the Airbus story.

At the Paris Air Show on 29th May 1969, the French minister of transport, Jean Chamant and the German minister of economic affairs, Karl Schiller, signed an agreement for the joint development of the Airbus A300 aircraft. The UK was initially included in the agreement but pulled out of the consortium at the last minute (some things never change) although we were later involved in manufacturing the wings.

The first ever Airbus, prototype B1 on its roll out day in 1972

Back then the British aircraft industry was on its last legs, and Boeing dominated the skies. It was a bold decision to move into such an expensive, complex and high-tech market and take on the dominant party – a decision that would kick off half a century of competition and innovation, and change the course of civil aviation. It would also build on the successful European cooperation that had started with Concorde. This is the story of 50 years of Airbus innovation and how it all leads to our beautiful new aircraft, the A350-1000 XWB.

The A300, a true trailblazer

The A300 was Airbus’ first passenger jet and it was designed and built at the same time and by the same teams as Concorde. In fact, the second Concorde and the first A300 were unveiled together in 1972. The A300 was the world’s first wide-body, twin-engine airliner and built in four versions: the B1 (prototype), B2, B4 and -600, as well as a version converted into the Beluga freighter (still used to transport the wings of our A350s from their factory in Broughton).

Chris Davey, currently working on our A350 project. If you were onboard an Orion Airways A300 on the 16th May 1987, it was thanks to Chris that you were able to watch the FA Cup final between Coventry and Tottenham Hotspur live on the entertainment screens.

Chris Davey was the station manager at Gatwick for a charter airline called Orion who used to fly the A300 B4s. He is currently our head of aircraft asset management in our engineering services team responsible for bringing our A350s into our fleet. Having worked with both aircraft we asked Chris to compare the two.

“The A300B4’s were very different to our new A350-1000’s. They had a Flight Engineer, a control column not a side stick, an analogue flight deck with individual instruments and no Central Maintenance Computer. If the crew didn’t call up over the radio we had no idea what was happening on the flight. The A350 will send us a constant stream of data. Each computer had one specific function only and a soft reset had not been invented”. Said Chris. “In the Cabin all the seats were the same with a minimal recline. The IFE was from a single VHS Video tape shown through projectors in each cabin with the sound coming via pneumatic headphones, a very long way from the Zii system on our A350s, with moving maps and videos on demand”.

50 years of flight deck development. The A300 and the A350.

For all that the A300 also contained many cutting-edge features such as the first wind shear warning systems, advanced autopilot, and electrical control of secondary flight systems.

It was named A300 because the original design intention was to carry 300 passengers. This was later downgraded to 250, but the name stuck.

A cross section of 5.64 metres was chosen for the A300. That turned out to be a pretty good decision and has been used on several Airbus models since, including our A340s.

One truly revolutionary aspect of the A300 was the decision to make the components at different locations and ship them to the final assembly line. This set the scene for aircraft manufacturing and established a new level of cooperation between countries.

To start from scratch and build an airliner with as many innovations as the A300 is truly incredible. At first the industry was wary of something so new, and initially sales were poor. But the aircraft soon established itself as comfortable, reliable and efficient and won over passengers and airlines alike.

The original target was to build 300 aircraft, but it was such a success that over 800 were sold to over 80 customers.

Over the years, the A300 evolved into the A330s and A340s that we currently have in our fleet.

Strengthening, the use of Composites

Our A350 wings are made of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic. Being assembled here at the Airbus factory in Broughton.

The A300 was an early adopter of composite material, these are created when you combine two types of material to create something with significantly different properties; typically much stronger. Airbus use carbon fibre, braided together and reinforced with plastic resin. This is lighter than aluminium, stronger than iron and more corrosion resistant than both. The A300 had a very small amount of composites on secondary structures only whereas the latest version of the A350 is about 50% by weight composite.

Airbus innovation continued in other areas on subsequent models. With the A320 they changed the way pilots flew by introducing the sidestick control and a ‘glass’ flight deck where multi-function screens replace the conventional dials. Airbus had gone from the new kids on the block to true pioneers.

The A350XWB

The A350 XWB (if you’re wondering, that stands for eXtra Wide Body) entered commercial service in January 2015 as the world’s most modern and efficient jetliner.  Forty-five years of experience, design, and engineering excellence came together to bring us this incredible new aircraft. As well as all that composite material, the A350 XWB family benefits from the use of other advanced materials such as titanium and new aluminium alloys. The result is a lighter, more durable and cost-efficient jetliner with low maintenance requirements. The combination of these advantages results in 25 per cent lower operating costs, fuel burn and C02 emissions compared to previous-generation aircraft – highlighting Airbus’ commitment to protecting the environment while remaining at the cutting edge of air travel.  Here are just some of the other innovations that make the A350 such a special aircraft:

  • A revolutionary adaptive wing design is inspired by birds that morph during flight to achieve maximum aerodynamic efficiency.
  • The latest-generation Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines are quieter and more efficient.
  • Called ‘Airspace by Airbus’ the innovative cabin design gives a feeling of spaciousness with high ceilings and ambient lighting.
  • The quietest twin-aisle aircraft cabin has optimised cabin altitude (6000 ft.), temperature and humidity, with the air being renewed every two-to-three minutes.
  • Not just quiet inside, the A350 is also a good neighbour with exterior noise levels as much as 21 EPNdB (Effective Perceived Noise Decibel) below ICAO Chapter-4 requirements (whatever that means!).
  • Smart galleys and comfortable crew rest areas that provide cabin crew with a pleasant working environment that makes it even easier to look after passengers.

 

The red one gets ready

And to bring us right up to date and to yesterday’s flight by the very latest Airbus aircraft, known by its production moniker of MSN298. Soon to be known to the world as G-VPOP, or Mamma Mia, the aircraft took off on a routine three-hour Airbus test flight.

The flight first involved some gentle handling checks, followed by thorough systems testing to check the speed control, flaps, warning horns and other systems all function exactly as they should.

G-VPOP has had a busy couple of weeks leading up to the test flight; cabin installation was completed on 13th May ahead of the aircraft being moved to the ‘flight line’ – a dedicated area at the Airbus facility where the aircraft goes through final systems testing and rigorous ‘ready to fly’ checks. It was then assessed by a multi-function team of flight line and production engineers. Next, the aircraft was put through its paces with a series of engine runs and a rather spectacular high-speed rejected take-off (essentially a high-tech emergency stop!), before finally being signed off as permitted to fly and ready to take to the skies.

You might be wondering why G-VPOP isn’t painted in our livery yet, and indeed why the fuselage is currently a glamorous beige colour. The carbon composite structure the airframe is made from is actually black; however, this is coated with a beige, environmentally friendly chromate-free primer specifically for composite structures during the assembly process, to protect the airframe from UV light and contamination.

Following the flight, there was a formal debrief to review any defects identified (so that they can be rectified and re-tested before we take delivery of the aircraft).

Next, G-VPOP will be moved to the paint hangar where it stays for around three weeks before emerging back into daylight sporting the Virgin Atlantic livery. From here the aircraft goes back to the flight line for final preparations before undertaking another test flight to shake out any bugs picked up on today’s first flight.

G-VPOP will actually be the second A350 that we take delivery of from Airbus later this summer.  Our first aircraft, G-VLUX (Red Velvet) is pretty much neck and neck with G-VPOP in the process, but G-VLUX will pip G-VPOP to the post during the final approval stage to be our very first A350 delivery.

From that moment 50 years ago when the first agreement to build the A300 was signed, to the first flight of our first A350-1000, Airbus has been at the forefront of aviation innovation. It’s thanks to the skills, dedication and hard work of all their teams over the last half century – the designers, pilots and engineers – that we have reached this point. We can’t wait to welcome G-VPOP into our fleet. We know you’re going to love it too.

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Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.

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