November 19, 2018
Building a passenger jet: the more you think about it, the more extraordinary it becomes.
Modern passenger aircraft are incredibly complex, super reliable and much quieter and more efficient than their predecessors. One of humankind and engineering’s greatest achievements. And as you’d expect, the process of building one of these giants of the sky is totally fascinating. This was brought home to me when I visited the Airbus factory in Broughton, North Wales and watched the engineers building the wings for one of our new Airbus A350-1000 XWB aircraft.
Although a wing’s main job is to provide lift, there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Wings are also packed with control surfaces; those panels you see extending as you take off and land. These are called ‘high lift’ systems and consist of slats at the front and flaps at the back. They increase the size of the wing area which allows the aircraft to fly at slower speeds. The other control surfaces built into the wings are ailerons which control the roll of the aircraft and help steer it, and spoilers that can be used as brakes to slow the aircraft in flight and to reduce lift as it lands. Wings also contain much of the fuel for your flight and are the anchor points for the giant Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines.
The A350 wing incorporates the very latest features of wing design and has been developed using over 4000 hours of wind tunnel time. The result is one of the most efficient wings ever built.
The first thing you notice about the Airbus Broughton site is its size. At 700 acres, it’s enormous. It has four separate wing production buildings, its own airport and even its own football pitch. Broughton also comes with a thoroughbred aviation pedigree. The site has been producing aircraft since 1939, including legends such as the Avro Lancaster and the DeHavilland Comet which were built here before it started to specialise in wings under the ownership of Hawker Siddeley. All the engineers I met were proud not only of the work they were doing today but also of the part they play in the continuing heritage of the site.
Opened in 2011 and called the North Factory, the A350 line is the most recent of the Broughton wing production buildings. This world leading wing assembly plant is as big as Wembley Stadium and optimised for energy saving with solar tracking arrays and biomass boilers.
Once the skins have been offloaded from the Beluga – a modified freight aircraft named after the distinctive white whale – the engineers start to put all the pieces together beginning with the ribs and all the internal components. Five hundred and fifty people work in the North Factory, and it takes five days to assemble an A350 wing.
As you’d expect this is all high spec, high tech stuff and the factory is spotlessly clean. For a non-technical visitor like me, there is so much to take in. The wings are huge. I know that shouldn’t come as a surprise but off the aircraft, you can really appreciate not only their size but the beautiful complexity of their shape. This is wing design and engineering at its cutting edge. Then there’s the giant titanium engine pylon. It’s as impressive a piece of metal as you’re likely to find anywhere, and capable of supporting the power and weight of the engine that hangs from it. Once the wing is finished it is prepared for the next stage of its journey, loaded back into the Beluga and flies off to Bremen.
Once in Bremen, the Airbus team get to work installing all the ‘high lift’ systems and hydraulics. This is also where our own engineers scrutinise every centimetre of the giant wing. I asked Paul Reilly, our aircraft production & delivery manager, how you go about inspecting and signing off something as big, complicated and important as an Airbus wing. “It’s basically a large box with lots of equipment hanging off it,” said Paul. “We inspect using industry best practice, looking for any debris, clipped cables, leaking connections or paint and surface defects.” Helping Paul with the A350 inspections is Ian Arnell, one of our certifying engineers who brings 28 years of experience to the task. Once Ian, Paul and the team are satisfied with it, the wing takes its last flight as a passenger, onboard the Beluga to Toulouse to be united with the rest of the aircraft.
After their journey across Europe, the wings finally arrive at the Airbus Final Assembly Line where they’re joined to the rest of the aircraft. But how is that done? “It’s basically a huge flange,” explains Paul. “The wings are hoisted into position, then laser aligned and bolted on using high tech fasteners. The finishing touch is the upturned sharklets at the end of the wing which bring the first splash of Virgin red onto the aircraft.
The A350 now looks like an aircraft. But before it can fly there’s still a lot to do. The interior has to be installed. All the electrics have to be hooked up and tested. It has to be painted. The aircraft is then moved outside for ground tests. It’s filled with fuel, and all the control surfaces are tested. Once everyone is happy with this stage the aircraft is moved over to the flight line where all the pre-flight take-off checks are done, the engines have test runs, and the first test flight takes place. Only when that has been done is the aircraft presented to the airline for acceptance testing. But that’s another blog post for another day.
A large banner at the Broughton factory proudly announces that ‘The World Flies on Our Wings’. It’s that combination of pride and quality of work that is so impressive about Airbus. Their engineers and designers make a massive contribution to the world of aviation, and we can’t wait for those Broughton wings to lift us on the next exciting phase of our story – our Airbus A350-XWB.