(Reuters) – Airbus could steal the Paris air show with a flypast of its newest passenger jet, the A350, as confidence grows over a maiden flight some four weeks away.
The timescales of its previous airliner launches suggest the European manufacturer could be ready to fly the aircraft in mid-June, depending on weather and ground trials, giving pilots a narrow time window to test the plane’s basic characteristics in flight before the June 17-23 air show.
With just a few hours in the air, industry sources say it is unlikely that the first completed A350, rolled out of the Airbus paint shop only last week, will actually land at the show.
But if the first handful of flights go to plan, a 600-km (400-mile) trip to Le Bourget for a brief roar over its American rivals would ratchet up the PR war just as Boeing aims to recover from a three-month grounding of its 787 Dreamliner.
Airbus reiterated it plans to fly the A350 around the middle of the year and declined further comment on the plane’s debut.
However, the prospect of Airbus flaunting its newest jet from the air increased as photographs of an A350 logo painted on the plane’s belly circulated on the Internet. Such belly markings are typically used for branding in air show flypasts.
Media were kept away from a staff-only unveiling last week, but a corner of what looked like an A350 logo was just visible on official video that otherwise showed little of the underside, tweeted David Kaminski-Morrow of aviation website Flightglobal.
A flying debut is the signature moment in the development of any new plane, when the industry goes into publicity overdrive.
The first tests may also give Airbus the first indications of whether a $15-billion gamble on an aircraft to rival Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner has paid off. The A350 is designed to offer airlines big savings on fuel thanks to a lightweight structure that follows on the heels of Boeing’s carbon-composite 787.
“If everything goes well, you can do a quick check of cruise performance even on the first flight,” said Claude Lelaie, who was head of flight testing at Airbus before he retired.
“Everyone is usually anxious to have a very preliminary idea of performance, and especially fuel consumption,” he said. He declined to comment specifically on the A350.
Airbus is keeping a tight lid on the A350’s progress ahead of the maiden flight and broke with tradition by deciding not to hold a lavish “roll-out” party for its new model.
But suppliers say the mood emanating from the A350 design team is notably more upbeat than the painful launch almost a decade ago of the A380 superjumbo, the world’s largest airliner.
Before flying, the A350 must pass a series of ground tests.
“No machine as complex can be perfect straight away,” said Lelaie, who took the A380 on its maiden flight in April 2005.
The timing of the equivalent first flight for the A350 will depend in part on when Lelaie’s successors in the flight team agree to take the aircraft from the developers.
That is a decision not even top managers can impose on the elite corps of pilots and flight test engineers who, with their own lives at stake, have final say over whether to accept delivery of the jet, just as though they were outside customers.
“It is another world. Flight Test do not think about shows. They fly when they are ready,” said an industry executive.
The A380 debut was delayed when crew rejected the double-decker plane until a landing-gear problem had been addressed.
FLIGHT TEST SCRUTINY
Based on past launches, the timing of last week’s unveiling is consistent with a handover to test crews near the end of May and a maiden flight two weeks later, but the schedule is tight.
The A380 was handed to the Flight Test Centre on April 6, 2005 after a two-week handover process and first flew on April 27 – about 35 days from the start of the handover. Eight years on, the A350 left the paint shop on May 12, leaving a total of just 28 days before the start of the air show.
In a book last year, Lelaie described how a year of flight testing on the A380 was complicated by mistrust between pilots and management. Analysts say such tensions have eased, however.
Following delays on civil and military projects worldwide, Airbus slowed development of the A350 to avoid skating over problems that might end up costing more and taking longer to fix. Even so, analysts say intense scrutiny of the A350 will not go away until well after the first jet enters service in 2014.
Performance tests at cruising altitude will be vital. That height is where the industry’s big jets spend most of their economically useful career of 22-23 years and fuel is the major factor in deciding whether to buy a long-range airliner.
While dedicated fuel-burn tests come later, Airbus will be looking to early flights to check the credibility of guarantees it has given on fuel consumption to the 35 customers which have already placed orders for 617 of its new twin-engined jet.
Its rival, the 787 first flown in 2009, is now returning to service after battery overheating caused a worldwide grounding and Boeing is expected to give it a big publicity push at Paris.
* First, engineers at Airbus headquarters near Toulouse in southern France will turn on the Auxiliary Power Unit, a small turbine engine under the tail, used for power on the ground. The test will last just 1 minute to see if it leaks of oil or fuel.
* Crews check circuits and aircraft systems, one by one, and run the air-conditioning under APU power.
* Two Rolls-Royce engines are started one after the other, again briefly at first, to detect any oil or fuel leaks.
* Hydraulics and other systems run with the engines on.
* Engineers test “bleed air,” a traditional conduit of air from the engines used for cabin pressurization and de-icing. This is a crucial design difference with Boeing’s rival 787 Dreamliner, which relies more on electrical system.
* Engineers progressively squeeze power out of the engines in a “run-up” area, like a concrete paddock, with brakes on.
* In parallel, the aircraft will start to move under its own power, slowly at first, and then up to 60 knots (111 km/h).
* The plane’s pre-flight workout end when the six pilots and flight engineers don orange jumpsuits, parachutes and life-vests for a rehearsal, pushing the plane close to its take-off speed.
* Ground mechanics carry out a thorough two-day inspection.
Six crew with parachutes take part, three in the cockpit and three at consoles in the passenger cabin. Instead of seats, the cabin contains water vats to simulate the weight of 300 passengers. A maiden flight usually lasts 4 to 5 hours.
Pilots need a day when wind is blowing from the west so as to use a northwesterly runway, avoiding flying over Toulouse.
To maintain maximum control of events, test pilots take off in a fully manual “direct” mode without computer protection.
The next critical milestone is when flight test crew retract the landing gear, once a safe altitude is reached. (On the A380 maiden flight in 2005, the gear failed to retract properly).
This will determine whether they can go higher and faster to get their first feel of the aircraft in cruise conditions.
The flight will also be the first chance to study behavior that no simulator or wind tunnel has so far been able to predict, such as the airflow at slow speeds near the ground.
A dozen flights should be enough to give a verdict on basic performance, but at least 2,000 hours of development and safety certification tests lie ahead before the A350 can enter service.
WHO WILL BE WATCHING?
MEDIA – The event will be televised and is certain to be beamed back to the Paris air show if the A350 flight happens during the June 17-23 event. Headlines will focus on the take-off but for test pilots this is surprisingly routine. Their real challenge starts later in the flight and in subsequent testing.
INVESTORS – Analysts say investors in Airbus parent EADS are hungry for minute details on the tests. A first flight usually supports shares, but this is not always the case.
In the month after the first outing of the 787 in December 2009, Boeing shares rose 9 percent, Thomson Reuters data shows.
The almost simultaneous debut of the Airbus A400M military plane kicked off a 17-percent one-month rally in EADS shares.
But the A380 first flight in April 2005 failed to prevent a 10-percent decline over the following month as the program was delayed six months and EADS failed to quell management tensions.
BOEING – Few will be watching Airbus with greater interest than its U.S. rival 5,000 miles away in Seattle. It is anxious to preserve a sales edge for the 787 after a three-month grounding caused by problems with fires in batteries.
It hopes to make a mark at the Paris air show with plans for a revamped 777 and may launch a stretched version of its 787.
AIRLINES – As technology advances, new plane launches are increasingly late and some buyers are taking little on trust.
After delays, one of those demanding hard evidence from the early testing is the head of Dubai’s Emirates, Tim Clark.
At stake are dozens of potential orders for a revamped Boeing 777, or an upcoming larger version of the A350, or both.
“As Airbus knows, I want to see it on its wheels with its engines running and preferably in the air,” Clark said in an interview at a recent trade show. “I am afraid I am not prepared to accept anything until I see telemetry giving performances of the engines and the fuel. The A350-1000 is definitely one that we would be looking at. But first of all – show me.”
Sources: “The A380 flight trials,” by ex-Airbus flight test chief Claude Lelaie; Reuters interviews; Thomson Reuters data.