Air Transport World

600 tons of technology: the A380, which takes to the skies in three years, will not only be the largest civil transport ever built, it also will be the most advanced. (Lange Transports).(Airbus A380)

At the Farnborough Air Show last summer, Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Alan Mulally said his company "wouldn't know how to build an airplane more efficient than the 747" today. Should Boeing want to remedy this gap in its knowledge, one good place to start looking would be a windswept airfield in north Wales where wings for the 555-sear Airbus A380 will be manufactured.

The A380, handily the biggest airplane in the world apart from Russia'S one-off six-engine An-225, is taking physical shape at dozens of sites across the world. In late February at Airbus UK's largest manufacturing plant at Broughton, the first set of a380 skin panels was being carved out of inchthick aluminum billets. Even thicker slabs were being machined into one-piece ribs. On the opposite side of the Broughton runway from a factory that once made 5,540 Wellington bombers, automatic skin-fastening machines were being installed on rail tracks in a new facility: The ribs, skins and stringets will start being assembled into the first set of A380 wings in one part of the building while construction workers still are finishing the rest. More than 500 new workers are being trained in tasks that range from high tech to skilled manual work.

The same kind of parallel-scheduled activity is pressing forward diligently across the entire Airbus organization and at its suppliers' factories, from the construction of a towering final assembly hall at Toulouse to the Chinese shipyard that is building a specially designed roll-on/roll-off ship to carry A380 parts. The result is that once large sections of the new aircraft start to come together, the A380 will take shape rather quickly. Major components should reach Toulouse in early 2004 on track for a first flight in the 2005 first quarter.

Even now, like a paleontologist finding a fragment of a vast thighbone, you run across individual parts and tools that remind you of the A380's size, like one-piece skin panels 116 ft. long or a three-story-high landing gear test rig. "There's a tendency to get blase, but then you look at these parts and say, 'Bloody hell, that's big.' The flap-track fairings would make a good-size sailing boat," comments Airbus UK MD Tom Williams.

The A380's size is an important element of the challenge that Airbus has accepted in its attempt to oust the long-serving and very refined 747 from the top of the airliner market. It's not just a big airplane, explains Rob Bray, product engineering leader on the A380 wing. "It has more range-something that's often overlooked. It's a product with a 40/50-year life so it offers more comfort--a total of 12 to 14 inches more room at elbow-level with the same number of seats abreast as the 747. …

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