Before an Airbus A380 ever takes to the skies, its components and sections are transported by air, sea and road to its final assembly site in southern France. This is a feat of logistics involving half of Europe
One might be forgiven for thinking they were expecting the pope. The inhabitants of the tiny French town of Lévignac (population 500) have been lining the roadside for three hours. It‘s a Wednesday night, half an hour before midnight. Children scamper about the sidewalks and the gendarmes stand guard outside the pizzeria. Old and young, male and female, everyone crowds into the old town marketplace. An elderly woman in her best black dress leans out of the window and waves.
But it isn’t the pope. Instead, a very different kind of convoy rumbles into sight. Ten policemen on BMW motorcycles form the vanguard, followed by a squadron of red flashing lights. Next come the yellow security vans with illuminated signs proclaiming “Convoi exceptionnel!” (Watch out, oversized load!).
At last, the long-awaited silhouettes take shape and the Airbus A380, its fuselage in three sections, rolls into view on flatbed trailers pulled by huge trucks. Looming against the sky like a bizarre red-and-white sculpture is the horizontal tail unit. What a strange, breathtaking sight – or when’s the last time the parts of a wide-body double-decker passed your front door?
The A380 convoy takes this route on a regular basis. The A380 sections and components, manufactured in various different European cities, are transported by ship to Pauillac near Bordeaux, where they are loaded onto barges. After traveling 95 kilometers up the Garonne river to Langon, they begin the final leg of their journey overland to Toulouse. The route leads through L’Isle Jourdain, Lévignac, along country roads and through wooded areas before arriving at the Airbus final assembly site.
Oversized loads are a common enough sight on the highway: wind turbines, pipelines, prefab houses – quite a few unwieldy objects are transported by road. But this is the world‘s largest passenger jet, and it’s traveling through rural southern France! Monsieur Leroche stands among the onlookers in Lévignac, cap in hand, a cigarillo dangling from his lips: “It’s incroyable, every time the A380 drives through our little village. Nobody here would want to miss it. And of course we are all very proud that the final assembly is being carried out right here in France.”
The nose of the aircraft comes slowly into view. The metal hull is a yellowy green and the cockpit wrapped and taped like a dinosaur with a bandaged face. The middle section maneuvers itself through the narrow street next. It rises up like a wall as high as the old village houses. People stand with their heads thrown back, staring, their digital cameras flashing. The clearance to the houses is just two meters on either side. The Airbus moves forward, a ghostly, illuminated high-tech tube that has to pass through these narrow streets like through the eye of a needle.
“We spend a year learning how to do this,” says Thierry Morainville, who drives one of the trucks that pull the flatbed trailers. “The steering, gauging the bends, loading the sections, the hydraulics, distributing the weight – we can‘t afford to let anything go wrong.” Each segment is bolted onto a jig, a special kind of frame that is pulled on 48 little wheels. The middle section of the fuselage weighs 63 tons, and the entire load a total of 230 tons. The maneuvering has to be done with millimeter precision. It’s almost like asking an elephant to jump through a hoop.
The drivers use walkie-talkies to maintain constant contact with the control vehicle, and the very long antennas on top of the trucks are for GPS navigation. The vehicles have to follow a precalculated “ligne blanche,” or optimal line without straying an inch. On really tricky stretches, the transportation experts walk beside the giant fuselage. Is the driver approaching the bend correctly? Watch out for the street lamp! There‘s nothing more reliable than a good pair of human eyes – and an experienced team. Daniel Molière is in charge of the operation. “It’s a matter of extreme concentration, even after driving many convoys,” he says, walkie-talkie in hand. “But it’s fun, too,” he adds. Then it’s time to move on. The last stretch of the journey is still before them.
The Airbus convoy glides alike a gentle giant past dark fields where, during the day, cows graze and combine harvesters are hard at work. It continues on past Mondonville, reaching the final assembly hangars in Toulouse at one o’clock in the morning. This area of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport is brightly illuminated, and security vehicles are on patrol. It takes the convoy three nights to travel the 250 kilometers from Langon, going at a snail’s pace of no more than 30 kilometers an hour.
It’s five hours until sunrise but there’s no time for a break. Hydraulic pumps on the flatbed trailers start to hum. Bolts and casings are loosened and the vertical tail unit is carefully lowered once again. Over the next two days the newly arrived sections of the Airbus A380 will be hauled into the hangar for final assembly. Who needs sleep when you’re putting together the world’s largest plane?