The critical final assembly of the Airbus A380 takes place in a huge hangar in Toulouse – a place where work just never seems to cease. We take a trip to France to see for ourselves
First impression: tons of space. What we have here is a hangar of mammoth proportions almost the size of 50 soccer fields. It’s also as tall as the Reichstag building in Berlin – dome included. Incredibly heavy components hang like weightless paper wings from rails anchored high up in the roof. The vertical stabilizer of an Airbus A380, already sporting the Lufthansa logo, comes in to land, all three and a half tons of it dangling from sturdy cables. The man in the telescopic basket lift keeps an eye on the aerial number while his workmate on the scaffolding steers the component toward the body of the plane as though he were guiding the side of a house on a portable Playstation – with total concentration and a sensitive touch.
Each movement inside the building makes the whole thing vibrate. When the wind blows, the roof stirs. A thudding of hammers and a screeching and whine of machinery fills the air in this hive of activity. We have come to Toulouse to witness firsthand the final assembly of the Airbus A380. One of the wide-body airliners due for delivery to Lufthansa has passed some electrical tests and is standing firmly on its feet. But it still needs its engines.
A few hundred meters away, the final assembly of another A380 ordered by Lufthansa resembles openheart surgery. The giant is waiting at Station 40, the “registry office” of the assembly and maintenance facility in Blagnac, near Toulouse for the “wedding,” which is going to be huge affair. One hundred people work here in two shifts. The various body sections are already assembled and the main landing gear is in place, but the pale green aircraft still has a red nose, thanks to the protective cover sheathing its highly sensitive sensory organs. Parts of the skin are made of GLARE, a glass-reinforced fiber-metal laminate.
Seen from below, the A380 looms larger than life. It hovers a good two meters above the ground, supported by three pylons and surrounded by a complex construction of scaffolding and transparent staircases, a five-story building on rails that has been rolled up to the aircraft on either side. The base of the center wing box still reveals the plane’s open flanks. This is where an up to 560-ton wide-body aircraft must withstand the burdens and shocks it will be exposed to when in operation.
The wings are ready and waiting to be adjusted with the help of lasers. Within two hours, the prestressed wing will be fitted to the fuselage and attached with 4,000 confidence-inspiring, sturdy magnesium, steel and titanium bolts and rivets designed to live a notional 100 years under toughest conditions. It can take 20 minutes to drill holes in the steel for the six-centimeter-long rivets. Treading carefully, we explore the vast building site that will one day be an aircraft. We climb up, clamber inside, bang our heads and make the painful discovery that not an inch of space has been wasted in the world’s largest commercial aircraft.
In the bilge, the plane’s underbelly dissected by a number of pipes, there is only enough room for technicians to crawl, and it’s also very cramped in Cargo 1, the freight area on the lower deck. Working here can’t be good for your back. At last, on level 3, we encounter the spacious main deck. The huge cabin, as yet without seats or paneling, looks grotesquely like a Baroque boudoir, a rounded den of fireproof foam veiled in protective fabric the delicate shades of spring green and lavender.
On the flight deck, above the pilot’s controls, foam-sheathed contacts hang close together from the ceiling, all wrapped up like ultramodern Christmas decorations. Sections of the floor are still open, the permanent bearing fixtures visible. A carbon-fiber support is exposed, ovenbaked Formula One material, lightweight and robust, tougher than steel. But if a hammer falls and hits it, it has to be replaced. That’s why everyone permitted into this inner sanctum has to move with utmost care, like photographer Jens Görlich, who handles his equipment like fragile Riedel glass.
The stairs to the upper deck have not yet been installed so level 4 is only accessible from outside. A long green serpent lying the length of the First Class cabin provides air conditioning for the technicians. At the tail end, the cabin wall curves away like the inside of a black ball. The semispherical rear pressure bulkhead made of robust composite materials that will seal the six-meter-high pressurized cabin is not yet in place.
Supply lines and cables are exposed, the thick brown pipes for air, water and waste water still waiting for their cowling. The electrical assemblies, cableforms and looms are a confusion of colors, but these serve as orientation. The golden wiring harness already has nine-phase alternating current passing through. No cables will be visible once the A380 is assembled. “Section 13 poses the biggest problem,” explains Airbus Aircraft Manager Elmar Niggemeyer, who is responsible for seeing this particular plane through final assembly to operation, “because this is where the cables run from the flight deck to the actuators, the electric motors that control the wing flaps and hinges.”
Instead of the outmoded balancing act of cable steering, the A380 uses electrical impulses in all of its control systems. This so-called fly-by-wire technology saves weight and is also more reliable. We step back out onto the temporary staircase on the outer wall and up to level 5, the “roof terrace.” From here, we look down on a spectacular sight. The 15-meter-tall tail fin moves in to hover above the tail. Three men hold it firmly and guide it centimeter by centimeter into the perforated guide rail where it sinks into place. Bolts are then driven into the holes, each one asymmetrically shaped to make sure they remain safely wedged for the next 50 years or more. The gleaming silver bolts lie in a wooden crate more suited to holding fine wine. Each bolt has been specially crafted by hand.
Standing beneath the plane at the end of our tour, we ponder with amazement how such a plane can leave the ground fully laden. The towering main landing gear with its twin wheels is a monument to the history of technology, an incredible achievement. This is as big as landing gears will ever get because weight-saving materials and intelligent technologies notwithstanding, there are physical limits. It is impossible to further reduce the weight of a landing gear that has to absorb at least 400 tons without buckling. Interestingly, landing gears have incredibly long lives. An airplane travels around 400 000 kilometers on the ground before it is decommissioned. But the very first trip these wheels will take is over to Station 30 – just 300 meters away right here at the Airbus facility.