From the drawing board to the skies

Airbus A380-800

  • TEXT EMANUEL ECKARDT
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

Jürgen Thomas is one of the 20th century’s most important aviation pioneers. We talked to the man responsible for developing the Airbus A380.

Lufthansa Magazin: You have been dubbed the “father of the Airbus A380.”

Jürgen Thomas: The A380 has many fathers. Teamwork is essential for a huge project like this.

But someone has overall responsibility, surely?

I always saw it as my responsibility to motivate my team. You may find it hard to believe, but that wasn‘t even necessary.

The Boeing 747 took just two and a half years to complete. Development began in April 1966 and the jumbo jet was ready for rollout in September 1968. How was that possible?

The term “rollout” is deceptive. What counts is when the aircraft took its maiden flight, and that was in 1969. It actually took four years for Boeing to deliver an airworthy plane, and even that was incredibly fast. The making of the 747 will be remembered as a huge feat in aviation history.

Developing the A380 took over a decade.

There were just under four and a half years between the official go-ahead in December 2000 and its maiden flight in April 2005. But extensive preliminary work had been done in the years before that, of course. You cannot really compare the two aircraft. There are 40 years of technical development between them. The 747 has also continuously undergone further development. If I compare the technology of the Volkswagen I drove in 1968 with the technical features of my current car, they are worlds apart. When I get a new car, it takes me days to find out all it can do.

Jürgen Thomas

"I always saw it as my responsibility to motivate my team"

© Jens Görlich
Jürgen Thomas

Sometimes a simple sketch can become an ingenious idea. Jürgen Thomas has made many such scetches

© Jens Görlich

Looking back, you spent your first 12 years with Airbus heading the A310 design program before taking charge of the A300-600 development program…

… yes, and we worked right alongside Jürgen Weber, who later became Lufthansa CEO and then Chairman of the Supervisory Board. He was head of engineering at Lufthansa in those days and one of the most important people in aviation anywhere in the world. He also had a highly competent team working with him. One of the key people at Lufthansa back then was Reinhardt Abraham, Vice President of Engineering, and also a pioneer. It was he who made the Lufthansa fleet what it is today.

In 1992, Airbus and Boeing discussed building a VLCT (Very Large Commercial Transport) aircraft. You were appointed European Director but the project was abandoned after only three years. Why?

There were antitrust issues and the Europeans lacked the political will to go it alone.

In April 1996 you began developing the A3XX, which later became the A380. What triggered that decision?

We realized around the middle of 1995 that it was pointless to collaborate with the Americans. The French were all in favor of a European solution anyway, so we set to work.

How many different variants of a wide-body aircraft did you consider?

The structure people naturally wanted a circular body, but practical considerations favored a vertical double bubble.

Sounds like chewing gum.

It just means two circles on top of each other. We also investigated the possibility of a horizontal double bubble, but in that scenario, too many people would have sat too far away from a window. In the end, we opted for a vertical oval. It was a similar situation with the cockpit. We examined every possible position between the upper and main deck and ultimately went for a mezzanine cockpit right between the decks.

Can you give us an example of a typical problem you had to contend with?

There were hundreds.

One will do.

The slides. We had trouble finding a solution for the emergency slides, without which the plane would not have been licensed. The slides drop down out of the plane from eight meters up and must be able to withstand all weather and winds up to 30 knots. We carried out endless trials with our suppliers before we finally got what we needed. It was crucial to ensure that the 853 passengers for which the aircraft was to be licensed, could be evacuated within 90 seconds.

You began actual development of the A380 on December 19, 2000 following a predevelopment period of just over four years. One year later, Lufthansa ordered the first A380s.

Lufthansa was our first customer for the A300, too, and did more to help us get established than any other airline.

Did everything go smoothly or did you encounter obstacles?

We had some tough discussions. Remember, Lufthansa was investing in a totally new enterprise and in a totally new aircraft. We had no idea how things would work out. Lufthansa’s expertise helped us to develop the cockpits and cabins, but also to avoid making mistakes with the airports. After all, as aircraft makers, we don’t fly scheduled services.

Is there anything about the A380 that really takes your breath away?

The wing, which, to be honest, had us worried at first. A wing almost 60 percent larger than that of the 747! Could we do it? We produced countless blueprints. In the end, our people in Filton came up with the perfect design. Compared with its geometry on the ground, in an unstressed state, the wing looks very different in the air, when it is exposed to aerodynamic forces. I never dreamed we could hit the bull’s eye so well. It was a combination of good performance and good luck.

The A380 is not only the largest, but also the fastest aircraft in the Airbus program. What were you aiming for here?

The A380 is our first Mach 0.85 aircraft, but it can also be flown economically at Mach 0.86 or 0.87. We wanted our running costs and fuel consumption per seat to be 20 percent less than those of the Boeing 747-400 – and we succeeded.

Can you fly an airplane?

I can use a simulator, yes. I have also flown the A380, but with a pilot beside me. I wanted to know whether what the pilots say is true: that this gigantic plane handles like a little A320. It’s incredible! The A380 is in fact easy to fly, it has an array of systems that help it along so well it would be hard to a better job yourself. It also has a flight envelope protection system that prevents pilots from getting the plane into a dangerous situation.

Is it possible to disable the system?

No. Pilots can change their mind but only up to a certain point, then the system overrides them. If a pilot’s style of flying puts stress on the plane’s structure, the computer will say “Stop, not allowed.”

Are the pioneering days of aviation over?

No, they never will be. We have cut fuel consumption by 70 percent since jet airplanes came along, that’s much more than the car industry has done. Now the aim is to reduce emissions to acceptable levels.

Your giant baby has been flying for several years and is a regular fixture at some airports. Which of your engineering developments still impresses you the most?

The silence! Up there, the air slips by at the speed of sound and you hear nothing!