On June 14, the first example of European manufacturer Airbus’ latest airliner family, the twin-engined wide body A350 XWB, made its maiden flight from Toulouse Blagnac Airport, in south-west France. (Throughout this story, the name Airbus means the airliner manufacturer and not the European aerospace group previously known as EADS, of which the airliner company is a subsidiary.) Designated MSN1 (for Manufacturer’s Serial Number One), it carries the registration F-WXWB and had a takeoff weight of about 221 t.
The flight lasted four hours and five minutes and the plane carried a flight test crew of six. They were Airbus chief test pilot Peter Chandler, A350 XWB project pilot Guy Magrin, A350 XWB project test flight engineer Pascal Verneau (who was in the cockpit with the pilots) and, at monitoring stations in the cabin, Airbus Flight and Integration Test Centre head Fernando Alonso, Development Flight Tests head Patrick du Ché and Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine lead flight test engineer Emanuele Costanzo.
“I congratulate the whole A350 XWB development team for having completed the first flight preparation in a record time,” said Airbus president and CEO Fabrice Bregier on the occasion of that first flight. “I also wish to thank the first flight crew today for taking this aircraft where it wants to be – in the sky. I would also like to extend my gratitude to all our teams in the design offices, at programme and manufacturing level, the ground crews, as well as our colleagues in airlines and suppliers and many others who helped define this all-new aircraft. The A350 XWB which has flown today, integrating the latest available technologies, is now entering the final stage of its development. And it is ready. Ready to head towards certification and entry-into- service in the second half of next year.”
South African Connection
Among those suppliers and manufacturers thanked by Bregier is a South African company, Aerosud. “That first flight was a morale booster,” reports Aerosud group MD Dr Paul Potgieter. The local company had a live TV feed from Toulouse for the flight, and nearly all the employees were able to watch. “Our people got to see what they’re contributing to. That was the nice thing – they felt part of it.”
Aerosud supplies critically important parts for the A350 XWB – the frame clips for the centre fuselage of the aircraft and the track cans for the wings. The frame clips are Class 1 structural composite parts and secure the fuselage skin panels to the fuselage structural framework. The track cans – there are several on each wing – house the drive mechanisms for the leading edge slats, which are a movable part of the wing.
“The A350 programme is very important for Aerosud,” he affirms. “The A350 contracts weren’t achieved or obtained on the back of offset agreements or country-level partnership agreements. Fundamentally, the roots of this were not developed through industrial participation. We’re moving beyond that. Industrial participation can be a lever, a means to fast-track, but not a necessity for us, to participate in the global aerospace market.”
“We got the track cans contract on the back of our previous experience,” he explains. “We do all the track cans for the Airbus A320.” The frame clips contract is the result of Aerosud’s concentration, over the last six years, on developing expertise in composites and, in particular, the manufacturing of parts from continuous fibre reinforced thermoplastics (CFRTP), which are lighter than other composites. In this endeavour, Aerosud received support and some funding from the Department of Science and Technology, under the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy. “We now have intellectual property (IP) on composites. Airbus has recognised our uniqueness in this.” (Aerosud imports its raw CFRTP material from Germany and the Netherlands.)
Aerosud designed and set up its first CFRTP parts production press in 2010 (a prototype press was developed in 2007) and the company is currently one of only a handful in the world that can supply CFRTP com- ponents. On the A350 programme, Aerosud is classified as a Tier 2 supplier. That is, it does not supply its products directly to Airbus but to US group Spirit AeroSystems, which is a Tier 1 supplier to Airbus.
Frame clips are not simple products. Those placed in different locations have different shapes and sizes, but all have the same curvature – the curvature of the fuselage diameter. Aerosud produces more than 470 types of frame clips for the A350. Each aircraft contains just over 1 000 Aerosud frame clips. The company is currently making some 1 800 frame clips a month, a figure that will increase to 9 000 a month by 2016, as pro- duction of the new airliner ramps up to steady state.
Aerosud continues to develop its CFRTP capabilities, with an eye to the future development of the A350 XWB programme, the Airbus Military A400M airlifter programme (in which the South African com- pany is a partner and Tier 1 supplier) and future projects. Earlier this year, it commissioned its new CFRTP press. Designed by Aerosud (with the heavy steel castings manufactured in China by HZM Heavy Engineering), this is the world’s biggest industrialised CFRTP press. It weighs some 70 t and will be able to produce CFRTP parts as big as 2.5 m × 1.5 m. And the IP belongs to Aerosud. This new ability to make much bigger CFRTP components “is an important capability”, points out Potgieter and could result in the local company getting additional work on the future variants of the new airliner family.
All New Family
The A350 XWB is described by Airbus as a “midsize long-range product line” and is planned as a family of three versions, with the A350-900 being the baseline model, followed by the shorter A350-800 and the longer A359-1000. Between them, they will be able to convey between 276 and 369 passengers in comfortable two-class cabin layouts. As the baseline model, the A350-900 will execute the initial flight test programme and be the first version into revenue service next year. Currently, the A350-800 is due to enter service in late 2016 and the A350-1000 in 2017.
The second of five A350-900 flight test aircraft, MSN3, made its maiden flight on October 14. Up to November 12, MSN1 and MSN3 had jointly undertaken almost 120 test flights, accumulating close to 600 flight test hours. The remaining three test aircraft are all under assembly on the Final Assembly Line (FAL) at the Airbus complex at Toulouse Blagnac. The last of these, MSN5, is due to fly for the first time in the northern spring of next year. This will be the biggest fleet of flight test aircraft for one aeroplane type in the history of Airbus. This is to ensure that the programme is carried out as rapidly as possible.
The five test aircraft are programmed to execute a test programme totalling 2 500 flying hours. MSN1 will focus on developing the aircraft’s flight envelope and testing its systems and powerplant, in a series of flights that should total 800 hours. MSN3 is scheduled to accumulate 600 flying hours testing aircraft performance and, again, systems and powerplant. MSN2 will follow MSN3 into the air because MSN2 will be the first flight test aircraft fitted with a passenger cabin. It will fly 400 hours on cabin testing, development and certification missions. MSN4 is also scheduled for 400 hours of flight testing, focused on avionics development and certification. Finally, MSN5, which will also be fitted with a full passenger cabin, will again be used for cabin testing but also for oper- ability evaluations, training, extended range twin engine operations testing and route proving.
As a new generation airliner family, the A350 XWB is manufactured mainly from com-posites. These account for 53% (by weight) of the aircraft and their big advantages are their combination of lightness and strength, their immunity to corrosion, and their effective immunity from fatigue (their fatigue life greatly exceeds the life of the other materials used in the aircraft). They are used to make the fuselage (except the cockpit area) – namely the frames, stringers and skin panels that, when put together, form the fuselage barrel sections – the tail cone, the wing centre box and keel frame, the wings, the tailplane and vertical fin, rudder, elevators, ailerons, flaps, and passenger and cargo doors. Aluminium and aluminium/lithium alloy make up 19% of the aeroplane (including the cockpit area), titanium, which is also virtually immune to corrosion, comprises 14% (in the landing gear, wing/engine pylons, door surrounds and high load frames), steel is 6% (mainly in the landing gear) and “miscellaneous” comes to 8%.
Designed from scratch, the aircraft enjoys highly refined aerodynamics, which reduces fuel consumption and increases range. It has a cruise speed of Mach 0.85 (that is, 85% of the speed of sound; the speed of sound varies with altitude, but the Mach number stays constant). It is fitted with advanced high lift devices (flaps and slats). Its systems are designed to be simple and efficient. Following Airbus’ long-established family concept, a single type rating will allow pilots to fly all three versions and there will likewise be a single qualification procedure for both the cabin and ground crews.
As the case of Aerosud shows, the supply chain for the A350 XWB encompasses the world. Major components, including some fuselage panels, are made outside Europe, but the major and final assembly work takes place within that continent. The forward and centre fuselage sections are assembled in Saint Nazaire and Nantes, France, the rear fuselage and vertical tail plane in Hamburg and nearby Stade, Germany, the horizontal tail plane in Getafe and Illescas (both in Spain), the wings in Broughton, UK, while the ailerons, flaps and slats are fitted to the wings in Bremen, Germany. The pylons are made in Toulouse, France.
Each of these major assemblies is fully integrated before they are despatched to the FAL. All of them are designed to be accommodated in Airbus’ own fleet of five Beluga outsize cargo aircraft, which fly across Europe collecting and delivering these parts, and major parts for other Airbus aircraft programmes. (The Beluga is a major redevelopment of the A300-600 airliner.)
Final assembly of the aircraft is in Toulouse. The A350 XWB FAL is in a new building, which has 22 000 m2 of photovoltaic panels on its roof. The power generated by these panels is equivalent to the amount of energy needed to light 83 000 m2 of offices. It is estimated that this building can produce 55% of its own energy and therefore avoid pro- duction of 150 t of CO2. Airbus is currently building a second FAL building for the A350 XWB. This new facility will be operational next year and will double the capacity of the FAL. This is part of the ramp-up to full production of the new aircraft. It has already been decided to build a dedicated extension for the A350-1000.
The company forecasts that the A350 XWB will have 25% lower operating costs and 40% lower maintenance costs than a current generation long haul wide body airliner. Both flight crew and cabin crew rest areas on the A350 XWB are so located (above the passenger deck) that they will have no impact on the revenue-generating volume. The flight crew rest area will have secure access from the flight deck and contain two bunks and a workstation. The cabin crew rest area, at the rear of the aircraft, will be secluded, have a dedicated changing area and up to eight bunks.
The aircraft is powered by the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine. The famed powerplant manufacturer describes this as the most efficient aero engine flying in the world today. The latest version of the Trent engine family, the Trent XWB uses the most modern technology to reduce operating costs and will have the lowest carbon emissions of any engine used on wide body aircraft. Because it is derived from the preceding Trent 900 and Trent 1000 engines, its development was low risk.
Airbus forecasts a market demand over the next 20 years for 4 694 aircraft in the twin-aisle market, such as the A350-900 and A350-800 and for 2 085 aeroplanes in the A350-1000 category. As of the end of October, 764 A350 XWBs had been ordered by 39 customers. The manufacture of major parts for the first eleven production aircraft for commercial customers (MSN9 to MSN16) has already begun. The launch customer is Qatar Airways, which currently has 80 on order. Airbus has proposed the A350 XWB to South African Airways to modernise the local flag carrier’s long range fleet.