A flight test program is a finely-tuned schedule, down to the most detailed demonstration, with every minute of flight time accounted for. The deadlines of certification and delivery loom ever-closer as the engineers and pilots continue to put the aircraft through its paces. Still, recently, Airbus was able to somehow wedge a 60-minute flight into their A350 XWB timeline to showcase their newest family member to a media contingent visiting Toulouse for their ‘Airbus Innovations 2014’. I was fortunate to be one of those that flew aboard that flight.
The fact that Airbus was prepared to conduct the flight reflects two rather key points. Firstly, that their flight test program is on track and secondly, that they are confident enough in their product to take a load of media scribes aloft. Furthermore, Airbus created specific social media channels for the journalists to share the flight with the world. Consequently, there was a buzz of texting and tweeting as 200 passengers cleared a security channel and filed down the aero-bridge.
The aircraft’s cabin was still in flight test mode, so interspersed amongst the passenger seats were stations of data-gathering equipment, computer screens, and cables taped to the floor. Even so, as one walked through business class and into the economy cabin, there was still that new airplane smell. The interior boasted all of the mod-cons of inflight entertainment systems and even the fasten belt sign was a scrolling digital display. As we all settled in, there was no mistaking that this was a new generation of passenger jet and we were very privileged to take flight.
Pushing back from the terminal, I looked towards the wing-tip through generously sized windows. The winglet design is in itself interesting, as it presents as a crossover between a blended winglet and a raked wing-tip. Its sweeping look is eye-catching, but more importantly is there to offset the swirling vortices and aerodynamic drag.
Seated to the rear of the cabin, the noise levels generated as the engines started was negligible and was a trend that would continue throughout the flight. And while the Toulouse taxiways are undoubtedly smooth, the ride offered in the cabin was decidedly gentle, both in terms of any bumps and braking. Combined with the comfortable economy seat, it was obvious that the passenger’s well-being was premium in the design of the aircraft.
With only 30,000 kilograms of fuel on board, the lightly burdened A350 accelerated and soared into the air with a minimum of effort and sweet acceleration. Once again, I was struck by the low noise level in the cabin as the two Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines spooled up and pushed the A350 skyward.
It took less than 15 minutes to climb to 31,000 feet and the pitch over into the level flight was smooth. When the thrust came back to cruise power, the cabin was comparable with the A380 as the quietest that I have encountered to date. That being said, I have yet to fly aboard the A350’s competitor from Seattle.
As we toured the sky over Southern France, contrails criss-crossed the busy blue skies. Air traffic was everywhere to be seen, but none more spectacular than a Rafale fighter that approached to fly in loose formation with the A350. Below, the snow-capped Pyrenees highlighted the border between France and Spain as journalists moved from window to window with their cameras in-hand.
After nearly an hour, and all too soon, the turn back towards Toulouse was forthcoming and the engines throttled back for descent. At one stage the Captain raised the speed-brake, not fully, but a little beyond half way. The panels left their flush positions on the wing’s upper surface but there was surprisingly little aerodynamic noise or buffeting generated by the flight spoilers.
The scene beyond the sweeping winglet soon changed from peaks to paddocks and then to the urban outskirts. Each stage of flap was deployed and the landing gear selected down until the aircraft was fully configured to land. The sound of the final ‘spool up’ of thrust was minimal and the touchdown as gentle as they come.
The test pilots had flown the aircraft impressively, but the aircraft was impressive in its own right. There is a good deal on offer to the passengers in both facilities and comfort, particularly in terms of the quiet cabin.
After I disembarked, I was able to chat with the pilots about the A350 as we looked upon its clean white nose and ‘carbon fiber’ livery parked at the gate – but not for long. Soon the A350 was carrying a new crew and pushing back once more to continue the serious business of flight testing. I was left at sea level this time to contemplate the looming certification and entry into service of the A350 XWB.