A38O in Service-One Year and Counting
by A Double-Decker Bus Driver
(In Airways, December 2008 & January 2009, the author described the Airbus A380 training program: in the classroom, simulator, and ‘hands-on’ flying. Now, with the first year of line flights in his log book, this captain discusses the techniques, requisites, and his experiences and opinions of flying the ‘big bus’ in the ‘real world’.)
‘Fat Boy’-one of the controllers has nicknamed us. As in, “standby pushback clearance; Fat Boy is passing behind you and he’s very slow.”
Looking at the Airbus A380 from the side it is easy to see why the name is appropriate. The 72.7m (238.5ft) length appears foreshortened because of the 24m (78.7ft) height. It looks rather like a bologna sausage with a vertical bit stuck on. Elegant it is not.
Gibes aside, it is usually a relief to be moving. Probably the most trying part of flying the big Airbus is the pre-flight preparation phase. Airbus’s philosophy of the ‘less paper cockpit’ has been taken to great lengths. Most of the preparation is electronic and paperless, but it is still complicated and time-consuming.
One of the first tasks the pilots accomplish when they sit down is to retrieve the flight plan from the ACARS (aircraft communication addressing & reporting system) and update the OIS (onboard information system). This lets the aircraft ‘know’ the departure and destination airports, plus the route.
Next in sequence is the independent calculation of the preliminary takeoff performance. This is accomplished using the TOPA (takeoff performance application) on the OIT (onboard information terminal). The sheer bulk of the 4.380 is belied by its performance, which is very good for most airports. Nevertheless it is important to have a long enough runway-4,000m (13,000ft) is ideal as it means there are no limitations. At sea level the A380-800 is capable of lifting its maximum payload almost all the time. The edge of the envelope appears only as temperatures approach 40″C (104″F). Until then, lifting max payload allows us to carry 203t (447,500 lb) of fuel for the MGTOW (maximum gross takeoff weight)
of 569t (1,254,6501b). This in turn comfortably allows over 15 hours’ endurance, enough for most city pairs, making the A380 a true long-range airplane.
Most days, though, the aircraft tends to ‘volume out’ before reaching the MZFW (maximum zero fuel weight) of 366t (807,0001b). With a full aircraft, a ZFW of about 362t (798,0001b) seems to be typical.
In addition to the usual initialization of flightdeck systems and configuration of switches, the 4.380 requires the pilots to make extensive use of the OIS and NSS (network server system). A 21st century aircraft, the A380 is fully networked. The NSS has two sides: Avionics and FLT OPS (flight operations). This is controlled by a two-position switch on the side consoles, which select either system for display on the OIT, the screen that the pilots look at.
The NSS Avionics and the aircraft’s avionics systems communicate in both directions via the SCI (secure communications interface), which is mainly an engineering function. However, only one-way communication is permitted from the NSS Avionics side to the FLT OPS side. The latter, which has such niceties as TOPA and LDA (landing distance application), is equipped with its own server, router, printer, a wireless LAN (local area network)-this works only on the ground and we cannot surf the ‘Net-and three laptop computers that hold most of the aforementioned applications, plus operations manuals, electronic flight folder, and navigation charts. This equipment truly makes the A380 the ‘electric jet’, and my teenage sons would probably be quite comfortable operating all of it. In fact they would probably set it up to run by itself via SMS while they do something more interesting-like Tweeting with their friends.
Also used early in the pre-flight set-up phase are the TOPA, FCOM (flight crew operating manual), and LSA (load sheet application). Crucial to this process is determining the specific gravity of the fuel, as this is needed to calculate the load and CG (center of gravity) position. The A380 can carry up to 323,546l (84,122USg) of Jet A-1, the actual weight of which depends on atmospheric conditions such as ambient temperature.
Final ZFW is received on the flightdeck as an email via the NSS, to which the pilots respond with the final fuel figures. The load sheet is then sent as another email with an accompanying hard copy on the cockpit printer. All this exchange of emails makes you realize why Airbus thoughtfully provided a full-size keyboard for each pilot.
Also contained in the OIS is a full suite of the Jeppesen (or LIDO) charts, all electronically displayed on the NCA
(navigation charts application). Full color, re-sizable charts can be displayed for both pilots, in either day or night mode. The ability to enlarge key portions of the charts is especially useful for captains, whose eyesight is being slowly eroded by Father Time. It is also possible to enter the full route of flight into the NCA, which then shows the appropriate chart in full color and even pans it as the flight progresses. The days of having to continually fetch new charts to remain orientated are
Finally, when all the 400-plus punters are onboard, it is time to close the doors. The pilots tend to keep a close eye on the passenger load, particularly in the premium cabins.
Sadly, the aircraft has made its debut during the worst recession the world economy has known for a long time. Carrying a lot of cargo-a huge revenue-generator in hard times-is not possible if the aircraft is full of passengers. Therefore, high-revenue customers are the key to operating profitably. Because the bean-counters tend to keep information such as breakeven load factors very private (particularly in this hyper-competitive environment), crews try to estimate the success of the aircraft by using their own techniques. Some clever pilot, who had the patience to crunch the numbers, has concluded that if the premium cabins are full, the aircraft will at least break even. Anything more than this is a profitable run, so a busy economy class and full premium cabins are welcome sights. Thus, the passenger load is scrutinized closely in order to reassure ourselves that the flagship is a going concern. Without exception, we all love flying the big machine and want to keep it in the air. making money.
Pushback is a stately affair, and moving the massive weight of a fully loaded the A380 takes a special tug. Start-up is routine, with engines started in pairs. The ones on the right wing, nos 3 & 4, are brought to life first, to provide hydraulic power for the body landing gear steering. Once the two on the left wing (nos 1 & 2) are fired up, we release the engineer and perform the flight control check. A quick read of the electronic checklist to make sure nothing is left out, and it is time to start moving.
Taxiing provides the first real challenge. This is a large aircraft with a lot of inertia, and it needs room. In an ideal world we would only operate to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) Code F airports with nice wide taxiways (see sidebar). Maneuvering the big ‘bus on narrower taxiways is a challenge. Extensive use of the taxi cameras is necessary to ensure that the airplane stays within the taxiways, without any embarrassing re-arrangement of taxiway edge lights. The key is to keep moving: any speed less than 5kt and the A380 tends to lose momentum.
Conversely, turning at anything more than 9kt leads to groans of protest from the nose wheels, which ‘scrub’ at these speeds. Even a little moisture on the surface
exacerbates the situation; that’s when we really move around like a galleon in the doldrums.
The airplane’s 80m (262.5ft) wing span also creates a problem when there is another large aircraft on a parallel taxiway. Caution is the order of the day, as we make slow but steady progress to the duty runway.
At MGTOW on a humid, tropical day, the A380 will have a V1 (takeoff safety speed) of around 170kt with a’Flex’ or assumed temperature thrust setting in the high to mid-forties Celsius. So, plenty of thrust is available if needed. It is only as the OAT (outside air temperature) approaches 40C that full thrust or TOGA (takeoff go around) becomes necessary.
Taking off is both a non-event and a relief. The Rolls- Royce Trent 900 turbofans spool up easily with hardly a sound. Acceleration is smooth and uneventful, Vr
(rotation speed) approaches rapidly, and the aircraft practically springs into the air with plenty of runway ahead. It’s almost as if the A380 senses it is entering its
true environment, as only gentle pressure on the side-stick is sufficient to get us gracefully airborne.
Raising the landing gear is the first major event after takeoff and is accompanied by an astonishing chorus of groans and squeals as all 22 wheels drag themselves into
the gear bays. Once this noisy interlude is concluded, the A380 continues to climb in silence.
Initial climb is uncomplicated and brisk. At MGTOW the aircraft usually climbs initially to the low-thirties (thousands of feet). Flight level 320-32,000 ft-is a fairly
typical altitude to begin with, and the cruise speed there is usually Mach 0.85 (the Mach number being the ratio of the airplane’s speed to the speed of sound, the latter
speed varying with air density which decreases as altitude increases). This is brisk enough to silence the boys flying the ‘light twins’ (such as the Boeing 777) that also cruise at this speed; smaller Airbus types cruise at Mach 0.83 or less, a source of much amusement to Boeing drivers.
Climb-out in a crowded TMA (terminal control area) can be quite an ego trip. We are a source of considerable chatter among other pilots; some of them even badger
ATC (air traffic control) with an occasional request for a radar vector to facilitate air-to-air photos. Of course, we ignore all this clamor and serenely continue to our cruise altitude, impervious to the envying glances of lesser aircraft types.
Top of climb (TOC) leads to a flurry of activity as we scan the systems and the OlS. The pilot-flying (PIC) usually brings up the IFPA (in-flight performance application) to calculate the optimum cruise levels, and check on engine parameters in cruise and drift-down altitudes. IFPA can be used in the climb as well, but is typically referred to at TOC. It contains a wealth of information that used to be buried deep in the manuals, but is now available digitally at the pilots’ fingertips. No more peering at a faded or torn monochrome page in a manual-simply input the actual parameters (altitude, temperature, wind, weight) and look at the exact performance data needed. Magic!
The pilot-not-flying (PNF) is typically responsible for ensuring that the electronic charts reflect the actual route of flight. It is possible to build the entire route and have
it displayed in real time for each pilot with the relevant airways highlighted for easy recognition. The application can also be used to call up ATC frequencies and the
wealth of information found on the printed charts. But because it is displayed on demand, the display is free of all the clutter seen on the paper version. The actual process of building the route is not automated and can take a few minutes. Most of the time it is not completed during the preflight phase because of time constraints/ but is left until the workload drops off.
Cruise is generally a relaxed and easy phase of flight. The cockpit windows are huge (much bigger than on other Airbus types) and afford a great view. As for the
flightdeck itself, this is spacious enough to allow the pilots to stand up occasionally and have a good stretch. Of course, the slide-out table is wonderfully handy, and a novelty for pilots who have transferred from the ‘other maker’s’ airplanes, where there is a control wheel and yoke in the way for the entire flight.
Weather radar is particularly good, and the vertical display-located on the lower half of the ND (navigation display)-makes avoiding storms quite simple. The ‘crosshatch’ display of weather, whereby the system decides if any weather is below the airplane, is very accurate.
Initially, most pilots experimented with the system by taking it out of the automatic mode and varying the tilt and gain to satisfy ourselves that it worked as advertised.
Eventually we overcome our skepticism, and learn to trust the system except on the stormiest of dark nights. The ND has range range selection of 10-320 Nm making it possible to see the next way point on all but the longest of legs.
The CPDLC (controller pilot data link connection), which allows us to text-message with ATC rather than communicate over sometimes scratchy Voice
connections, is very well integrated with the cockpit displays. Using the cursor and keyboard located near the MFD (multi function display) the pilots can generate all
the routine messages that need to be sent to ATC and, in free-text mode, anything else.
During a long-haul flight the A380 burns about 13t (28,6501b) of fuel an hour. While this sounds a lot, fuel consumption per seat-mile is astonishingly good. The
caveat is that there is not much of a difference between a full and empty aircraft. DOW (dry operating weight with no pax, baggage, or fuel, but full catering, water, oil,
and hydraulic fluid) is around :100t (661,5001b), so the payload is not much more than 60t (132,0001b)-20% of the DOW on the best of days. To carry this load over a long stage will burn roughly 125t (275,6001b) of kerosene. If the aircraft is totally empty of passenger’s and freight, we would still expend more than 90t (19,5001b) of fuel to fly the same route. So, passenger loads arc crucial to profitability, which is why we keep such a close eye on the numbers.
Depending on the cost index currently in use, the aircraft tends to cruise anywhere between Mach 0.8.1 and 0.86. The higher end of the envelope is especially useful
as it allows us to make up any slight delays on ground and ensure our valued customers reach their destination on time.
Turbulence cruise is surprisingly fast too, with the aircraft rarely having to slow down much below Mach 0.83 no matter bad the weather. The A380 rides the
bumps very smoothly, much better than some earlier models from the same stable.
The A380 is very popular with passengers, its capacious cabin, especially on the lower deck where the ceiling is almost 3m (9.8ft) high, belying the fact that
we are traveling in a metal and plastic tube some 6mi (10km) above the surface of the planet. Also contributing to the pleasant ambiance are the very quiet interior and
relatively low cabin altitude.
Returning to Earth
Both descent and approach phases are also usually routine. ATC controllers tend to make us slow down to accommodate slower types and get the sequencing right.
Approach speeds are refreshingly slow. Even at MLW (maximum landing weight) of 391t (862,000lb) the A380 has a Vref of 141kt and needs less than 2,000m (6,550ft) of runway to land, even when the surface is wet. To put this into perspective, in the event that a primary runway (such as 34L in Sydney or 16 in Melbourne) is not available for some reason, be it weather or operational, the A380 can quite comfortably land on the shorter crosswind runway.
The final stages of descent come quickly, the A383 tending to be a bit ‘slippery’ on the glideslope. Because the airplane is very aerodynamic it is easy to become
a little fast in the initial stages of the approach. This is easily solved, however, as extension of the A380’s mighty landing gear is sufficient to provide the requisite
retardation. Final approach is very stable with not much thrust required to maintain speed. At 140kt (or less, most of the time) observers on ground comment
how the A380 tends to float across the threshold. This is difficult to appreciate from the cockpit as we are now working quite hard to ensure the arrival is as smooth as
the rest of the flight.
Crossing the threshold at 50ft, power is gradually reduced and the PF applies gentle back pressure on the side-stick. The trick is to keep the attitude steady rather than try to flare as in earlier types. Because of the cockpit height, there is a slight illusion. Just when it feels that the A380 is going to float and embarrass us in front of all the other aircraft waiting for takeoff,the aft wheels touch down with a gentle sigh-and we have arrived. It is difficult to make a firm landing with the A380, although this writer has achieved that feat on more than the odd occasion.
The airplane is programmed to lower the nose as part
of the ‘flare law’, but a slow release of pressure is a good idea. Thrust reverses are available immediately and the autobrake kicks in quickly and smoothly, making a high-speed intersection, such as A2 off Sydney’s Runway 34L, not a problem even on a wet day. As with all examples of Airbus airplanes of this generation, the auto-thrust system automatically disconnects on landing.
Fat Boy makes good use of the ‘instinctive disconnect’ buttons on the thrust levers (obviously redundant at this stage as the system has disconnected automatically). After landing, these buttons can be used to disconnect the autobrake system, making for a smooth reversion to manual braking. A fitting end to a perfect touchdown.
As we enter the taxiway, the most important task is to slow down. Being much lighter than we were to start with, taxi speeds are not that much of an issue. If anything the aircraft tends to get away from us, and because the brakes are fairly warm by now it is important to keep a close watch
on developments. When faced with a long taxi to the stand, many pilots tend to shut down the inboard engines once the cool-down time (approximately
three minutes at idle) has passed.
The outboard engines are very high off the ground, so foreign object ingestion is unlikely, even though at most airports the engine nacelles hang over the grass. By taxiing in on two engines brake wear is greatly reduced and fuel is saved as well.
Our final turn to the parking stand is also rather majestic. The last thing the crew wants after a long flight is to stop too far or, even worse, too close to the gate.
Pioneers always tend to get a lot of press, good and bad. On balance, the A380 has had a very good introduction to service. Some initial teething problems were solved
quickly. As the aircraft has matured and utilization increased we have obtained a better idea of what it takes to operate the beast.
Spares are always going to be an issue. Given that there are so many onboard computers, keeping a large stock of spares is a financial burden. After some time in
service, the airline now has a feel for what needs to be kept ready for frequent use.
Other than the system control units (computers), of which there are hundreds, one problematic issue is the fuel system. Fat Boy carries an enormous quantity
of fuel and this is stored in no less than 11 tanks: five in each wing (outer, mid, inner plus two feed tanks) plus the tank in the THS (trimmable horizontal stabilizer).
There are 20 fuel pumps in the tanks alone.
One of the reasons for this very complicated system is the dramatic curvature of the gull wing. This feature imposes a disadvantage compared to airplanes with flatter wing profiles that enable an easier flow of fuel to the engines with far fewer tanks and pumps. In the A380 the number of tanks and pumps is probably-and partially-to
counteract the effect of fuel ‘pooling’ at the wing root, although this is a pilot’s opinion and engineers who designed the aircraft might disagree.
Whatever the reason, the inescapable fact is that this contributes to a complex system that demand considerable time spent transferring fuel between tanks.
Obviously much of this activity is dictated by fuel burn and the need to keep the feed tanks full. Airbus’s trademark CG control-which maintains the airplane’s
CG slightly forward of the aft limit, thereby optimizing cruise performance-also transfers fuel to the trim tank early in the flight and then incrementally forward in
the course of the cruise. In addition, the load alleviation transfer serves to reduce structural loads on the wing by transferring fuel to the outer tanks as required.
However, with 20 pumps constantly shunting fuel around to optimize CG position and wing loading, there is a lot that can go wrong. Particularly vexing is the failure
of an outer tank pump. Unless a spare is available, this throws out the normal fuel distribution. It then becomes necessary to uplift the required fuel and manually shift it before engine start, in order to arrive at the correct loading
for abnormal operation. A time-consuming process that cannot be accomplished until all the fuel is onboard, this inevitably leads to a long delay. Indeed, there are more
than a few pilots in the company who wish they could carry a spare fuel pump in their luggage, just in case.
Further development changes to the A380 and its growth potential must focus on weight savings. One of the first factors to be addressed must be the reduction of the aircraft’s DOW by at least 10t (22,000lb) to counter the weight limitations mentioned earlier. this will permit an additional 16t (35,000lbs) of fuel to be carried at a typical operational ZFW of 360t (794,000lbs).
Accordingly, if structural modifications will allow the MGTOW to be increased beyond its current limit of 569t, an 18-plus hour endurance would be possible (available thrust not being a limiting factor). This would bring routes such as Singapore-Los Angeles (7,600nm/1-1,000km) or even Singapore-New York (8,300nm/ 15,500km) within range of the aircraft.
Thus, the ability to carry 500 passengers nonstop between any two city-pairs in the world would make the A380 a genuine world-beater.
If it hasn’t become obvious by now this writer is a Fat Boy enthusiast. The A380 is certainly a great airplane in more than just the visually obvious sense; it is the best Airbus I have had the privilege of flying, and handles beautifully flawlessly in fact. If the A380 seems complicated to operate this is only the first iteration of a family that is likely to see out the careers of an entire generation of pilots. When the Boeing 747 was introduced 40 years ago, it must have been much more complicated to operate, even with a flight engineer on hand. Significantly, the workload on the A380 is only high during pre-flight preparation. At all other times it is a perfectly relaxed and simple machine for the pilot and – in case I have not made my point often enough already – a joy to fly.
Another serendipitous pleasure for the still relatively small number of A380 pilots worldwide is that with only a handful of the type in operation thus far, our privileged
group is akin to an intimate an intimate and exclusive club. There is a greater-than-usual sense of camaraderie within the fleet, seeing familiar faces regularly as part of a small team-a happy close-knit group of people who are doing what they love, playing with a big new toy.