Flying the A380
By A Double-Decker Bus Driver
Originally published on : 28 December 2008
The first day of a pilots’ type conversion course is always special. Learning to fly a new ‘bird’ is a treat that all pilots look forward to, but not without a touch of nostalgia. We tend to become attached to the individual types we fly, growing to love their good points while learning to deal with the inevitable idiosyncrasies and shortcomings that every airplane has. So, leaving a type that you have happily flown for several years is not undertaken without many a backward glance and even feelings of guilt. But when the new airplane to which you are about to convert is the brand-new, much talked-about Airbus A380, the biggest ‘Bus’ of them all—which your airline is about to introduce into service—that makes the transition a little easier.
On the A380 training course, the first surprise is the absence of manuals. Usually, before the start date of a new-type course, participating pilots receive a polite message asking them to collect all the relevant manuals from the publications office. This is usually accompanied by a reminder to bring a duffel bag to hold the many heavy books. Most of us, on the conversion course I recently attended, are now too old to lug the books back home, so the smart guys bring their sons’ cricket bags, the types with wheels at the bottom. This alleviates the load on our aging back muscles!
But the A380 is an airplane of the 21st century, so all we receive are two DVDs. One has all the aircraft manuals on it, the other containing the ground course and study material. A bonus is that there will be no need to endlessly revise paper documentation, a chore that has driven many a pilot to the edge of despair.
Computers are provided in the training center, of course, but everyone is required to have their own laptops. However, Macintosh users are incensed because the material will run only on Windows XP or higher. Insult added to injury.
The first day of the course is more like a veterans’ reunion than anything else. All the captains are airline old-timers, friends who have known each other for 20 years or more but, other than on the occasional layover or at parties, have lost touch over the years. It is nice to catch up and compare stories and expectations. The co-pilots too are very close, being mostly from the same batch since joining the airline as cadets.
After a short introduction to the philosophy of the electronic manuals and the ground course, we are left to launch the application on our computers and start learning. Practically the first things we learn are all the acronyms. Airbus is renowned for its fondness for such abbreviations, but on the A380 the array is mind-boggling.
The manuals must be written in a suburb of Toulouse called ‘Ville d’Acronyme’. Every item and system seems to have its own acronym, and becoming familiar with them is going to take some time.
The next shock to the system is the numbers. This is a very big machine. Maximum gross takeoff weight (MGTOW) is 569,000kg (1,254,430lb) with a maximum landing weight (MLW) of 391,000kg (862,000lb), and maximum zero fuel weight (MZFW) of 366,000kg (806,890lb). This will allow a maximum payload of around 90,000kg (198,400lb) to be carried for about 12 hours. The length of the aircraft is 72.7m (238.5ft) — albeit not the longest for an airliner—and its wing span is 79.7 m (261.5ft), which is very large. Taxiing this beast at some airports is an interesting chore.
Once we move into the ‘guts’ of the course, though, the sheer complexity of the A380 becomes evident. It is the logical extension of the trend that Airbus began with the then-revolutionary A320 (Airways, July 2002). The basic philosophies of the advanced flight control system, fly-by-wire (FBW) controls, sidestick controllers, etc, are still evident. But they have all been refined and carried to their logical conclusions.
Airbus has also unveiled its first electronic checklist. The ECAM (Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitoring) that handled major failures still exists, but is now coupled to an electronic checklist that in turn is part of the flight warning computer. All checklists—normal and abnormal—are run through the ECAM. Paper checklists have been effectively eliminated as well, with the dreaded QRH (Quick Reference Handbook—that was typically anything but) now running to only three pages: the Smoke and Evacuation checklists.
Even the myriad charts and graphs that were used to calculate aircraft performance are no more. Each pilot has a terminal with a keyboard on the table—the Airbus invention that Boeing pilots scoff at—which accesses the OIS (Onboard Information System) directly and allows calculation of takeoff and landing performance, as well as accessing all the aircraft documents including an electronic aircraft technical log book.
The OIS screen also doubles as the display for the electronic charts. That’s right—the days of injuring your back while lifting a heavy Jeppesen manual from the chart bag are gone. Now the ‘Jepps’ are electronic and appear on-demand on the screen. What’s more, the charts can be resized, allowing the aging pilots amongst us to actually see the information without having to fish out reading glasses.
Indeed, the display screens for all this information rival a video arcade. In addition to the OIS display, which sits behind the sidestick controls, each pilot has three large rectangular LCD (liquid crystal display) screens that show enhanced versions of the PFD (Primary Flight Display), ND (Navigation Display), and FMS (Flight Management System). Two more LCDs are placed between the pilots, and these contain the ECAM display as well as the SD (System Display).
All these screens are interchangeable, allowing the pilots to display information on any one of them should a screen failure occur. The rectangular (as distinct from square) shape of the screens has allowed the manufacturer to squeeze in a lot more data on the same display. For example, the PFD—in addition to the now traditional attitude, airspeed, and altitude indicators, plus VSI (vertical speed indicator) and FMA (flight mode annunciator)—also displays flight control information and critical memo messages on the bottom of the screen.
No need to scan the center panel for your flap setting, speedbrake extension, etc. They are now right there in front of the pilot.
The ND is particularly interesting, as the bottom of the screen displays a vertical display of the weather detected by the radar. So, while the conventional ND shows a plan view of the storms ahead, the bottom of the screen shows the same weather system, but from the side. In addition, this view can be skewed to left or right, allowing the pilots to pick their way through a line of storms. Equally clever is the function of the conventional ND that decides whether a storm ahead is below the aircraft, in which case it is shown cross-hatched—a ‘don’t bother’ hint to the crew.
All this magic is because Airbus has effectively reinvented the weather radar system, with the displays and information as separate entities. The radar antennae generate a three-dimensional view of what is ‘seen’, which is then stored in the database. This allows both lateral and vertical displays to be generated on the pilots’screens. Personally, I would like a hologram displaying the weather to appear in front of me so I can see exactly what is out there. On the A390 perhaps?
In a further enhancement meant to ease flightcrew workload in weather situations, it is possible now to define a waypoint using the trackball on the ND itself. No more incomprehensible waypoint, track and distance combinations needed. Just look at the weather depicted on the ND, pick a clear path, click the button, and voila! a new waypoint is created. These are automatically added to the flight plan, so navigation around a squall line, even at night, will be a lot less stressful. It is obvious to us that what until now was a chore, could even become a pleasure.
Even the standby instruments are little LCDs, capable of more functions and displays than a Casio watch. However, the magnetic compass is still on the main pillar, in all its analog glory. This is a remarkable testament to both the simple functionality of the instrument and the aviation regulators’ reluctance to fully embrace all the technology. It is probably the only instrument that a pre-Sixties aviator would recognize, and there is no conceivable failure that would cause the pilots to rely on it—but there it is.
Another first, at least for airliners, is the inclusion of a FMS Landing System (FLS) as a standard fit. This truly innovative technology, which has been on top end business jets for sometime, essentially removes the need for flying a non-precision approach (NPA). The very nature of NPAs—no glideslope information, the need for the use of vertically selected modes, etc—inherently led
to many an unstable approach and landing accidents. However, the FLS practically eliminates this danger. By using a reference approach—usually a VOR (Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Radio Range)-based one and the known runway information—the FMS database creates a ‘virtual’ ILS (instrument landing system)-type approach, using the runway as an ‘anchor point’. This is presented to the pilot in exactly the same way as an ILS, the only differences being the magenta ‘doublediamond’ course deviation indicators, and the notation of the anchor point (rather than the ILS identification) on the PFD. Once the approach is selected, and checked for accuracy against the published chart on which it is based, the pilot flies it exactly the same as an ILS approach. Because glideslope information is displayed, potential errors caused by having to manually crosscheck the descent path are eliminated. In the long list of improvements on the A380, the FLS function will rate very highly amongst all pilots fortunate enough to fly this magnificent airplane.
But Airbus has gone even further, with some systems having also been ‘re-invented’ in their entirety—in particular, the hydraulic system. Since flight controls became large enough to need more than pilots’ muscular strength to activate, hydraulic failures have been the bugbear of aircraft designers (remember the United DC-10 incident at Sioux City, Iowa?). So the A380, with control surfaces the size of barn doors, 22 wheels, and 5,000psi (350kg/cm2) hydraulic systems to move it all, needed something special.
Airbus engineers addressed the issue, and the aircraft has only two hydraulic systems—ostensibly. However, the failure of both these systems is almost a non-event, and leads only to a master caution light (an amber warning rather than a red light warning of emergency). This is because of the invention that Airbus calls Electro-Hydrostatic Actuators (EHA) and Electrical Backup Hydraulic Actuators (EBHA). These are essentially independent systems, with their own reservoirs, that generate hydraulic power as and when required— especially for critical flight control surfaces. So even a complete, catastrophic failure that damages all the main systems and drains all the fluid, will leave pilots with the important flight controls still powered and able to extend the landing gear by gravity. While this may not seem like much to a layperson, it is a huge achievement, one that every pilot will admire. Some day, I must meet the team that designed this and buy them all a beer.
The associated flight control system has also been improved. It continues the Airbus philosophy of ‘protections’. While this is not every pilot’s cup of tea it does work very well. The system has been tweaked to make engine failures even more benign, and has a few tricks to prevent tail-strike and make the nose wheel touch down a little smoother. A little more improvement and, seemingly, pilots may not be required at all…
Easily the most complex system on the A380 is the fuel system. It comprises 11 tanks capable of holding over 323,500l (84,110USg), with 20 pumps to deliver fuel to the engines. This takes place in an elaborately choreographed process that not only ensures adequate fuel flow to each engine, but also maintains an optimum center of gravity (CG) and alleviates wing bending moments by transferring fuel between the tanks. The system is so complex that the ECAM has two pages devoted to its operation: the ‘normal’ display, and ‘more’ display that shows the system in all its mind-boggling complexity. This is one system that this old pilot hopes will work as advertised—understanding it is hard enough; troubleshooting it would be darned near impossible.
Almost as complex, though easier to grasp, is the landing gear. With the nose gear, two wing landing gears (four wheels per bogie), and two body landing gears (six wheels per bogie) there is certainly a lot of rubber on the road. Sixteen of the wheels have brakes, and in addition to the nose gear, the aft bogies on the body gear are steerable. All this enable the behemoth to turn on a dime—well almost, given its size.
It is not my intention here to bore readers with details of all the systems on this mighty machine. Suffice it to say that the engineering design team has incorporated all the lessons learned over a half-century of jetliner operations and tried very hard to plug all the holes. This is a complete package, and one this humble pilot regards as a masterpiece.
From the pilot’s point of view, of course, the most important factor is how the airplane flies. That is first discovered in the simulator—our next step. ✈