Flying the A380
by A Double-Decker Bus Driver
18 J a n u a r y 2 0 0 9
Puny is what most human pilots feel as they
approach the simulator every six months, with
their licenses and livelihoods at stake. But facing up to a simulator as part of a transition course is an entirely different thing. This is the chance to come to grips with an airplane that so far has existed only in the realms of theory and ‘virtual reality’. Knowledge acquired so painfully via computer screens and books, is about to gain a third, tactile dimension—and become real.
The realism of modern simulators is quite astonishing.
This writer’s first encounter with a full-motion simulator was with one mounted on railway tracks. It would lunge forward or back to simulate movement and then creep forward, at a rate calculated to be imperceptible, until it was back at the neutral position. The display of this machine was primitive too: only a night vision-type monochrome view through the front windows. Even this somewhat primitive machine needed considerable computing power, though, with roomfuls of cabinets and a coterie of acolytes devoted to its upkeep.
Today’s six-axis simulators have visual displays that are quite astonishing in their accuracy, a degree of fidelity that is being constantly refined, and probably more computing power than NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) had in its heyday. They have changed so much from the first of their ilk, and the experience offered is so close to an actual airplane, that pilots are allowed to do all their training in a simulator, with the first actual landing with passengers in the back, allowing the airlines massive cost savings in their training programs. But the price of these marvelous machines is also high. A simulator costs almost as much as a small passenger aircraft and requires enormous computing power, as well as enough electrical power to light up a small suburb. However, given the price of an aircraft and the jet fuel to power it, they are an amazing bargain.
Even the characteristic hiss and sigh of the hydraulic arms that held the ‘cockpit’ aloft and allowed those six axes of motion are no more. The very latest simulators are on electrically-driven screw jacks that are almost totally silent, taking away another of this old aviator’s memories.
But I digress. This piece is about learning to fly (or ‘operate’, in modern parlance) the Airbus A380. In the punishing world of airline finances, even a simulator, which costs a fraction of the price of an A380, is expensive.
A pilot’s first encounter with the machine takes the form of a FTD (fixed training device), or systems mockup. This is much more prosaic than a simulator and consists of a collection of touch-sensitive LCD (liquid crystal display) screens—any one of which would look really cool in my living room—that display all the panels that pilots will encounter in the airplane. All the switches can be ‘moved’ by touching the screen, and the computers ensure that the appropriate commands and changes are displayed on the other instruments and systems affected by a change. Every phase of flight is possible to emulate, and the principal use of the FTD is to ensure that pilots are familiar with placement of controls and indicators so that all normal procedures—and many abnormal ones— can be practiced to a reasonable degree of fidelity.
There is no visual display, but the FTD can be ‘flown’ by reference to the instruments. The engines can be started (there is even a whine through the speakers), flaps extended, the thrust levers moved to the takeoff position, and the instruments show that the aircraft is moving. Once VR is reached, a tap on the sidestick and we are ‘airborne’. The ‘virtual’ gear is retracted, flaps stowed on schedule, and off we go.
In a word, the FTD is boring. But it serves a useful purpose. All the cockpit scans and checklist flows can be practiced over and over until they are second nature.
This familiarity with the flightdeck is one of the hardest phases of learning to fly a new aircraft. On the type you have flown for a time, the scans and flows are second nature. Most pilots can do the cockpit set-up and normal checklists while flirting with a flight attendant and drinking coffee. These are practically second nature once we have ‘time on type’, but on a new aircraft we feel like two-year-olds in a nuclear plant. Getting the basic knowledge and muscle memory stored is a vital part of a conversion; and the FTD, tedious as it is, plays a vital rôle in the training process.
Another important skill acquired in the FTD is the use of the FMS (Flight Management System). Airbus has a very different approach to that of the other manufacturer, and the FMS on the A380 is different again from the previous generation. For starters, the screen is much bigger, allowing much more data to be displayed. For those of us who have essentially grown up with the standard sixline display found on most commercial FMSs, this is as transforming as your first encounter with a wide screen computer. “Hey look, the track and distance are on the same page!” Quite a revelation in the nerdy world of airline pilots.
Finally—the real simulator. After many sessions in the FTD, becoming used to the ‘new’ (for Airbus) electronic checklists and all the other gizmos on the A380, we finally have a chance to taste the real thing—well, sort of. Fresh from a software upgrade, to incorporate the flight data from the A380 that has been travelling around the world as a demonstrator, this marvel of modern science is about to provide our first full-flight simulator session.
One of the more annoying facets of simulators is that the displays and information they use to simulate real flight are not necessarily real-time and up-to-date. For example, when there is a new taxiway or radio aid at an airport, chances are that the simulator will not incorporate this for many months. Actually, updating the computer database and generating the required visuals is a timeand money-consuming process, necessarily constrained in this budget-conscious era. In order to take away this annoyance, Airbus Training has done something rather clever. They have ‘invented’ an entire airport. Enjoying the fictitious ICAO code of ‘LFZZ’, this is an airport that never changes. All its runways are large and long enough to accommodate the world’s largest airliner, there is very little traffic, and the navaids never change. The weather, of course, is at the whim of the simulator instructor, and LFZZ is capable of ‘experiencing’ snow and sleet on any given day of the month.
All training flights for this first part of the conversion course originate out of LFZZ. The layout of the airport is such that budding A380 pilots can operate on taxiways with no restriction despite the 80m (262.5ft) wing span of the beast. Taxiing on more restrictive layouts will be something we are called on to do at most airports when flying the real aircraft of course, but for now it is not an issue. We can even practice doing a 180° turn on the taxiways, a maneuver this pilot sincerely hopes he will never have to perform in the actual airplane.
In fact, taxiing is going to be one of the major challenges on the double-decker. Its main wheels are 14.4m (47.3ft) apart, so keeping to the centerline of the taxiway becomes a vital task. The taxi cameras located on the top of the vertical stabilizer and on the fuselage beneath the airplane help the pilots to check the wheels’ actual position. As a further aid, magenta indicators on the display denote the position of the main gears.
The simulator has a nifty little program that also places arrows on the visual display, showing the pilots where the aircraft’s engines are located. This is essential because the tapering of the fuselage means that pilots are unable to see the wing tips, let alone the engines, from their seats. This is one of the times when the wisdom of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) Code F—for airport design (equivalent to FAA Group VI) with wide taxiways and extra spacing between them and the runways—comes into its own. Unfortunately there are only a handful of Code F airports in the world, ironically most of them in Asia and none due for A380 operations anytime soon.
Turning the A380 on the taxiway is something that takes getting used to. It is necessary to lead the turns a considerable amount, and this is where the cameras are essential. The body wheel steering (on the last pair of bogies of the six-wheel landing gear) works for the pilots in ensuring that turns are kept relatively tidy. It is fairly easy to make a 180° turn on a 60m (197ft) taxiway—at least in the simulator.
Again I digress. Now it’s time to fly the simulator and accomplish a normal takeoff. Position the thrust levers to the takeoff ‘gate’—a peculiarity of the non-moving thrust levers that are standard on Airbus FBW (fly-bywire) aircraft—at a takeoff weight of 540t (1,190,500lb), well below the maximum of 569t (1,254,430lb), and the acceleration of the simulator is best described as stately.
After a not inconsiderable period of time, the autocall “Vee one” is heard, and soon after the PNF (pilot not flying) calls “Rotate.” A smooth increase of pitch toward the target angle of 12.5° and we are airborne. This first simulator session is about normal maneuvers and exploring the handling characteristics of the aircraft. It is a joy to fly—smooth and light at the controls but with a considerable amount of inertia. First impressions are all positive. The A380 is very responsive, needing only two fingers on the side-stick to maneuver, and extremely stable. Airbus philosophy is that the side-stick is simply another input device. It is used to adjust the attitude of the aircraft to the appropriate position. The automation and the auto-throttle does the rest. This being the first time, of course we all tend to ‘hand fly’ the simulator as much as we can. But it is so smooth and precise that we give up and engage the autopilot not very long into the session.
Given the degree of automation, calling every
change on the FMA (Flight Mode Annunciator) is an Airbus requirement. This is because the FMA tells the pilots exactly what system is controlling every aspect of the flight. Some of the changes are quite subtle but nevertheless important, and calling out FMA changes is going to have to become second nature.
The next few days are full. We are put through
the whole range of maneuvers that are required by the regulator to prepare us for the proficiency test. The flying is relatively easy, because the A380 is designed (or should I say ‘programmed’?) to handle very much like the other Airbus FBW aircraft. If anything, it is more benign, probably because of refinements in the software and the massive inertia of the aircraft. Crosswind landings are fairly straightforward, the only trick being to de-crab in the flare. The maximum certified crosswind component was 30kt at the time of training, but this will probably be raised once in-service experience is gained (56kt was demonstrated during flight testing).
Operations with an engine failed are also benign, while the dreaded ‘engine failure at V1’ is almost a nonevent.
The Airbus sideslip index is a great help in this case, assisting the pilot in gently applying the required amount of rudder (very little is needed) to form a pyramid on the indicator and assure coordinated flight with asymmetrical thrust. Throughout the maneuver, the simulator remains very stable and forgiving, a pleasure to fly.
This is the first Airbus type with a full electronic checklist. Previous aircraft had the ECAM (Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor), which required a bulky paper checklist to back it up, unlike the rival manufacturer’s version. A mere five pages long, the A380’s paper version caters only for a complete electrical failure, a statistically improbable event.
The electronic checklist (ECL) takes a little getting used to. It is complex and requires a considerable amount of ‘head-down’ time from the non-flying pilot. But it is also capable of dealing with every possible failure and, in the vast majority of cases, providing instant feedback on pilot actions. Those who have used Boeing’s version tend to be a little grudging in their praise, but we all learn to operate it efficiently.
During normal operations, the real value of the ECL is apparent. Earlier, the request for a checklist meant the PM (pilot monitoring) had to locate the QRH (Quick Reference Handbook), possibly turn on a reading light and fumble for reading glasses, while reciting the checklist that was printed on a worn and sometimes torn piece of cardboard with an often opaque protective cover. Not any more. A simple button push and, ‘Hey presto!’ the checklist menu appears on the center LCD, usually with the correct checklist highlighted. One more push and the checklist is displayed, with the completed items already in green.
Typically, only the ‘challenge and response’ items need to be manually verified and the checklist is complete. Once this is verified by the PF (pilot flying), the display can be de-selected allowing the default information to be made visible. It is a very ergonomic and pilot-friendly piece of equipment, that reduces workload considerably whilst also increasing safety.
As it turns out, the simulator program has no surprises for us, and our entire trainee group completes it without problems. The only areas we are unable to master are the use of the electronic charts, the OIS (Onboard Information System)—which has all the aircraft manuals, performance applications, navigation charts, and even an electronic log book—because, unfortunately, the simulator does not fully support this application.
The next step is the biggest plum of all. A chance to fly the A380 around Europe, for the IOE (initial operating experience) part of our training. Usually this takes place on a company aircraft on domestic routes, but because our first A380 is yet to be delivered, the initial group of pilots has to go to the home of Airbus—a treat to which we are all looking forward.
Paris in the springtime is a wonderful place—or so the poets tell us. In this case, though, it was only Charles de Gaulle Airport and Paris was not our final destination. But, no worries, we were headed to Airbus HQ—Toulouse in the southern part of France, nestled close to the Spanish border, by the Pyrénées mountain range.
Twenty-five years ago Toulouse was a small place, best known for its universities and ‘old city’, a walled enclave dating from medieval times. Toulouse-Blagnac International Airport itself has a long and distinguished history, having been in existence since 1928. The iconic French jetliner, the Caravelle, was built here, and so was the supersonic Anglo-French Concorde. Airbus Industrie set up its administration and manufacturing headquarters at Toulouse in 1970, thus cementing the area’s place in aviation folklore, whilst sparking massive growth.
After a rather jet-lagged sleep, we pitch up at the Airbus Training Centre, a large, straggling building that has obviously grown along with the company, for a briefing and collection of IDs and paperwork. A brief tour takes us past simulators for all Airbus types, and we meet some of the pilots who are being trained to fly them. This is followed by lunch at the Airbus staff canteen, a very ‘French’ eating place with a choice of salads, starters, four main courses, freshly made pizza, and a dessert selection that would rival that of any gourmet restaurant.
Very enjoyable on a wet afternoon with nothing to do, especially because the canteen also liberally dispenses a very drinkable vin de table. We return to our hotel intent on an early night and hoping for good weather the next morning.
Clear skies herald the next day, but it is chilly as we huddle on the pavement waiting for a taxi. In the early gloom we speed past streets still wet from the night’s rain, our excitement increasing as we near the airport. After a short wait at the gate we are met by Nick, one of the Airbus test pilots, and off we go to the test flight hangar located in the Zone Aéronautique on the west side of the airfield.
We drive past rows of gleaming new airliners awaiting completion and delivery, mostly A320s but many widebodies too, painted in the colors of airlines from all over the world. At the hangar, Nick leads the way to the briefing room. Unable to resist the temptation, we ignore the documentation and go to the windows to get our first look at the airplanes—and there they are: F-WWOW and F-WWDD (MSNs 001 and 004, respectively), two of the first four A380s built, looking resplendent in the early morning light.
Tearing ourselves away from the window, we
reluctantly turn to find two more people in the room, wryly observing our excitement. These are Michel Landrin, head of flight and cabin crew training, and Flight Engineer Pascal Verneau, who will fly with us today.
The next half-hour is spent going over the documents, weather, and flight plan. We are to fly to two regional airports close by so we can acquire the relevant flying time and landings required to complete our IOE. Sufficient fuel is carried to ensure that we take off close to MLW (maximum landing weight), thereby giving us an idea as to how the airplane would handle at typical approach speeds. The meteorological briefing shows fine weather all over France, which means that visibility is going to be excellent and conditions benign. The airports selected for the landings, Châteauroux-Déols in central France, and Chalon-Champforgeuil, to the east of Paris, are former military fields with long runways but little traffic.
With mounting excitement we walk out to the
aircraft. Pascal, who is the custodian of this airplane (his ‘handle’—‘VNO’—is even painted on the nose wheel door, thus establishing his ‘ownership’) has already completed the walk-around inspection and ensured the aircraft is fit for flight.
The first impression as we approach F-WWDD on
foot is the sheer size of the A380. Its bulk is amazing, and the passenger steps that reach the main deck door are barely halfway up the side of the fuselage. The ‘inverted gull-wing’ design manages to look light and fluid, an impression quickly contradicted by the thickness of the wings and the dramatic size of the engines. For example, the inboard engine is high enough for the head of a person of average height to be level with the bottom edge of the cowling. The outboards are as high as a Boeing 737’s tail.
And the width of the horizontal stabilizer equals the wing span of a 737—the first jet type this aviator flew.
Up the steps and we arrive at a cavernous and
practically bare interior with a huge cross-section.
Immediately on the left is a narrow flight of steps leading to the flightdeck door. On the right a much wider stairway leads to the upper-deck passenger cabin. There is no time to explore, though—into the flightdeck and left seat, strap in, and begin the preflight. This stage is rushed, because time is of the essence and the object of the training mission is aircraft handling. The checklist and cockpit drills can be practiced in the simulator; what is important today is to become airborne. Our route is a standard one that Airbus uses for training, so it is available in the database. Airbus training pilots help out with the preparation, so in short order we are ready to push back and start the engines. The western (or Colomiers) side of the airport is quiet, with commercial flights using the Blagnac side and usually Runway 33R. After a short taxi to 33L, we are cleared for takeoff.
Taking a deep breath, I stand up the thrust levers, eliciting a rumble from the four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines, and the A380 starts to roll majestically down the runway. The takeoff run is short (I doubt that we will ever operate at this takeoff weight in airline service); then Michel announces “VR” [rotation speed]; I ease back on the side-stick—and we are airborne.
So far, so good. I haven’t embarrassed myself yet and it flies just like the simulator. The view out of the huge cockpit windows is superb. But I have to tear my eyes away and concentrate on flying the airplane. ATC (air traffic control) rattle out instructions to take us away from the terminal area, and then it becomes quiet as we level off and I engage the autopilot.
Châteauroux is about 35 minutes’ flying time away, enough to get the feel of the A380—I hope. “You are comfortable?” Michel asks from the right seat, as Pascal helpfully produces a flask of coffee and a tray full of delectable-looking French pastries. “This is training today—you can play as much as you like.”
That is invitation enough, and after a quick slug of caffeine and a bite of croissant I ask what I am permitted to do with the aircraft. “Anything you like,” was the sanguine reply.
“Steep turns?” I ask. A nod in reply.
“VLS?” [lowest selectable airspeed] (‘I’m pushing it now,’ I think to myself.)
“OK, if you have not seen this, it is good—go all the way to ‘alpha-floor’.”
(To avoid flying at low speed with low thrust, the Airbus FBW types have a safety feature known as alphafloor, or ∝-floor. This function automatically applies TOGA (TakeOff Go Around) thrust when the AoA (angle of attack) exceeds the ∝-floor threshold, located between the AoA that Airbus calls ∝-prot—where the speed protection threshold begins—and ∝-max, the maximum AoA, very close to stall speed.)
I look across at him incredulously—this is better than being a kid let loose in a candy store!
Making sure that everybody is secured and that
ATC is aware that we need a block of airspace, we make a couple of gentle turns to ensure that F-WWDD is all alone in this little patch of French sky. I disconnect the autopilot, turn on the flightpath vector—a handy Airbus tool that displays real-time flightpath information on the PFD (Primary Flight Director)—and gently roll the aircraft into a bank. As the turn steepens, at 45˚ the flight director is automatically removed. The view out of the windows is quite astonishing now; the horizon is at an angle I have never seen on a large aircraft. It becomes more radical as I approach 60˚ of bank and the pressure needed on the side-stick, both turn input and back pressure to remain in level flight, becomes considerable. I am using my whole hand (no more two-finger stuff) and most of my strength to achieve this. Somewhere around 67˚ of bank, I hit the ‘stop’; the built-in protection will not allow the bank angle to increase any farther. But reaching this limit was not easy, and it is unlikely to be willfully achieved under any conceivable situation. I am concentrating too hard to really enjoy the view, but manage a sneak—pretty impressive to see the ground out of the side window at that angle!
Once back in level flight I disconnect the auto-thrust, reduce thrust to idle and start to gently pull back on the stick to maintain level flight. The speed decays slowly as the big airplane pitches up. Speed continues to decrease, and at ∝-prot I release the side-stick and the aircraft maintains that speed in slight descent. This is slower than approach speed and is what would happen if the aircraft becomes ‘low and slow’ on approach. To reach ∝-max, which is still above the stall speed, it would be necessary to maintain full back-pressure on the stick—not as easy as it sounds, and very unlikely at low altitude. At this speed the protections would come into play, as the autothrust would apply full TOGA thrust in order to protect the flightpath and prevent an uncontrolled descent into the ground.
In this case, I allow the airplane to recover by repositioning the thrust levers to the cruise detent, reducing the pitch angle and re-engaging the autopilot and auto-thrust. Speed recovers, we regain our cleared altitude, and continue on our way. The stability and benign handling of the A380, even at this extreme end of the envelope, are very encouraging.
The interior of MSN 004/F-WWDD is set up for
flight testing. Occupying much of the lower deck is a series of tanks and pipes comprising a water ballast and CG (center of gravity) control system.
During an extended flight, the CG of the aircraft changes as fuel is transferred between the trim tank (located in the horizontal stabilizer) and the main tanks. On the test airplane, by pumping water between the various tanks it is possible to replicate this change in CG without the need to fly for long periods of time.
Also on the lower deck are data control and
monitoring stations. These record a variety of fight parameters for analysis in the laboratory. A series of monitors is used to display real-time flight information, the flightdeck instruments, or a variety of other data. The control unit can also generate and print out data for a specific flight, including exact measurements of the gload on touchdown, the distance from the threshold
that touchdown took place, the exact displacement from centerline, and all kinds of precise information that most pilots don’t really want to know about. Of course, the purpose is to generate the values needed for performance calculations, but it does serve to embarrass novices flying the airplane, with every detail of their transgressions recorded.
The upper deck on F-WWDD is laid out with large and comfortable seats that are used when the aircraft goes on demonstration flights. But also hidden in the lower deck are a couple of galley carts laden with wonderful coffee, fresh salads, and baguettes stuffed full of cheese and cold meats—better catering than is usually found on airlines in these frugal times. ✈
Our initial plan was to approach the airport from the southfrom the south and fly a visual left downwind for Runway 22. I spotted the airfield coming into view as a chat with ATC reveals that the wind now favors Runway A quick burst of French between Pascal and Michel is followed by an inquiry as to whether I would agree to a straight-in visual to 04. I must look startled, as Pascal feels bound to explain that this would mean not only saving time but that I could do a 180˚ turn at the 22 end and take off immediately.
Thus, my first-ever landing on the A380 goes from what was looking like a relaxed visual approach to an ILS-equipped runway to a rushed straight-in without any visual aids whatsoever—not even a VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator).
We rapidly ‘dirty’ up the airplane, extending the gear and flaps early. Unfortunately, I am high for most of the approach and follow Michel’s advice of not aggressively recovering the 3˚ profile, as there is runway to spare and conditions are good. I achieve ‘on-slope’ at about 500ft AGL (above ground level), and in what seems to be about ten seconds after making the decision, land a little bit long on the displaced threshold of Runway 04. Not the smooth touchdown I had envisaged, but a rather positive arrival.
As briefed, after landing we use reverse thrust and minimal braking. The 3,500m (11,483ft)-long runway is more than sufficient to slow the A380 to taxi speed.
Approaching the end of the runway, Michel once again takes me through the procedure for a 180˚ turn.
The turning pan at the end of the runway has been set up by Airbus with marker boards to facilitate this maneuver. Approaching the area at 5kt, I set 20% thrust on the outer left engine. As the nose gear approaches the edge of the runway (as seen on the taxi camera) and using the signboards for this purpose as a cue, I turn the tiller full right and gently apply some braking with my right foot. The A380 pivots elegantly as planned. Michel calls out the ground speed and I modulate the thrust slightly to maintain 5kt as we turn.
This maneuver is almost ridiculously easy. But it is only accomplished after much practice in the simulator, a thorough briefing, in daylight conditions, on a dry runway, and with support from crewmembers who are intimately familiar with it. Chances are that if we have to perform the same maneuver for real, it would be at a diversion airport, at the end of a long day, and probably on a wet runway. Let’s hope that need will never arise.
Once we are lined up on Runway 22, Pascal runs
through the After Landing and Before Takeoff checklists in rapid time, we receive clearance from the tower, and are off again. Roll down the runway, rotate at VR, and take the A380 up as if I’d been doing this for years. A fairly steep climb after takeoff toward the northeast and we are en route to Chalon-Champforgeuil, located in the heart of the Champagne region.
The runway at Chalon runs north-south (17/35) and is set amongst rolling wheat fields. We need to keep well away from the bustling Paris TMA (Terminal Control Area), but even then it is busy with the TCAS (Traffic Alert & Collision Avoidance System) painting a number of ‘bogeys’. However, the good flying weather makes it all quite easy, and I see the airfield from some distance away.
Using the handy FLS (FMS Landing System) approach procedure, we’d set up the FMS to allow a full instrument approach despite the clear conditions. This is an attempt to salvage my pride and have a more stable approach than at Châteauroux. The plan works well. A gentle turn and I am established on final to Runway 35.
This time the approach is rather more leisurely and definitely more stable. Shortly after the A380 crosses the threshold, on speed and on profile, I hear the auto-call intone “Thirty feet.” Realizing that the speed has crept up a fraction, I pull the thrust levers before the system can command “Retard.” A slight increase of pitch attitude as I feel the aircraft being cushioned by ground effect, and just as I think I have overdone it and am about to float, F-WWDD makes a gratifyingly smooth touchdown.
I heave a sigh of relief as Michel and Pascal
congratulate me—whether on my luck or skill I dare not ask. Taxiing clear of the runway I bring the aircraft to a full stop. It is now time to swap seats with one of my colleagues and raid the galley for replenishment.
By early in the afternoon we are done for the day, another group of our fellow-trainees will fly the evening session. We all make the obligatory trip to the Airbus souvenir shop so we can load up on T-shirts, stickers, key chains—all emblazoned with ‘A380’, of course—to ensure our bragging rights when we return home.
After a spot of rest at the hotel we meet colleagues at the neighboring bistro for an apéritif. The next few days are going to be full, more flying farther afield this time, to satisfy the requirements of the regulator. We are going to see a good portion of southern Europe from the flightdeck of the A380 before returning to base to await delivery of the first aircraft. There are times, such as this, when I really love my job! ✈
(Part 1 of this article can be found here . Both of these articles originally appeared in the Airways Magazine.)