According to Chris Emerson, SVP future programmes and market strategy, Airbus, eight out of 10 777-X customers have switched to the A350 XWB - an aircraft that offers a 25 per cent reduction in fuel burn and an airframe that weighs 20 tonnes less than similar aircraft. Emerson made this claim at the most recent Airbus Innovation Day on June 5, 2013, in Toulouse, France - speaking after sessions by Didier Evrard, EVP head of XWB programme, and Frank Chapman, A350 XWB project test pilot, on the A350 and its flight test programme.
By the time of the last Innovation Day in 2012, the A350 had achieved first assembled fuselage (ES) transfer to Station 40; since then, Airbus has begun ES and EW testing, conducted the third and final flying test bed (icing and drainage), completed the handover to the flight test team on May 31 and breathed a sigh of relief following the successful June 2 test run of Rolls-Royce’s Trent XWB – the engine which will power the aircraft.
The processes undertaken in the months leading up to the handover included: the loading of calibration sections onto the aircraft; engine work; certification; the completion of electro-magnetic hazard tests; and ground vibration tests which demonstrated the validity of the carbon fibre which makes up a large section of the A350’s airframe.
In order to take MSN01 from the final assembly line (FAL) to first flight, Airbus adopted a concept of "testing in a virtual manner", said Chapman. Both Evrard and Chapman emphasised the importance of the company's two flight simulators, connected to the ‘Iron Bird’ (integrated test bench) at Airbus' Simulator Centre, which were used both day and night for system testing courtesy of 20 pilots. In addition, real-time monitoring was used to conduct the static testing. During a Q&A session, Chapman said Airbus believes that it has modelled everything about the aircraft to a level that has never been done before, "but of course there is still a level of uncertainty”.
Aside from the predictably positive tone at the Innovation Day in Toulouse, the fast and impressive progress the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has made in bringing its latest creation to life cannot be ignored. In accordance with its plans to set a record by taking the A350 from first flight to certification in under a year - delivering the first aircraft in Q4 2014 - Airbus has, in its own words, "adopted an aggressive programme."
The airframer aims to achieve 2,500 flight test hours. MSN02 is already scheduled to enter flight testing in 2014 while MSN03, the second A350 to fly, will reach flight test in H2 2013, according to Evrard. Commenting on the most recent activities in Toulouse, Chapman said that yesterday (June 4) the A350 “went to high revs and it was in good shape"; by the end of the week Airbus expects to have completed taxi/high-speed test and inspection.
Meanwhile, the A350-900 upgrade, the -1000, has already achieved improved fan efficiency by conducting 97,000 prototype demos. According to Evrard, the development from the -900 to the -1000 is "low risk" and on track - set for entry into service (EIS) in 2017.
Recent poor weather in Toulouse prompted the question of when and where the first flight test will go ahead. Chapman said it is unlikely to be carried out anywhere other than Toulouse; the possibility of its occurrence at the Paris Air Show later this month was ruled out. However, with Stefan Schaffrath, Airbus’ VP media relations, commenting that he has no leave booked before July, one can only assume that the first test flight is imminent.
With the first flight set to take off and cabin flight test preparation in motion, the A350 is on route to EIS in H2 2014. Airbus has outlined maturity at EIS and production ramp-up as its next challenges. Although the airframer has been following an aggressive programme thus far, Chapman warned that the company does not intend to proceed too fast in the early days in order to test the supply chain.
Airbus recently avoided one potential in-service problem by reverting from the planned lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries to conventional nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd), following the 787 Dreamliner’s worldwide grounding earlier this year due to a series of incidents. Airbus is taking the cautious approach: “We wait, we stop and analyse problems before we carry on,” said Chapman. Although the A350's launch customer, Qatar Airways, has insisted on Ni-Cd, the first flight test will nonetheless be conducted with the planned Li-ion batteries.
Another topic of interest at the Innovation Day was, of course, Airbus' – and the world’s - largest widebody aircraft, the A380, and how profitable it has been for the OEM. However, during the Innovation Day, the airframer agreed that its latest model will be a “product cannibalisation” of the A380. This obviously spurred on whispers of whether the A380-900 will ever come to light, but the message from Airbus was equivocal. The idea of adding an additional seat to the rows, making them 11 abreast, has been discussed but no firm plans decided upon. The industry will have to watch and wait.
But first: the A350.