The red box marks the escape door should the crew need to evacuate the airplane during flight. Photo: Airbus
Now that the Airbus A350-XWB has moved under its own power, albeit at a walking pace, there is mounting anticipation to see the composite airliner make its inaugural flight.
The European aviation giant is keeping mum on when the A350 might take to the air for the first time, but the Paris Air Show begins in little more than a week. That’s got everyone in the aerospace industry wondering if the A350-XWB will make an appearance above one of the biggest stages in aviation. The company’s chief rival, Boeing, will be performing at the airshow with the composite 787 Dreamliner, so it’s hard to see Airbus letting Boeing take the limelight at the industry’s most important event.
The new A350-XWB was recently hauled out of the paint hangar and this week fired up its engines and started the first stages of testing with some slow taxiing near the factory. More slow taxi tests were completed today, and higher speed tests are expected in coming days. Many expect an inaugural flight shortly thereafter. Further teasing aviation buffs, the company trotted out the six members of its flight test team to explain what will happen when the A350-XWB takes off.
“We are at a high level of readiness and quality,” Didier Evrard, who leads the A350 program, told reporters gathered in Toulouse, France. “We have reached a level of maturity that is comparable to entry into service in past programs.”
The test pilots said the prototype A350-XWB, MSN001, will be loaded and flown at the “middle of the envelope” with regard to weight, speed and other parameters. Flying under conservative flight conditions is typical for a first flight.
During take off, the airplane’s flight computers will be turned off, with controls operating in the “direct law” mode. Because the A350-XWB is, like the 787 Dreamliner, a fly-by-wire aircraft, a computer is always involved in transmitting control stick forces to the control surfaces. But Airbus uses several different “laws” that engage different computers and software to provide varying levels of assistance or automation during flight. In “direct law” mode there is no “buffer” between the pilot and the control services, meaning the computer will do exactly what the pilot commands.
The crew expects to climb to around 10,000 feet and about 200 knots (230 mph), at which point it will change the flap configuration and raise the landing gear. These changes are usually made immediately after take off in a normal flight, but during a first flight, the goal is usually not to change anything in the first few minutes until the pilots are confident in the basic flying qualities.
Once the gear is up, the pilots will engage the normal flight-control law, meaning the flight computers will have more input between the pilot and the control surfaces. They will also increase the speeds and altitude. Airbus says the team could fly as high as 43,000 feet and go as fast as Mach 0.89 (about 587 mph), which is expected to be the maximum speed of the jet. All six crew members will wear parachutes, which is normal during a first flight. The center section of the forward cargo door – marked in red in the picture above – can be jettisoned to provide an escape hatch.
While it is assumed the first flight will likely happen before the Paris Air Show begins on June 17, it is still not known whether or not Airbus will make a fly-by for those gathered at the Le Bourget airport where Charles Lindbergh touched down in 1927. The flight test team says everything will have to go smoothly on the first flight, and even then the authorities would have to grant permission for the test aircraft to fly over the show.