What It’s Like To Fly on an Airbus A350 Test Flight
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Taking delivery of an aircraft is a huge deal for both the manufacturer and the customer. TPG was an exclusive witness to one of these deliveries last week, when I went to Toulouse, France, to see the handover of an Airbus A350 to Lufthansa.
The final stages that take place before the handover are known as ‘Customer Acceptance’ — and in my previous post, I showed you the many inspections and tests that Lufthansa’s latest A350 went through, nose to tail, while on the ground.
The Airbus A350-900 XWB is the newest wide-body aircraft in the skies, sharing the technological cutting edge with its direct competitor, the Boeing 787. This particular jet will soon be joining the Lufthansa fleet, the fifth of 25 A350s for the airline, which currently flies its A350s from Munich to Asia and North America.
On the second day of customer acceptance we would take the A350 for a test flight, recording data, pushing the aircraft well beyond the maneuvers it would be called on to perform in passenger service, and making sure that all readings in the flight deck were accurate and all elements in the cabin were able to withstand the motion. During our flight, the tests would push the aircraft to the edges of the flight envelope, essentially the zone where an aircraft is within its designed performance limits. An exciting thought, and something that most passengers will not encounter, even during heavy turbulence.
Before the flight, I met with the flight crew for a briefing.
Here’s our flight plan for this acceptance flight on MSN 136 — the “manufacturer’s serial number” indicating that this was the 136th A350 off the assembly line.
Today’s flight would last approximately two hours, flying from Toulouse to Toulouse, performing tests over different areas of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.
In the flight profile below, the airport is identified by its four-letter code, LFBO, instead of the more familiar three-letter code, TLS. On flight plans, you’ll see the four-letter codes. You can also see altitude (FL, for flight level, expressed in feet x 100, so FL350 is 35,000 feet) and speed, either in knots (KT) or as a Mach number, with 1 being the speed of sound.
Highlights in our flight plan included a max-power departure using TOGA, for “take off – go around” power, essentially meaning the throttles would be set to maximum: on an empty aircraft, this would result in an exhilarating takeoff, with our massive plane becoming airborne in 15 seconds. Once airborne, we would perform bank angle turns that ranged between +2.0 G and 0.5G, meaning there would be a strong feeling of weightlessness in the cabin. We’d also conduct leak checks, an APU bleed, low speed flying, high speed flying, simulate a go-around while airborne, and perform a brake-to-vacate, manual landing — all technical terms for, basically, taking a huge Airbus A350 to a lot of places that it rarely, if ever, will go while flying regular passengers.
We also had allotted time for a cabin comfort assessment, which would take place while the aircraft was smoothly cruising over the Mediterranean at 35,000ft. Once the cabin comfort assessment was complete, we would climb higher to the A350’s maximum altitude of 43,000ft.
We then checked the weather, including wind speed, forecast and any expected turbulence. The pilots said flying conditions were perfect, and the only turbulence expected would likely be during the approach to Toulouse, upon our return.
There would be four flight crew, with two flying and two monitoring. Two were Lufthansa pilots, the other two Airbus test pilots.
After some coffee and croissants, it was time to head to the aircraft. Our A350 was parked at the Airbus Delivery Center, ready to take to the skies. But first, I joined the flight crew on a walkaround — which takes place before all commercial airline flights, too.
This is when the captain or first officer check and touch everything to make sure it looks all right, like the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine below.
Once the flight crew were satisfied with the walkaround, it was time to board the aircraft. There was no security necessary for this flight, no liquid restrictions, and certainly no assigned seats. I chose 4A for the takeoff.
During the taxi, I switched the inflight entertainment screen onto the tail cam, manually, as the “user friendly” version of the inflight entertainment system was not active yet.
After a short taxi out to the runway in Toulouse, we lined up at 10:59 local time, for a departure at 11:00am. When my phone switched to 11:00am, the two engines powered up, and less than 15 seconds later we were airborne.
We were soon ready to begin banking hard, which would lead to some pretty crazy G-forces in the cabin. Even the “entry into flight checks zone” was a little crazy. Take a look at what that means in the video below.
With the flight checks ready to commence, we started our turns, which were incredible too see from just in front of the A350 wing. We would pitch up and down, and bank at around a 65-70 degree angle, an enormity compared to the 20-25 degrees of even the hardest maneuvering during a normal passenger flight.
During the turns, the G-forces were very strong.
As part of the tests, we pitched down to a level that was best noticeable via the following image. If you consider the wing should be level with the horizon (in this image, where the blue skies meets the white layer of cloud), this was, and felt like quite a lot of pitching!
The banking that followed was a little extreme-looking too.
At the same time, I was able to catch what our tests looked like via the A350 onboard tailcam.
Upon returning to a normal angle, it took me around 10 minutes to convince my brain I was able to stand up and walk in a straight line again. If you refer back to our flight plan, we were now in the period of the flight known as “cabin comfort assessment,” checking that everything worked at cruising altitude: the ability to recline seats, unfold tray tables, and more.
It was also an opportunity to check if the change in air pressure at high altitude affected elements of the cabin such as the application of the galley floor.
During the extensive cabin checks, I began to feel a little thirsty, and so in the video below you can see just what the ‘onboard service’ is on test flights (Hint: it’s not champagne served at your seat).
Soon after this, I checked in with the flight crew in the cockpit. They were busy recording data, and talking through the next phases of the flight, including possible weather on approach. The first officer was also actively communicating with Air Traffic Control. Airbus test flights have a dedicated air traffic controller, who is the same and sole controller for that aircraft, for the duration of the flight. This is because test flights require an incredibly high level of concentration from the flight crew, and it would be an added difficulty if test pilots needed urgent communication with air traffic control but had to share a radio frequency with all the passenger flights talking to ATC.
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Back in the cabin, I got up close with Lufthansa’s economy class seats. I particularly like the branded logo labels on the side of Economy seats. It’s an Airbus cabin design option that SAS’ A320neo has, and I think it provides the perfect contrast to a predominantly blue cabin.
After around 30 minutes of cabin inspections, I sat down for the next test, which would be the dropping of the oxygen masks to check their ability to deploy and remain extended, without anyone pulling the tether.
After the oxygen mask drop I returned to the the cockpit, we prepared for the next phase of the flight, descent.
During the descent, we would initiate several tests. In the video below, you can see the low speed, high speed, and simulated go-around tests we performed, all in less than 3 minutes.
At one point, we were flying as slow as 130 knots. This was followed by high speed flying, before stabilizing the speed and then simulating a go-around.
You can hear the engines being put through their paces here:
After this, I returned to the flight deck for the approach towards Toulouse.
At this time, the flight crew began to program in the details for our “brake to vacate” landing in Toulouse. Brake to Vacate (BTV) allows pilots to select the appropriate runway exit during the approach to landing, and regulates the aircraft’s deceleration after touchdown, enabling it to reach any chosen exit at the correct speed under optimum conditions, no matter the weather and visibility. BTV is standard on the Airbus A350, and the pilots onboard were very complimentary of its ability to reduce the time they spend on the runway.
This would be a manual landing, despite the use of BTV which would take care of the deceleration/braking once we touched down.
Watch as we broke through the clouds…
And finally, after a thrilling test flight we were on final approach over the South of France.
And came in to land at Toulouse, just over two hours later.
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Watch every element of a new A350 undergo testing, checking and inspections shows that the cabin checks are just as important as the aerodynamic testing of the aircraft. The A350 performed beautifully.
While in the air, the test pilots commented on just how great this aircraft is to fly, and cabin engineers said that the definition, trim and finish of the cabin made the entire inspection process easy. Upon touchdown in Toulouse, the test crew decided this particular jet would need one or two more similar test flights, before the transfer of its title from Airbus to Lufthansa.
While we pushed the aircraft to the edge of the flight envelope, this jet will go on to fly an entire lifetime without ever needing to flex its wings as much as it did during our test flight — but if need be, it is more than capable of doing so.
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