How Airplanes Get to Farnborough, the Biggest Aviation Show
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There a lot of big jets at the Farnborough International Airshow, the largest trade show of its kind. So many that even a marquee airplane like the Airbus A350-1000 has to be stationed on a ramp away from the main flight display. Enormous freighters are even further down, and aircraft are wedged in all along.
In the middle of it all, aircraft manufacturers like Textron, Mitsubishi and Pilatus sharpen their elbows and carve out their own space for jets and single-engine aircraft that aren’t quite as imposing. But they’re still fast and cool to see. If you like airplanes, this is heaven — and the aircraft are really jumbled up close to one another.
This is where the aviation world converges every two years. Everybody is here: Airlines, planemakers both commercial and military, companies that make all manner of things that go on airplanes, analysts, the media, and the British Prime Minister.
With airplanes coming in from all over the world, half the battle seems to be getting all manner of aircraft to Farnborough in the first place. This is also a working airport, so it gets a three-letter code, although there are no scheduled commercial flights into it. To aviation people, Farnborough is known by that code: FAB.
Three FABulous Stops to Cross the Atlantic
Bombardier chief safety pilot Donald McNicoll had a mission: Get the Delta-branded CRJ900 (with a new cabin) to the show. The Canadian planemaker wanted to exhibit a new, roomy interior meant to make small regional jets less of a pain to fly on. Problem: regional jets don’t fly very far. The CRJ900 has a maximum range of around 2,000 miles, and from Bombardier’s plant outside of Montreal to FAB, it’s 3,250 miles, mostly of open ocean. Solution: stop in Greenland and Iceland, like airliners did in the 1950s before the jet era.
So he left Mirabel (YMX) destined for sunny Iqaluit in Nunavut, Canada, a straight shot north of Montreal. That’s not the obvious route. This is due to Transport Canada restrictions on the test aircraft, requiring it to stay within 60 minutes of the nearest airfield. That doesn’t quite work on the standard route which would take it over Goose Bay in Newfoundland and then to Keflavik, Iceland (KEF). Instead, he flew Montreal – Iqaluit – Narsarsuaq, Greenland – Keflavik – Farnborough. That is a lot of legs.
It’s Even Tougher in Small Planes
If three stops to cross the pond seems like a lot, consider the turboprop from Textron Aviation that had to make four. The US planemaker owns a variety of famous brands and has a variety of aircraft at the show, including helicopters from Bell and Cessna Caravans (the floatplane that New Yorkers can fly to Montauk on Blade.) One pilot flew a particularly long route to get his Beechcraft T6 —a military trainer—to the show. This single-engine turboprop aircraft is certainly fun to fly, but it wouldn’t be particularly comfortable for long periods of travel. As you can see in the image above, it had to be fitted with external fuel tanks to make the ocean crossing.
“I left Des Moines and flew a leg to Ottawa. I stayed the night, then continued to Goose Bay, popped over to Narsarsuaq in Greenland, then KEF and onwards to [a Scandinavian country for a demonstration],” said the pilot.
All the Way From Ethiopia via Rome
Yacov Aynom is a captain with Ethiopian, the largest airline by fleet size in Africa. He’s flown in the right seat as first officer on the Boeing 737, 777 and 787, and has two years under his belt as a captain on the Bombardier Q400. In Ethiopia, the twin-engine regional turboprops fly a lot from “hot and high” airports, which are hard on airplanes. (Higher temperatures and thinner air degrade takeoff performance.) Just consider the airline’s home base, Addis Ababa, at 7,600 feet above sea level. Ethiopian brought the Q400 on a marathon journey from Addis to Cairo for the night, then to Rome and onward to FAB. Each leg was about four hours of flight time, with the legs out of Africa flown at night for performance reasons — it’s hot during the day.
The Japanese Came From Washington State
Steve Long is the chief test pilot for Mitsubishi, which is debuting in the commercial jet market with the MRJ90 aircraft. How did they get the plane from Japan to FAB?
Flight testing for the Japanese-designed regional jet is being performed in Moses Lake, Washington, because of the test-aviation friendly airspace in the US as well as long runways and good weather at the airfield, which has plenty of very empty airspace around it. Long flew the plane from Moses Lake to Bangor, Maine, and then popped over the pond. Why Bangor?
“To eat lobster,” he joked.
The Big Boys
In addition to the smaller manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing pack the ramp with wide-bodies, sometimes courtesy of the airlines that just bought them. At Farnborough, Biman Bangladesh Airlines has a Boeing 787 on display and Qatar has both a Boeing 777 and an Airbus A350. Airbus showcased a TAP Portugal A330-900 awaiting certification. For the big boys, getting there is easy. An A350 can go 8,000 miles easily, even more with no passengers on board, and getting to FAB is an absolute piece of cake from pretty much anywhere.
This brand-new 787 rolled off the line in Everett last week, complete with new car smell. It has not entered service and will return to Everett for a delivery ceremony after the show. The Dreamliner jumped over to Farnborough in a quick eight-hour jaunt from Everett.
The Boeing team also brought over the 737 MAX 7 aircraft, which spent the night in KEF before continuing to FAB. The new 737 MAX series is noted for its long range, but from Seattle to England is a long way and a fuel stop in Iceland was needed.
“It’s a complicated dance,” said a Boeing representative. “Some of the airlines like having a big presence at the show with their aircraft, and so that Venn diagram between us needing to showcase aircraft and the airlines wanting to participate intersects,” he said.
One element in common for all of these aircraft? Not a single pilot complained. From the smallest Cessna to the big jets, each was quite pleased to be paid to fly.
Featured image of a Qatar Airways Airbus A350 in Farnborough by the author.
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