Discovery Channel Magazine, July 2013
Discovery Channel Magazine is 20 metres above the assembly line of the Airbus A380 in Toulouse, France. The building, one of the largest in the world, is half a kilometre long, and within it – even within the truncated section we can see from here because of a concrete firewall a nervous insurer insisted on being added – there are two Emirates A380s taking shape, in pre-paint green apart from the engines and tailfin. A man stands on one of the wings; you can barely make him out amid the vast scale of the jet.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the assembly of the A380 – the world’s largest passenger plane, capable of being configured for 800 people, though nobody has yet gone above Air France’s 526 – is the speed with which it happens. From the components arriving in Toulouse to the conclusion of the assembly takes just seven and a half working days: considerably less than it takes to be painted, later, in Hamburg.
This miracle can be managed because of the remarkable cooperation among numerous manufacturers around Europe that leads to the creation of an A380. The wings are made in Wales; composite materials like the tail section in Germany and Spain; large parts of the fuselage in France. They are then brought to Toulouse by a variety of means, some parts within other huge-bodied freighter aircraft called Belugas, and some by barge and ship.
One of the most extraordinary sights related to A380 construction comes when the pieces that are too big to go in a Beluga – the wings, bits of fuselage, and tailspan – arrive by ship in Bordeaux. There, they are put on barges and shipped up-river right through the middle of one of the biggest cities in southwest France. The passage of a huge chunk of Airbus fuselage inching up the River Garonne under Bordeaux’s ancient Pont de Pierre bridge is a sight to behold, and is only possible during a three-hour low tide window and through the use of ballast on the barges.
Then, a stranger sight still: the barges unload their cargo at Langon. “The parts are then marshaled together in a remarkable convey that could have jumped straight from the pages of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as it winds through the pastures, geese farms and vineyards of the Landes and Gers regions towards Toulouse,” writes Guy Norris in his book Airbus A380: Superjumbo of the 21st century. And what a convoy it is: carrying – in this order – the port wing, starboard wing, horizontal tailplane, aft fuselage, forward fuselage and centre fuselage, with a considerable escort of gendarmes (French police), it is usually made up of 43 vehicles, 26 gendarmes, and 29 drivers and operators. Avoiding big roads, it instead snakes its way along back roads through the countryside. In one village, Levignac, the clearance between the fuselage and the buildings on the town’s main street is a few centimetres. Mercifully, they do this at night – three nights, to be precise, to travel 150 miles. This whole transportation process is collectively known as the Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit.
Back in Toulouse, we sit in a mocked-up section of an A380 interior, while a guide talks about the various configurations airlines can use inside the huge jet. There are endless variations of economy, premium economy, business and first class seats, but perhaps the most distinctive will be when Kingdom Holdings gets its jet off the line: Kingdom is a Saudi enterprise owned by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, and his will be the first use of an A380 as a private jet (although it has been reported that he has already sold it on, prior to delivery). Airbus won’t share details, but rumours abound of plans for an on-board garage capable of holding limousines, and an internal lift.
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