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Airbus giant flies into the history books

On 27 April 2004, thousands of plane enthusiasts watched as the Airbus A380, the world's largest ever passenger plane, took off on a successful four-hour test flight. The twin-deck ‘superjumbo’ landed safely in Toulouse, France, after circling the Bay of Biscay.

The A380 in flight © Airbus
The A380 in flight
© Airbus

Designed to carry up to 840 passengers, the A380 took off from its production site in Toulouse with a crew of six and about 20 tonnes of test equipment. During the flight, a live satellite feed allowed a team of Airbus experts to monitor data from the ground. The crew was equipped with parachutes and a special handrail had been fitted, leading from the cockpit to an escape door.

About an hour into the flight, chief test pilot Jacques Rosay spoke to reporters by radio from the A380 cockpit, telling them, "The takeoff was absolutely perfect, and the weather is wonderful." Three hours later, an estimated 30,000 onlookers clapped and cheered as the four-engine jet flew past and then landed under sunny skies.

Including its bulky test equipment, fittings and fuel, Airbus said the A380 weighed 464 tonnes at takeoff – about 75 percent of its maximum authorised weight for commercial flights. More than a year of testing and certification will now follow, during which time pilots will have to push the plane far harder than they did during its maiden flight, examining performance at extreme speeds, altitudes and temperatures.

High praise

A statement from French President Jacques Chirac reads, “A new page of aeronautical history has been written. It is a magnificent result for European industrial co-operation.”

European Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen called the flight a European success story, adding, “This super-Airbus proves that EU co-operation pays off.”

Airbus sees the A380 as the future of air travel. Its main competitor Boeing is concentrating on midsized short-haul aircraft. The massive twin-deck A380 now eclipses the American Boeing 747 that has ruled the commercial skies for decades.

In a one-class configuration, the A380 could accommodate as many as 840 passengers. The more likely three-class configuration will still offer an unprecedented 555 passenger seats. Either way, the A380 will carry at least 30% more passengers than the biggest Boeing. Some planes will have cocktail bars, double beds and massage parlours, while Airbus has suggested that selected jets may even have whirlpool baths and mini-casinos.

The A380 takes off © Airbus
The A380 takes off
© Airbus

The plane is a showcase for a range of technological advances, flying more quietly and cleanly than the 747. Carbon fibre components and fuel-efficient technology mean a saving of 20 percent per passenger over the Boeing giant, raising the possibility of cheaper tickets.

High-flying partnership

France, Britain, Germany and Spain have all invested heavily in the ten-year, €10-billion-plus A380 programme. Even before the plane had flown, orders for 149 of the mammoth aircraft had already been placed. The sticker price is between €200 and €218 million. If all goes according to plan, Singapore Airlines will launch one of the planes on its London-to-Singapore route beginning in March 2006.

Airbus is a subsidiary of European Aerospace and Defence (EAD), with 20 percent being held by BAE Systems. But for the EU, the A380 project represents the fruit of European state-level co-operation.