Why Test Pilots Get The Big Euros
These pictures, copyright Airbus France, show one of the more
hairy-looking performance flight tests carried out on the new King
of Airliners, the Airbus 380.
The world's largest passenger jet, like any aircraft, needs a
flight manual. The engineers at the European company have the
performance pretty well pegged, they think. Between wind tunnel
studies and computer simulations, they're confident that they know
how the big bird'll fly.
But it falls to Airbus Industrie's experimental test pilots and
flight test engineers to validate their data. The tests you see
here are, in their native French, "Vitesse Minimum Unstick," which
as an example of the French language has to have the Academie
Francaise at the end of their liberte, egalite and fraternite.
You can render it in English as "Velocity Minimum Unstick" and
preserve the VMU acronym, or put it in sensible word order as
"Minimum Unstick Velocity." What the pilots are doing here is
trying to get the beast off the runway as slowly as possible -- at
various weights and all sensible (and maybe some not so sensible)
flap and slat settings.
Because this requires a rotation that the A380 should never see
in line service, a special tailskid is fitted for the tests. After
all, if you bend the prototype, testing is over until they rivet
another one together. In a couple of the pictures, the tailskid can
be seen throwing a shower of sparks. Better the sacrificial
tailskid than the tailcone of the busy prototype.
The French did not invent the aeroplane -- nonsense about
Clement Ader notwithstanding -- but they played an important role
from the very start, to the point that aviation vocabulary today is
still laden with French words like fuselage, chandelle, aileron.
From the A380 through Dassault Falcon Jets and Socata TBM 700s,
down to Air Creation trikes, France still builds stylish and
world-class flying machines.
You can think about Guy Nungesser, Alberto Santos-Dumont
(certainly French in his heart, if not by birth) and Antoine de
Saint-Exupery when you look at the A380, because as big as it is,
it's just your basic airplane. There are no revolutionary concepts,
no Burt Rutan outside the box thinking. Just a plane that needs a
heck of a big box.
Just a plane? Sure. Look at it. It has a rudder like the
Cherokee most everybody has flown, an elevator like a 172,
ailerons, flaps, trim tabs. Sure, it has slats and spoilers like
most airliners today, but it's basically got a fuselage, two wings,
and a totally conventional tail.
The miracle of the A380 is not the Rutan bolt-from-the-blue
concept that it doesn't have, but the extreme feat of engineering
that it represents. Indeed, it is in its entirety an assembly of
individually prodigious detail engineering feats. Airbus has left
no stone unturned in design, in processes, in materials (it is the
first civil aircraft extensively to use lithium alloys, which are
lighter than magnesium).
To see it fly (as with any jet in this size class, like the C-5
or An-226) is to misjudge its distance from you and to misjudge its
speed -- it looks so slow! Well, in these pictures it actually IS
slow -- as slow as they can safely fly it.
Before the machine can enter line service, test pilots will have
taken it to every corner of its performance envelope. That way if
there are any surprises, they happen on a fully instrumented test
plane and not to a line crew with a ship full of trusting