Airbus sends first A350 XWB into the sky

CNN
Friday, June 14, 2013 - 9:09am

Aviation enthusiasts around the world had their eyes on France on Friday morning, eager to catch the long-awaited inaugural flight of the Airbus A350 XWB.

The aircraft took off from Toulouse-Blagnac airport at around 10 a.m. local time on a four-hour test flight and landed safely more than four hours later.

The test crew waved an Airbus flag from a hatch above the cockpit as the aircraft taxied after its successful journey.

"I knew it was going to be impressive, but I was blown away," Airbus Chief Operating Officer John Leahy said after the A350 XWB takeoff.

"Did you hear how quiet it was? Did you hear what you didn't hear? We're going to set new standards. Not just for comfort, not just for performance. But for environmental friendliness. People living around airports won't even know we're taking off," he said to the attending press.

Test pilot Wolfgang Absmeier, with Airbus since 1998, said he was very happy with what he had seen from the ground since takeoff.

"It's such an emotional moment. It seems like the airplane is behaving perfectly well," he said in a live Web broadcast by Airbus.

The flight follows many hours of training in a simulator for the six international test flight crew members.

The timing of the first flight comes as no surprise to followers of the A350 program, all but confirming speculation that Airbus is planning to show off its new plane at the upcoming Paris Air Show, a rumor the company has yet to confirm.

The A350 XWB is the first in a family of super-efficient passenger planes Airbus designed to go head-to-head with rival Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and 777s.

"XWB" means "extra wide body." There are three members in the A350 family: the A350-800, the A350-900 and the A350-1000, which seat 270, 314 and 350 passengers, respectively, in three-class seating.

The first test plane, "MSN1," was unveiled on May 13 at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France.

Friday's first test flight is the latest achievement in what has been a turbulent production history for the A350 program, which was first announced in 2006.

"Airbus's initial A350 design wasn't an entirely new aircraft, but a knee-jerk reaction to the 787," aviation journalist David Kaminski-Morrow, air transport editor of Flightglobal.com, told CNN in an earlier report.

"The company, which was hip-deep in sorting out A380 development, simply hadn't foreseen the huge pent-up demand for a more efficient 250-seat airliner, and tried to take the easy way out by offering a re-engined version of its A330."

While the A330 is incredibly popular, the airlines were more interested in the potential efficiency offered by a clean-sheet design, he added.

Being publicly lambasted by some of its largest customers -- one aviation executive called it a Band-Aid reaction to the 787 Dreamliner, while the CEO of Singapore Airlines said the plane just didn't go far enough -- the pressure was on for Airbus to come up with a plane that would genuinely advance the global aviation scene.

This year, there were cancellations. Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad Airways axed seven orders for A350-1000s, saying they still weren't happy with the design, criticizing its range, performance and fuel burn.

"Airbus belatedly woke up and countered with a completely new version of the A350, and managed to tap into the market," said Kaminski-Morrow.

On the technical side, the big appeal for airlines is that over 70% of the A350 XWB's airframe is made from advanced materials that combine composites (53%), titanium and advanced aluminum alloys.

The A350 XWB is the first Airbus passenger jet to use both fuselage and wing structures made primarily of carbon fiber-reinforced polymer, resulting in lower fuel burn as well as easier maintenance, according to the company.

Its rival, the 787, is one of the most advanced airliners launched in recent years, and is made up of 50% composites and uses 20% less fuel than other aircraft in the same category.

Will the A350 XWB make an appearance at the Paris Air Show?

As for the likelihood of an A350 XWB visit in Paris next week, Airbus earlier said the plane will be too busy carrying out flight tests to attend, but industry experts say there's an outside chance it may still be spotted in the skies at the airshow.

"We're still waiting to find out whether the A350 will put in an appearance," said Murdo Morrison, editor of aerospace industry magazine Flight International.

"That certainly would be a highlight -- it's one of the newest and most exciting aircraft, but it and Bombardier's C-Series are at a critical point in their development.

"It becomes a bit of a fight between the marketing people, the publicists, who want the company to get all the best headlines, and the engineers who are working to critical deadlines to get the plane ready to fly as soon as possible," he explained.

"What may happen is they pop in for one day -- fly in and then fly out again -- or even, in the case of the A350, that they do a flypast, without even landing."

-- CNN's Bryony Jones contributed to this report.

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