A TRIP to Toulouse would never be complete without a visit to the Final Assembly Line (FAL) of the home of aircraft manufacturer Airbus.
During a media tour to the southern French city last week, Airbus, the world's largest producer of civil jetliners, took us on a behind-the-scenes excursion to see how its state-of-the-art Airbus A350 XWB comes together before it arrives at boarding gate.
The A350 XWB is a mid-size long-range commercial aircraft that Airbus bills as the most technologically advanced, modern and efficient commercial airliner in the world.
It features the latest aerodynamic design, carbon-fibre fuselage and wings, and new fuel-efficient Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines.
The A350 XWB has A350-900 and A350-1000 variants – the latter is the newest member of the Airbus family and is yet to fly.
Toulouse is best known for FAL because the Airbus aircraft family – the A320, A330, A350 and A380 - are assembled here, a guide from Airbus A350 FAL told us.
The A350 XWB “Roger Beteille” FAL covers a total area of 11 hectares and comprises two buildings dedicated to the assembly process and also includes taxiways, roads and networks.
In its statement, Airbus said the FAL is the “greenest” ever built by Airbus. For example, recycling of material is done on site during earthworks, natural lighting is used wherever possible and the photovoltaic roof produces the equivalent of 55 per cent of the power needed for the building to function.
The FAL is where engineers put or connect the whole sections of aircraft together, do testings, furbish and paint the jetliner, the guide explained.
The A350 XWB sections arrive at the FAL from the various Airbus sites in Europe.
Ever wonder how the big sections are moved to Toulouse from the diverse locations where a few key elements are manufactured, before the engineers attach them and get the aircraft ready for flight?
The guide showed us a photo of a transporter aircraft specially designed by Airbus. The Beluga, as it is known, is a wide-body airliner modified to carry aircraft parts and oversized cargo to Toulouse. Airbus now has five Belugas and is developing the Beluga XL to succeed the current ones.
For the A350, its front and centre fuselage are built in Saint Nazaire in France, the aft, forward fuselage and vertical tail plane are manufactured in Hamburg, and the wings are built in Broughton in the UK. The horizontal tailplane is imported from Getafe and Illescas in Spain, and the pylon and nacelle are from Toulouse.
The final assembly involves several stations. On the tour, we were shown its station 40 and 50. The place is so quiet, as if almost nobody was there, but inside the planes teams of workmen were busy.
When all the sections arrive, the big cabin monuments such as galleys, crew rest compartments, and toilets, are installed first - inside each of the three fuselage sections at station 59, before aircraft final assembly begins.
The final assembly starts at station 50, with the joining of the forward, centre and aft fuselage sections. The nose landing gear is also installed at this station.
During the next step, at station 40, the aircraft has its first fuselage power-on, which enables the functional tests to take place, in parallel with the wing-fuselage junction, the installation of the tailplane (horizontal and vertical fins) and tail cone, and the main landing gear and engine pylons.
The first phase of cabin fitting is also carried out at this station, when the floor, side walls, overhead bins and ceiling panels are installed.
Unlike Airbus’ other programmes, the A350 passenger cabin installation is started in parallel with the assembly of the fuselage, wings and tail plane in order to reduce the assembly time, the guide explained. At this station, we saw an A350 XWB aircraft of THAI Airways International (THAI) being worked on. Despite its fuselage having been painted beige, we knew it was THAI’s because of its logo at the fin.
The guide said that during this process, most of the aircraft fuselages are painted with temporary colours - beige, white, or green, except for the fin.
“We always paint the fin before assembling because customers would like to see their label on their aircraft even as it is still in production. It also saves time in the painting process,” he said.
The next step for the aircraft is to go through a lot of tests. At other stations, they were working on next processes such as systems ground tests, first aircraft power-on, outdoor ground tests, fuel system, cabin and cockpit furnishing. The last step before the aircraft is transferred to the flight line is the painting process, which takes between seven and 18 days depending on livery complexity.
Finally, in flight line, the final tests are conducted on the aircraft, including engine tests, before its first flight. Then it moves on to the acceptance phase at the Henri Ziegler Delivery Centre in Toulouse, where the aircraft will be handed over to the airline customers.
As of August, there were 848 firm orders from 45 customers for the A350 XWB. Some 212 of those orders are for the A350-1000.
When Airbus reaches full-speed production – or what it calls rate 10 - by the end of 2018, the final assembly process of an A350 in Toulouse will take about 100 working days, Sara Ricci, Airbus media relations manager, said.