GETTING a new car is exciting, isn't it? I remember the excitement of picking up my Land Rover Defender 110 HCPU last year. I still recall the thrill of greeting my first Ford Ranger, the bright yellow Splash, about 13 years ago. And I will never forget the 'new car smell' moment when getting my first ever brand new car, a Perodua Kembara, back in 1998. At a whole new level, however, is taking delivery of an aeroplane. And not just any tiny Cessna or Piper, or even an executive jet like the Lear, but a humongous continent-hopping Airbus A330 from Toulouse, France. No mud, no 4-Low, only business class all the way but it was an adventure that I will never forget. This one's for you, Richard K.S. Wong.
|The Pont Neuf, French for "New Bridge", is a 16th-century bridge in Toulouse, southern France.|
Taking delivery of a brand spanking new Airbus is not an everyday experience, and certainly quite different from picking up your new car at the local dealership. For starters, you don’t get to kick the tyres, and you inhale new plane fragrance instead of the new car smell.
And, you realise that about US$150mil (RM568.5mil), give or take a few million, has just changed hands. (There is a sticker or catalogue price but nobody pays that amount because the final figure is negotiable, and varies widely, depending on the size of the deal, and options chosen.)
The occasion was Cathay Pacific Airways taking delivery of its 26th A330-300 from Airbus A.S.A. at the European aviation consortium’s headquarters in Toulouse, France. To celebrate, the airline flew three Malaysian journalists and a dozen more from its home base, Hong Kong, to witness the delivery.
All transactions are in US dollars, and no one talks about the exact figure for a single plane. Deals typically involve a number of airframes, type and number of engines and highly customised interior fittings, such as numbers and types of seats, and maintenance packages.
It is extremely difficult to pry specific specifications and monetary figures out of anyone because all airlines guard their secrets jealously.
|A massive wing for the A380 dwarfing the technicians working on it.|
Airlines negotiate prices and talk specs directly with the seat manufacturers, who then deliver their products to Airbus for installation.
Making a list, checking it twice
Unlike most other factories, the assembly plants are quiet and serene all the time. The massive scale of the buildings and the partially built aircraft dwarfs the workmen, most of whom are busy but out of sight.
Very little of what goes into making an Airbus is actually made in Toulouse itself. Reflecting the company’s multinational character, components are manufactured at a total of 16 sites across Europe.
The wings are built in Britain, most of the fuselage sections in Germany, and various other components come from Spain and Italy.
Airbus operates a fleet of five Beluga transporters, unique purpose-built large-volume versions of the company’s A300-600ST airplane, to fly the big pieces to Toulouse for final assembly.
Barges and trucks are also used to transport some major components that are too big for even the Beluga’s cavernous cargo hold.
Although most commercial jets look pretty much alike except for the livery they wear, there are substantial differences beneath the skin, depending on individual customers’ requirements.
|Yes, it's big.|
“Every aircraft we buy has to go through an acceptance programme that our engineering manager performs with support from other Hong Kong engineering specialists as required,” said Derek Cridland, Cathay Pacific’s director of engineering.
“In the first phase, the manufacturing inspection programme, we perform inspections of the aircraft during production, from the moment the first rivet is inserted in the assembly process until the aircraft enters the final acceptance phase.
“The final acceptance phase is where the aircraft is demonstrated via a well-structured test programme to ensure conformity to Cathay Pacific requirements and specifications and to Hong Kong airworthiness regulations.
“Both parts of the programme involve inspecting and testing the aircraft throughout the production and acceptance phases, which typically last five months for a A330 aircraft,” said Cridland, who was among the airline’s senior directors present for the acceptance ceremony.
|Looks like a house undergoing renovation, doesn't it?|
“Our plane” already had a name, Alpha Charlie, short for Bravo Lima Alpha Charlie. That’s pilot-speak for B-LAC, the registration of Cathay’s 26th Airbus A330 and the 95th aircraft in its fleet.
Flight CX3330 from Toulouse to Hong Kong on July 28 was special. For a start, it was not a regular Cathay service but a ferry flight. There was no need to queue at regular check-in counters or even to go to the airport, although strict security screening of luggage was carried out. And, everyone on board travelled First or Business Class.
|It's nice to take a jet home.|
In the event of sudden cabin depressurisation, oxygen masks would drop from above each seat, just like they say in all the mandatory safety briefings that many frequent flyers ignore. If the cabin were to lose pressure, the standard procedure would be to descend quickly to 3,000m (10,000 feet), where there is enough oxygen for passengers to breathe normally.
Alpha Charlie is designed to fly in regions where there are no high mountains so each mask can supply oxygen for just 22 minutes, which is sufficient time for the pilot to descend to a safe altitude.
However, things would be different on this flight: for just this one time, Flight CX3330 would fly over the Himalayas to get to Hong Kong, so the plane would not be able to descend to a safe altitude for at least an hour should a pressure problem develop over the highest part of the mountain range.
|Inspecting a work in progress.|
These complicated instructions were purely precautionary, we were told, and the risk of depressurisation was negligible. I felt reassured. After all, I have never been on a flight on which oxygen masks had to be deployed.
Then, a short while after getting home, news broke about the depressurisation-related crash of the Boeing 737 belonging to the Cypriot airline, Helios.
Within just the last couple of weeks, several other airliner incidents made the headlines – the emergency involving the MAS flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur, the Air France crash-landing and subsequent fire in Canada, the Colombian chartered plane that crashed in Venezuela, the Qantas emergency landing in Japan and the deadly Tans Peru crash. It’s enough to make anyone a nervous traveller.
|These used tennis balls, collected |
from Roland Garros stadium (home
of the French Open), play a crucial
part in the building of an Airbus.
|One of the "I didn't know that" features of a modern jet liner is this turbine that is extended if the plane loses all power. Its propellers spin in the slipstream, generating electrical power for the aircraft's electronics and controls.|
|A designer's vision of what the A380 interior could be like.|
|One for the album before taking 'Alpha Charlie' to her new home.|
|Another unusual sight, but a regular at Toulouse airport, is this Airbus A300-600ST (Super Transporter) or Beluga, which ferries oversized aircraft components from factories all over Europe to Toulose for final assembly.|