Airbus A350-900 – Final Hurdle Successfully Jumped

It may appear to have been a good many years in the making but I suspect the reality, considering the vast amount of work and investment required in design, development, new plant right the way through to aircraft production and testing, means that the eight years that Airbus has spent getting the A350-XWB to the crucial Type Certification process the aircraft has now passed should be regarded as having been quite short.

Entering a market segment for which the requirement by global airlines could be more than 6,500 aircraft over the next twenty years Airbus the announcement that the A350-900 variant has now completed the massive Type Certification process really is excellent news.

I guess that the many hundreds of engineers involved in the design and development process of the A350-XWB aircraft family would shoot me down in flames if I was to suggest that the process has been relatively easy, but the truth is that the test programme has been virtually trouble free and should certainly be considered as having been smooth. Of course, no aircraft development programme should be considered easy from an engineering perspective and for a new generation of aircraft such as this that employs new generation materials such as composites, plus various other advanced engineering concepts and technology, means that the work involved in getting through the more stringent certification process is no simple or easy task.

Costing $15bn to design, develop and get ready to go into production and having now achieved the final Type Certification hurdle Airbus is deserving of congratulation on what they have so far achieved in A350 XWB family of aircraft. Fair to say as well that all the way through the A350 XWB development phase and process the company has sensibly remained as cautious as it also has also been vigilant in its whole communication approach. The result is an aircraft that should be considered unequalled in terms of passenger comfort, one that in terms of technological innovation and achievement in unsurpassed in terms of any previous Airbus aircraft development and one that also has the potential to offer airlines even greater levels of operating efficiency that they have been calling for.

In the years ahead the new A350 family of aircraft will compete directly with the Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ family of aircraft and over the years we may expect further developments in the programme that will perhaps further reduce weight and make them even more fuel efficient than they already are. Such are the demands of the airline industry that no new commercial aircraft programme can ever be considered complete. That said, what we can regard the Airbus A350-XWB programme as being regarded is probably the last completely new aircraft development programme that we will see for some considerable time.

Powered by Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines with the A350-900 having now received final Type Certification from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adding to that already received by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) we may see this as opening the way for a brilliant new generation of commercial aircraft to soon start entering airline service and that will play a large part in meeting ever increasing efficiency demands placed on aircraft manufacturers by customer airlines and regulatory authorities.

It is no easy process to get a new aircraft development through a certification process and with so many new materials, technology and engineering processes to take into consideration it gets harder with every new generation of aircraft. The certification process used by both FAA and EASA will have taken the A350-900 airframe and systems well beyond design limits to ensure that all airworthiness criteria are fully met. To achieve this has required a fleet of five test A350-900 aircraft to accumulate 2,600 flight test hours making this, I suspect, one of the most thorough and efficient certification test programs undertaken for a new commercial airliner development.

Being an all new airliner within the 250 to 350 seat category the A350 XWB family of aircraft variants will lead the Airbus future challenge in the mid-size, long range aircraft segment. Alongside, production of the A330 will also continue and the arrival of the A330NEO is expected to provide a further boost to the already significant success that the A330 family has achieved over the years. The A350 XWB is of course a very different aircraft from that of the A330. What sets them apart is not just the introduction of carbon fibre re-enforced plastic (CFRP) fuselage in the A350 XWB but also that the wider cabin enables nine abreast seating with 18 inch seats.

As with the Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ one of the principle advantages of using CFRP, apart from considerable weight advantage and gaining better fuel efficiency, is that higher cabin pressure is made possible this reducing humidity and increasing passenger comfort. In addition, due to the prospect of through life fatigue and corrosion being all but eliminated by using CFRP, its use will play a huge part in reducing through life operating and maintenance costs.

Using traditional Fly-By Wire systems and interestingly, having cockpit commonality with most other Airbus aircraft, means that pilots transitioning to the A350 XWB will find the process very easy. I have not yet flown on the A350 nor have I yet on the Boeing 787 or for that matter, the Airbus A380. But there can be little doubt that with the A350 XWB will provide levels of visible and usable technological innovation and comfort for passengers while at the same time providing excellent operating efficiency and cost effectiveness for airlines that use it.

Be in no doubt that the A350 XWB will be a very important representative of a potentially very large segment of the commercial aircraft market. To get to where it has (Airbus has so far received 750 orders for variants of the aircraft from a total 39 airline customers worldwide) has required that Airbus listened to its airline customers and gave them what they wanted. To achieve this required that the company would need to abandon its original plan and go right the way back to the drawing board following rejection of the original A350 development plan that was put forward nine years ago.

The A350 XWB family will be assembled at a brand new facility in Toulouse which I have already had the pleasure of seeing. This is a magnificent new investment just as is the new plant at Broughton, North Wales that will build the wings for all the A350 XWB planes.

For the UK the success of the A350 will be hugely important and the aircraft is yet another demonstration of why it is so important that there can be no let-up in the amount of new investment put in to engineering and product development. Much work is being done here by the Aerospace Growth Partnership, the new Aerospace Technology Institute, at various Universities including Cranfield. But to stay ahead will require that even more effort and investment is put in and we must also ensure that we maintain sufficient numbers of skilled engineers for the future.

CHW (London – 13th November 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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