Travels November 2005

The Mother Load

"Oh, my God—Southwest to Tampa with a thousand people!" In France our correspondent gets an inside look at the new Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger plane—and actually kind of likes what he sees
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Sometimes it seems that the aim of modernity is to flush the romance out of life. The library, with its Daedalian labyrinth, mysterious hush, and faintly ominous aroma of knowledge, has been replaced by the computer's cheap glow, pesky chirp, and data spillage. Who born since 1960 has any notion of the Near East's exotic charms? Whence the Rubáiyát? Whither Scheherazade? The Thief of Baghdad is jailed, eating Doritos in his underwear. As for romance itself … "Had we but world enough, and pills, / For erectile dysfunction's ills." And nothing is more modern than air travel.

As stimulating adventure, flying nowadays ranks somewhere between appearing in traffic court and going to Blockbuster with the DVD of Shrek 2 that my toddler inserted in the toaster. Thus the maiden flight, on April 27, 2005, of the Airbus A380, the world's largest airliner, did not spark the world's imagination. Or it did—with mental images of a boarding process like going from Manhattan to the Hamptons on a summer Friday, except by foot with carry-on baggage. This to get a seat more uncomfortable than an aluminum beach chair.

What a poor, dull response to a miracle of engineering. The A380 is a Lourdes apparition at the departure ramp. Consider just two of its marvels: Its takeoff weight is 1.235 million pounds. And it takes off. The A380 is the heaviest airplane ever flown—171 tons heavier than the previous record holder, the somewhat less miraculously engineered Soviet Antonov An-124.

The A380 can fly as fast as a Boeing 747-400, and farther, and the twin passenger decks running the full length of its fuselage give it half again more cabin space.

However, the only expressions of awe over the A380's specifications that I've heard have been awful predictions of the crowding inside. These tend to be somewhat exaggerated. "Oh, my God—Southwest to Tampa with a thousand people!" said a member of my immediate family who often shepherds kids to Grandma's on budget carriers while their dad has to take an earlier flight "for business reasons."

Airbus maintains that with its recommended seating configuration the A380 will hold 555 passengers, versus about 412 in a 747-400. The U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, the president, the vice-president, the Cabinet, two swing-voting Supreme Court justices, and Karl Rove can all fly together in an A380. (Maybe that statistic will create some popular excitement, if they fly far enough away.) But the London Sunday Times has reported that Emirates, an airline with forty-five of the new planes on order, "would pack as many as 649 passengers into the A380." The president of Emirates, Tim Clark, told The Times, "Personally, I'd have liked to put 720 seats in." And the chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Sir Richard Branson, has bragged that each Virgin A380 will have a beauty parlor, a gym, double beds, and a casino—three out of four of which sound worse than 719 seatmates.

I consulted an old friend, Peter Flynn, who is the sales director for Airbus North America. He assured me that the A380 is an incredible airplane. It didn't sound like mere professional assurance. Peter was a Navy helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War and remembers when flying was really a stimulating adventure.

Two months to the day after the A380 first became airborne, Peter and I were at Airbus headquarters, in Toulouse, France, in the A380 systems-testing facility. The building is as blank-walled as the Kaaba and much larger. We stood on a glassed-in balcony three stories above the main floor looking at something called the Iron Bird. This is a full-scale installation of all the mechanical, electrical, and hydraulic connections within an A380 and of all the moving parts to which they are joined except the engines. The Iron Bird was very busy trying out the levers, gears, cylinders, struts, and things-I-don't-know-the-names-of that work the landing gear, rudder, elevators, ailerons, and things-I-don't-know-the-names-of-either.

We think of a passenger plane as a pod, a capsule wafting through the atmosphere containing mainly us and, if we're lucky, our luggage. Jet power plants are simply automatic typhoons, effortlessly blowing hot air. And while we fervently hope the jets continue to do that, it doesn't occur to us that an airliner has a greater confusion of innards than anything we dissected in science lab, even if we went to veterinary school. I wonder what the ancient Romans would have divined from such entrails. Certainly not aviation. The Iron Bird couldn't have looked less avian. Nor—airplanes being made of aluminum and carbon-fiber composites and such—was much ferrous metal involved. The iron in the Iron Bird was in the steel ramps and ladders branching over and through it so that engineers could go to and fro.

Our corporate tour guide, the cheerful and patient Debra Batson, the manager for "scientific media," pointed out one of the Iron Bird's most important components. This looked to me like a tangle of extension cords from an overambitious attempt at outdoor Christmas lighting. Airbus was the first producer of commercial aircraft to make its planes all fly-by-wire. That is, there are no rods or cables—nothing that can be pushed or yanked—between the flyer and the flown. Everything is accomplished by computer command. And I trust that the nosewheel pays more attention to its e-mail than I do to mine.

Debra pointed out another of the most important components, which looked like a tangle of garden hoses from an attempt to put out the fire caused by the outdoor Christmas lighting. This was the hydraulic system that operates the A380's control surfaces. In the A380 the pressure in the hydraulic system has been increased from the usual 3,000 pounds per square inch to 5,000 psi, making the system smaller, lighter, and as powerful as the kick to the back of my passenger seat from the child sitting behind me. The hydraulics also handle the braking on the A380's twenty-wheel main landing gear. A 302-page promotional Airbus publication titled A New Dimension in Air Travel informed me that "the brake is capable of stopping 45 double-decker buses traveling at 200 mph, simultaneously, in under 25 seconds." It is an ambition of mine to learn enough math to figure out comparisons like that and write them myself. But I'm afraid I'd get carried away with digressions about what kind of engine you'd have to put in a double-decker bus to make it go that fast, where you'd drive it, how you'd find forty-four people to drive the other buses, and what would happen to the bus riders.

I did get carried away thinking about the miracle of engineering. It is not vouchsafed even to the pope to see the very mechanism by which miracles are performed. Would the pope be as confused by his kind of miracle as I was by the Iron Bird? Would this affect the doctrine of papal infallibility?

"Above my pay grade," Peter said. He and Debra and I went to the other side of the building to look at the cockpit simulators. These were arrayed along a wall and curtained off like private viewing booths for the kind of movie you aren't supposed to see. We peeked inside one. That kind of movie wasn't playing on the simulator's windscreen. A speeding runway came toward us, followed by dropping land, and enveloping haze, and more vertigo than we would have felt if the floor had moved. It hadn't. "Unfortunately," Peter said, "the rock-and-roll simulator was booked up today. You can crash that one. And it makes really embarrassing noises."

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