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

Actually, the A380 is built all over Europe. This was the final-assembly plant. The plane arrives in seven pieces sounding like some provincial soup recipe: three slices of fuselage, two wings, a fin, and a tail. The parts come to Toulouse by way of ocean freighters, canal barges, road convoys, and Airbus's whale-shaped and more than whale-sized Beluga transport plane. (Measured by cargo volume, the Beluga is even larger than the A380.) I particularly liked picturing whole wings and great cabin sections strapped to humble barges, bringing a bit of industrial reality (and swamped decks) to people taking those French canal-boat tours and trying to pretend that travel is fun.

The constituent parts of an A380 are placed in a single enormous jig—a Jell-O mold with the miniature marshmallows, fruit slices, and nutmeats aligned by means of laser technology to degrees of precision that take a lot of zeros behind a variety of decimal points to express.

Engineering miracles have always required genius, but the miraculousness has gotten to a point where comparable genius is needed to explain it. Fortunately, a genius showed us around the factory. This was Charles Champion, an Airbus executive vice-president and the head of the A380 program since the project was launched, nearly five years ago. Champion has since been promoted to chief operating officer of Airbus. But he is first an engineer. And he all but glowed with enjoyment at the A380's engineering.

For example, the A380's wings are clad in an esoteric alloy. What an ordinary mechanical engineer would call "unobtainium."

The wing panels are up to 108 feet long and nine feet wide, and in places they are only an eighth of an inch thick. They need to hold a "double curved aerodynamic shape." The way to achieve this is with a twenty-four-hour application of varying temperatures and loads to create "stress relaxation" and "permanent deformation." The process is called "creep age forming," and opportunities for Michael Jackson wisecracks aside, I have no idea what I'm talking about.

But Charles Champion did. And he made everything, if not exactly clear, clearly exciting.

Peter was looking around as if he were on a machinery Mt. Olympus, watching the powers of the firmament come together, this Leda mating (aided by laser technology) with that swan. Peter is a romantic about machines. When he was a helicopter pilot, machines saved his life any number of times. Of course, it was machines that put his life in jeopardy. But that's romance.

Charles Champion told us how the first A380 built wasn't flown but was towed to a static test platform, where its wings and fuselage were twisted and bent and loaded with weights until the plane was destroyed.

"That must have been horrible," I said, "to see that happen to your first A380."

"Engineers love to break things," Champion said.

And French industrial workers love to make them. At least they seemed to at Airbus. The assembly plant had a calm, cheerful, collegial air. Everything was tidy and well lit. Only the most muffled noises of manufacture could be heard. If Charles Dickens had visited Airbus, he might have given up on the frenzied life of writing and lecturing that eventually killed him and reconsidered the blacking factory.

It had been a day of reconsideration for me, too. I was reconsidering my free-trade principles. The governments of France, Germany, Britain, and other European Union countries have "invested" in the A380. Boeing calls this a subsidy and has gone off in a snit to the World Trade Organization—as if Boeing didn't sell Air Force One to the U.S. government for a pretty penny. Should I be upset that taxes on Europeans will help pay for American airfares?

I was also reconsidering my free-market ideals. Charles Champion said that among the difficulties of the A380 program were the political considerations of which factories were to make what where. The result, it seems to me, is that the most expensive parts, such as the wings and the cockpit, are manufactured in the most expensive places, such as England and France. A Chinese electronics company might as well outsource production to Manhattan and Beverly Hills. But do we really want Guatemalan child laborers sewing the treads to the tires on our landing gear?

And I was reconsidering the French. They were welcoming at Airbus and everywhere else in Toulouse. They didn't make fun of Peter when he spoke their language or me when I spoke mine. Food was magnifique. Manners were charmant.

At a magnifique lunch given in the Airbus executive dining room by the elegant Barbara Kracht, the vice-president of media relations, manners remained charmant even when I asked her, "What's with the bus?"

"You could have called the company," I said, "'Airphaeton,' 'Airlimousine,' even 'Airyacht.'" She responded politely, saying that when Airbus was founded, in 1970, it was still difficult to get people to think of flying as an affordable means of transportation.

We've gotten over that little hurdle. One thing I wasn't reconsidering was air travel. I had a flight home the next day and was trying not to think about it—with some success, considering I was standing next to a vehicle designed to provide the most air travel in history.

We were on a platform beside a nearly completed A380. The wingtip was just above our heads. "Go ahead," Charles Champion said to me. "Grab it." I reached up and tentatively curled my fingers over the metal. "Now pull down," he said.

The A380 wing is one of the mightiest structures ever created—9,100 square feet of ribs, spars, and skin able to thrust itself out 147 feet into nothingness and give lift to its half of 1.235 million pounds. I pulled, and this great formation bowed to my eye level, supple as a living thing.

With the whole wing flexing at my light grasp, all the poetic, fanciful wonder of living in 2005 came back to me. I'd outdone Keats and Shelley in matters of the sublime. It touched them. I touched it.

I was full of quixotic fervor. I would fly on an A380 straight to hell. And unless airport amenities, immigration clearance, baggage delivery, customs inspection, and the courtesy of security personnel improve dramatically before the A380 goes into service, I will.

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Peace Kills.
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