It is something of a shock to discover something that you thought happened a few years ago was actually 10 years ago! Such was the case in 2015 with the Airbus A380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, a title long held by the Boeing 747.
I will explain! Toulouse is very easy to get to from Barcelona and Girona, a Spanish high-speed train goes there and returns each day. I’ve been there twice. The first time, I went I picked up a leaflet in the hotel about visits to the Airbus factory which I had known for a long time was based at the airport (or the airport is based at Airbus!) I didn’t have time to arrange anything on that visit so I simply decided to go back with the specific intention of visiting Airbus. This I did in April 2015, again it was a simple trip on the train.
The weather was awful, low cloud and raining as I took the tram to the airport. In fact it passes about 3km to the east of the airport but the leaflet told me where to get off. But at the stop, there was no sign, no shuttle bus, nothing. Just a distant airport through the rain. But my spirits were high. Just before we reached the stop, I saw an A380 climb steeply out of the airport and take a tight turn into the cloud! It was not full of passengers and fuel for a flight to Hong Kong, I was pretty sure of that!!
I know aeroplanes are very much a boys’ thing with plastic planes suspended from the bedroom ceiling with girls having dolls and pink bicycles but in these modern times, I expect girls to take an interest too. So pay attention!
It took an age to find “Let’s Visit Airbus” which is a museum and visitor centre but I arrived in plenty of time (I had pre-booked online). In the morning we visited the A380 assembly plant and in the afternoon I took a coach tour which took us around all the various Airbus centres, each dedicated to one of the Airbus range of aircraft.
So it soon became apparent why an A380 was having fun at Toulouse Airport, it was the 10th Anniversary to the day when the very first A380 flew – the maiden flight. The tour covered the complex logistics of bringing the various component parts of the plane together, some of it by sea and canal barge, there was a simulation of the very first flight with a video of the flight crew wearing parachutes in case they had got the calculations wrong and maybe had used Imperial measurement for the wings. I said after the presentation that I had felt nervous (even after 10 years, the tension surrounding the event was palpable).
The main hangar where the planes are put together holds three A380s in various stages of completion. The A380 which I saw flying earlier was now casually parked outside, rather like one would leave a car outside a corner shop to buy some fags. But inside there was no one to be seen on the shop floor. They were having a party! Each aircraft already had the tailfin painted in the livery of the airline although the rest was that familiar yellow-coated bare metal. There was one destined for BA and one for Emirates which now has something like 100 of them. The explanation why the tailfins were painted before anything else was that it was easier to paint them when they were flat on the ground but I wasn’t convinced about that. I didn’t buy that and felt sure it was a PR exercise for visiting dignitaries.
This visit partly inspired my trip to Asia in November 2016 because I really wanted to sample travelling in one, preferably in business class. I enjoyed a delicious joke with an American friend when I told her about my impending journey. She was impressed that I had been to check out the plane being built before flying on it. I said “It was to make sure they were using the right kind of glue.” This was by text message so she didn't get the joke. She replied “glue??” I wrote back, “Well it’s just a rather large Airfix kit isn’t it??”
I couldn’t visit Airbus - previously Aerospatiale - without being transported back in time to when they built Concorde here in partnership with British Aerospace because I had a close-up view of the British prototype, 02, being built. The first to fly was actually the French prototype, 01.
When I worked for the BBC, we made a programme from Filton about the testing of components for the plane: the fuel system pumping fuel around the airframe to keep it cool and also balanced, a single Olympus engine in a Vulcan bomber, and we shot pictures of various delta-wing aircraft demonstrating how that wing shape was so different from a conventional wing which deployes flaps at low speed to stop the wing stalling. There are no flaps on a delta-wing which is why the Concorde’s final approach was in very much a nose-up position. Ha, of course by this stage in the flight, the nose was hinged downwards so that the pilot could see where he was going. I walked through 02 with great bundles of exposed cable because it was still far from complete. I also wrote about it in my chapter on the BBC.
I can imagine eyes glazing over so I will just mention briefly how I nearly killed myself and a flying instructor which should restore interest. And then I will close the subject of flight. with a brief description of my less that distinguished sailing career.
There was a time in my life and I can’t remember exactly which year but, as I sat outside the clubhouse at my local golf course, I got it into my head to learn to fly… not powered aircraft but gliders. I had often seen them wheeling in the sky over Lasham in Hampshire which is a big gliding centre and thought that it would be slightly more adventurous than reliving my missed putt on the 18th with a beer on the 19th.
So I started going on Saturday mornings where there was a simple signing-up if one wanted to fly. Each pupil was assigned to a tutor and off we would go to grab a glider out of the hangar. Little by little I would gain confidence and at one time, I actually booked a week’s course but I nearly quit after one day.
The instructor was a tough guy, ex-policeman a little bit gung-ho and the wind was strong, too strong for many other pilots on that particular day. But I think he wanted us three pupils to taste the real life. Let me explain how it works. The gliders at Lasham were either launched to 2000ft by a winch and that winch sat on a truck at the end of the runway driven by a large powerful Chevrolet engine. At the top of the climb the glider would be almost over the truck and at that point, the cable would be released by the glider pilot otherwise the plane would start going down again.. and backwards. The cable coupling would float down to earth with a small drogue parachute.
The other way to get airborne was with a “tug”, a small single engine plane which simply towed the glider to 2000-3000ft and then the glider pilot would release the cable. As the tug and glider trundled down the runway, it was the glider, being much lighter, which got airborne first so it was important not to get carried away and gain height before the tug as that would pull the nose of the tug downwards.
On the final approach on landing, the glider arrives a point about 100m from the start of the grass landing area and then does a fairly steep descent downwards with airbrakes applied to control the speed, around 80km/h. At the last minute before hitting the ground, the pilot pulls the stick back which is called rounding-out, and basically stalls the aircraft which flies above the grass on a cushion of air losing speed and finally comes to rest.
On this occasion, on the course and with a strong cross-wind, I was being asked to do the landing but I had never done it before. I am not even sure if this guy had taught us what to expect. With the nose pointed 30 degrees to the right into the wind, with air brakes on, I pulled the stick back at about 50ft above the ground which is seriously fatal. “I have control”, my instructor said calmly. I held onto the stick grimly. Why did I not say, "I have no idea what I am doing here"? This time his voice was very insistent, “I have control”, I released the stick, the nose went down and we avoided what would have been either fatal or at least a very serious accident. Stalling at 2000ft is not a problem, stalling at 50ft…. there is no time to recover and the plan will drop to the ground like a stone.
I was very shaken at my stupidity and to add to the humiliation, as we opened the canopy, who should come over to help move the glider was none other than Peter Twiss, by now retired but a household name to boys of my generation as the first Brit to break the sound barrier. I just wanted to dig a hole (well I very nearly did) and go home. “I want to go home”, I said. My instructor would have none of that and I completed the 3-day course. But he seemed determined to scare me, at one point doing a loop-the-loop where at the top of the loop I was at 4000ft held upside down simply by my harness which I was hoping and praying I had done up correctly.
This photo shows the Rolls-Royce of gliders (I couldn’t even get it all in the photo), with a small engine to get it airborne but after that, free as a bird.
I still went gliding after that and perfected the round-out and cable tow but never went solo – there was always someone sitting behind me. Some were very laid back and let me get on with it but one guy, I could feel him tweaking the dual controls all the time which made the whole thing rather pointless. Going solo would really have been a bridge too far. In any case I was plagued by my foggy “not really connected” feeling in my head which I have suffered from for many years so it was not wise to have contemplated flying in the first place.
One should feel safer the higher one is (a stall is not fatal, plenty of space to recover!) but I was always glad to get back to earth. I found turns a little unnerving. Because the cockpit is closed there is very little feeling of forward motion so it always felt we were at risk of slipping sideways. In order to turn in flight whether it be a glider, seagull or A380, one drops a wing using the ailerons - the lower wing has more drag than the upper wing so it drags the plane around. The rudder on the tailfin doesn’t actually turn the plane, it corrects the “slew” and ensures the craft still points in the direction it is going, rather than slewing sideways.
I will now describe a brief and disastrous sailing period but just a quick note. A sail creates movement because low pressure is created on the front side of the sail due to its shape and this drags the boat forwards even when it is at a very small angle towards the wind, when tacking for example. In theory a sailing boat can travel faster than the wind speed and often does. The same force occurs with an aircraft wing in an upwards direction but this is very small compared to the fact that the wing is at an angle in the direction of flight and it is the air which is forced under the wing which creates almost all the lift. Angle of incidence is the angle at which the wing is attached to the fuselage and angle of attack is the angle at which it is presented to the oncoming body of air. And it is that which creates the lift.
I always remember travelling in a Tristar (do you remember it? With one engine mounted on the tailfin. The RAF in 2016 still used Tristars). Maybe they made a mistake attaching the wings because it always seemed to fly nose-up in order to get sufficient lift and my gin and tonic slid down the table towards me. Always a gin and tonic! And nuts.
Having flown gliders, I find it fascinating watching the performance of a huge aircraft such as the A380. The principles are all the same albeit on a very much larger scale.
I guess from the trailers in the photo, you can get an idea of scale! These are International 2.4m sailing boats and for a while I had one. And I soon regretted it. At the same time as I was thinking, "Why don't I go out and take up gliding?" I was doing the same for sailing. I joined Queen Mary Sailing Club in one of the large reservoirs to the west of Heathrow Airport. The sensible thing would have been to buy a second-hand Laser but I was fascinated by these scaled-down yatchs. I found one second-hand in the north of Scotland and paid for the transport and I bought new sails. Apart from being totally useless at sailing, I had overlooked another problem, the International 2.4 sailors at the club were all highly qualified, one was a paralympic champion. Many disabled people sail these boats because all the controls come back to the pilot, the rudder can be controlled by foot pedals or by hand controls. I was totally out of my depth. Indeed I would have been the same racing against kids in Lasers. And the boats were the most enormous hassle to get in and out of the water, nothing like a Laser where one can simply drag it into the lake. These were very heavy and had to be winched in and out of the water, so there was always a queue of boats waiting to be dragged out of the water.
I had one more humiliation before I finally sold my boat.
It was a Sunday morning, the sky was grey and the wind, blustery. There was a strong funnel of wind at the far corner of the reservoir and as usual I had completely lost contact with the fleet. I tried turning as I was getting close to the concrete shore but I got cramp in one of my legs and couldn't steer it as my rudder was foot-controlled. The boat slewed side-on to the wind and started to take on water. And then it started to take on more water, until it was completely water-logged and of course dead in the water. Well, at least I could show that an International 2.4 doesn't sink but I wasn't too confident about that at the time. The rescue launch came and threw me a rope and I got ignominiously towed back to the club-house. I probably would have improved my image by getting into the rescue boat because I looked totally ridiculous with the boat totally awash at water-level and me with my top half above the water.
Do other peoples' autobiographies have as many disasters as mine?