Airbus engineers at the Airbus Americas Engineering center in Old Town gathered in a conference room early Friday to watch the first flight of the Airbus A350 XWB by live-streaming video.
They applauded as the long-range airliner touched down at the Blagnac airport in Toulouse, France, about 7 a.m. Central time.
“To finally see the aircraft flying after six years of designing it gives us a great sense of pride,” said Jeff Nangle, an engineering group leader on the airplane.
About 100 Spirit AeroSystems employees in Wichita gathered to watch the first flight, as did groups of employees at other Spirit locations.
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The plane took off about 3 a.m. Central time with a crew of six, including two flight-test pilots, one test-flight engineer and three flight-test engineers.
The flight is an important milestone in the program. It marks the beginning of a flight test program that will include about 2,500 flight hours with a fleet of five development aircraft.
It also marks entrance into the final stage of development.
The testing will lead to certification of the A350-900 by European and U.S. airworthiness authorities before entry into service in the second half of 2014.
The flight lasted four hours and five minutes while the crew explored the plane’s flight envelope.
A chase plane followed the aircraft to observe and film various maneuvers. Experts on the ground also monitored the test flight.
The twin-engine long-range aircraft will hold from 270 to 350 passengers in three-class layouts.
About 150 of Airbus’ 400 Wichita employees work on the program.
Airbus engineers in Wichita designed portions of the wing and the forward fuselage.
Specifically, they designed the underwing pylon attachment and the main landing gear support structure. And they designed the composite fuselage section directly behind the plane’s nose cone.
Spirit AeroSystems plays another important role on the program.
Spirit designs and builds the composite center fuselage section, called Section 15, along with the composite front wing spar. The sections are built at Spirit’s facility in Kinston, N.C. The panels are assembled at Spirit’s facility in Saint-Nazaire in western France, then delivered to Airbus. Spirit also designs and builds the fixed leading edges of the airplane wings at its Prestwick, Scotland, plant.
“We are proud to be on the board the A350 XWB program with its new technology and design,” John Pilla, Spirit AeroSystems vice president and general manager of Airbus and A350 program management, said in a statement. “We have built a solid relationship with Airbus on the A350 program, and we’re excited to be a close and valued collaborator on this airplane in the future.
The project brings together talented engineers across the globe, Nangle said.
“It gives us the opportunity to coordinate with all these countries,” he said.
Ryan Uptmor of Airbus leads the Wichita engineering team that designed the fuselage section. The design team includes 78 engineers in Wichita and seven in Germany.
“We’ve really been looking forward to this moment,” Uptmor said. “It gives us a chance to showcase what Wichita is capable of.”
The forward fuselage section is made from composite materials rather than traditional metal.
“The biggest challenge was bringing our team up to speed on composite structures,” Uptmor said.
The use of composites required a brand-new design and new tools.
“This was from scratch,” Uptmor said of the design.
The use of composites optimizes weight because thickness can change in the layup of the composites.
Wichita engineers will continue to support the program as it works toward certification and delivery.
They also will work on a stretch version, the A350-1000.
The program has been focused on making sure engineers located around the world use the same processes, tools and methodologies across the entire airplane, said John O’Leary, Airbus vice president and general manager.
That helped, especially when the airplane was assembled for the first time.
The sections joined up well, O’Leary said.
“There’s been a lot of discipline and a lot of focus,” he said.
As a result, the airplane has a “very high level of maturity,” O’Leary said.
“The insistence on common methods and tools and following them is paying off,” he said.
Airbus has received 613 firm orders from 33 customers for the aircraft.