'It's as big as a building'

The Airbus A380, the biggest airliner built to date, completed a momentous maiden flight on Wednesday, winning praise from one of the pilots as a “magnificent machine” and opening a new era in aviation history.

“We had a very successful first flight and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it,” said Claude Lelaie, one of the two pilots and the head of the Airbus flight division.

“There are of course a lot of things to be done, but after this first experience, we now really sense the potential of this magnificent machine,” he said in a statement.

The mammoth long-haul airliner, which can carry between 550 and 840 passengers, is due to enter commercial service in mid-2006, debuting with Singapore Airlines.

Despite the aircraft’s apparently glitch-free performance, shares in the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (Eads), the Airbus parent, had fallen 2,13% to 22,08 euros in late-afternoon trading on the Paris Bourse, which was down 1,75% at 3 923,27.

“The medium-term success of the plane remains to be seen,” said analyst Pierre Anthony Vestra of the Ixis bank.

Tens of thousands of spectators cheered as the A380 double-decker touched down at 2.23pm (12.23pm GMT) at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in southwestern France after a successful flight of three hours and 54 minutes.

Toulouse is the home of Airbus Industrie.

The Airbus prototype took off and landed on runway 32, dubbed the Concorde, from where the world’s only supersonic jetliner made its maiden flight in 1969.

The applause rippled across Europe, as political leaders hailed the achievement as a milestone that proves the might of European unity, a month ahead of a French referendum tipped to reject the proposed European Union Constitution.

The inaugural flight represented a pivotal moment for the European group, which has punched its way to the top of the civil aircraft industry to challenge the Boeing 747’s long dominance of the jumbo jet market.

Airbus, owned 80% by Eads, 20% by BAE Systems of Britain, is banking on the A380 to be the world’s most profitable plane, with a 15-20% lower operating cost per seat.

French President Jacques Chirac pointed to the “magnificent result of European industrial cooperation”, and in Berlin, deputy economy minister Ditmar Staffelt called the flight “proof of Europe’s high technical capabilities”.

In Brussels, the European Commission called the debut a “success story”.

“The A380’s development shows what Europe can do through cooperation and investment in skills, research and technologies,” said industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen, a German national.

Before landing the A380, Lelaie and his co-pilot Jacques Rosay circled the super-jumbo plane over the airport, framing it against a blue sky air-brushed with cirrus clouds.

“It’s as big as a building,” one observer said as the crowd applauded the fly-by about 100m overhead.

The plane lifted off the ground for the first time at 10.29 am, Airbus said, preceded by a small “chase” aircraft that scouted conditions for the six-man crew aboard the A380.

The superjumbo headed northwest, turning its back on Toulouse and its 700 000 inhabitants, as required for a test flight.

At takeoff, the prototype plane weighed 421 tonnes, the heaviest civil airliner to date, the company said. Its maximum takeoff weight is 560 tonnes.

While the plane was still airborne, Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard expressed “pride” in its successful and punctual takeoff.

The company baptized its 21st flagship the A380 for two reasons: The number “eight” suggests the double-decker feature and also is considered a lucky number in Asia, where Airbus sees its fortunes growing the most.

The plane, officially unveiled at an Airbus hangar in January, is to be used for decades as the test model for changes to the A380 over the duration of the programme.

The gleaming white prototype, sporting the new Airbus trademark blues on its tail, was powered by four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines. It is designed to fly 15 000km non-stop.

“The takeoff was absolutely perfect, the progression and the control of the plane had been exactly like that on the simulator,” chief test pilot Rosay told reporters in a live broadcast from the airplane.

Rosay co-piloted the plane with Lelaie in a six-man crew including four test engineers.

Airbus shareholders, Eads and BAE Systems, have already invested heavily in the programme: more than 10-billion euros ($13-billion), and another 1,45-billion may be needed.

The big plane has been a big draw: 15 airlines have signed contracts for 154 planes, of which 144 are firm.
The tally comes close to Airbus’s forecasts of selling 150 planes by mid-2005, at a catalogue price of between $260 and $290-million. - Sapa-AFP

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