Work and World

How Airplanes Are Made

Airplanes are essentially pressurized cylinders zooming through the air 10 km above the ground. They take us to work and on vacation, bring us to family and in general move us from point A to point B faster than any other publicly available transport on earth. Here’s how a modern commercial jet aircraft is made: So, it’s a beautiful fall morning and I am getting ready to go get on an airplane to go to france to learn about airplanes. I flew to europe to visit the factories, research and design facilities of AIRBUS because they wanted to give me and you a behind the scenes look at their newest airplane, the A350. Here it is! But before the first flight happens, even long before the first rivet is set, a team of thousands of engineers and designers spend years developing the design for both the aircraft and how it will be manufactured. They have to take into account the desired passenger capacity, the range and speed of the plane, passenger comfort, requirements for landing and navigating airports, flight controls, fuel efficiency, how and where materials and parts will be scourced and produced and a million in sundry other details. Over the course of the design engineers use computer simulations and wind tunnel models to test the aerodynamics of the aircraft in its takeoff, cruising and landing configurations and even use scale model engines powered by compressed air to understand the wing engine interaction. Fluid dynamics is freakin’ complicated. All of the various systems have to be independently tested, the wing flaps and the landing gear deployment and the engines and so on. They even shoot several dead ducks into the engine at high speed to make sure it can continue to provide thrust if it encounters a flock of birds. Once a plane is designed, the parts –all 2.65 million of them– have to be manufactured and assembled, some by AIRBUS itself and many like the engines and landing gear by outside contractors. In the case of the A350 aircraft the wing tops and bottoms are made in an additive process using carbon fiber infused resinous tape, which is then cured in a massive oven until it becomes stronger and lighter than steel. Let me say that again: That is going to be an airplane wing — made out of tape. The wingboxes are assembled and fitted with electrical, hydraulic and fuel systems, painted and then the flaps, slats and ailerons –the things they use to steer– are added. They ginormous tail fin is constructed in a similar fashion. The fuselage (struggles to pronounce) and rear pressure bulkhead are built separately, again out of carbon fiber composite materials and are wired and outfitted with instrumentation and hydraulics. The nose of the aircraft is added and then all the parts built off site are flown by a special and hilarious looking airplane part carrying airplane to the final assembly line where in a single stupendously massive hangar the fuselage pieces are fastened together, the wings are connected, landing gear installed, auxiliary power unit put in place, vertical stabilizer and horizontal tailplane are attached, seats and ventilation and cabin and cockpit interiors are installed, etc. Finally, at the very end, it’s time for the engines. They’re the most expensive part, so they’re put on last. The plane then undergoes in flight testing to make sure all the systems are working as intended. When a new aircraft it being developed, the first few planes built are covered with sensores and tested extensively to the range of their limits: Cold weather, hot weather, high altitude, water on the runway, tail scraping on low speed take off, wing bending strenght, etc. And in addition to this extensive prototype testing, every single plane that comes off the assembly line is taken on its own testflights. Once the test pilots and test flight enineers are happy we’re done! The plane heads out onto the runway for delivery to an airline somewhere around the world. When it’s running at full speed, AIRBUS’ facilities will build ten A350 aircraft every month. That’s one plane completed every two working days. It’s a pretty amazing feat of engineering, manufacturing, infrastructure and technology. And if there is one thing that I learned about airplane manufactur while visiting AIRBUS, it’s that every single part of the process has its own expert. There are airtraffic control experts, seat experts, wing flap experts, wind tunnel engine model experts and even carbon fiber recycling experts. All, so that you and I can get from New York to London in a few hours instead of a few days. I am here in the escape hatch of the AIRBUS A350. Ahh, if there were an emergency I would have to jump out of this place. But I would like to say thank you to AIRBUS for bringing me here, it’s been an amazing trip, I have learned so much about airplanes and it’s been really fun to see the production facilities and- and to see the test aircraft and stuff like this. So yeah, thank you to AIRBUS for allowing this to happen, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I can’t believe how big this airplane is. It is huge. I don’t want to jump out. Oh, and one more thing: If you’d like to buy an AIRBUS A350, just get in touch with AIRBUS and let them know I sent you. (wink) LOL
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