There's so many good commercial aviation blogs out there - mostly from the States and Canada. But none that I can see from this little island in Northern Europe. With the demise of a great blog by a BA Skipper that many I am sure followed (including me), I've decided to take on the challenge!

I hope you enjoy the commentary on all matters of civil aviation from my vantage point in the left hand seat of Virgin Atlantic's Airbuses!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What's it like to introduce the longest civil airliner...

...which is almost 10 feet longer than the massive A380...

The Airbus A340-500 and A340-600 were launched way back in 1997, and the A340-500, just  little longer than the wheezy A340-300, was to become the world's longest range airliner, taking over 300 pssengers on trips of up to 8,700NM.  That would soon be broken with upgraded variants with even longer range.  This gave Airbus a head start over the Boeing 777LR and ER - but commercial success went to Uncle Sam with numbers entering service far eclipsing the big Airbus.

However, back in 2002, we got out first A340-600 - the longest airliner in the world - and I was on one of the first flights.  In mid-2002, we intorduced the long machine on the London-New York route - a relatively short sector for one really good reason - crews were away from base only for a day or two and the feedback and training regime intensity could be maintained.

Introducing a new aircraft is never easy - and it takes literally years of planning and perparation. The A340-600 was no exception - and some of the glitches were easier to iron out than others. It's fair to say, we had a fairly bumpy ride with the new quad-jet during the introductory period, suffering some niggling teething problems and unsatisfactory dispatch reliability. Virgin was the first operator of the type, and those following in our footsteps benefitted - with less turbulence!

The Farnborough Airshow saw us, with typical Richard gusto, take official delivery, we made a noise about "4 is better than 2" and "mine's bigger than yours" - but in the background, operationally we were quietly beavering away to get this monster in the air. On time. Without fuss.  (Now - A330s, 787s are coming along - so 2 is good now, before you say anything)!

When the -600's first service was nailed (New York), we sold it out at the same capacity as our then A340-300s - in case something went a-miss, and we had to downgrade to her older sibling. Gently did it - with one day on the run and several off.  To help cushion the -600's introduction, Airbus provided a launch team of up to 10 representatives from the manufacturer and major suppliers at Heathrow. A maintenance control operation was also set up at Airbus's Toulouse headquarters, with dedicated teams to provide support and ensure minimum response time.

Even then, it didn't all go according to plan.  Virgin chose the -600 as we had operated the -300 and commonality was a big part. The reality is the -600 is over 10 years younger than the -300 with vastly different systems and major components - let alone the size. We needed and wanted a 98% dispatch realibility which we didnt achieve until almost 6 years after introduction - and now she's a fine member of the fleet. Pireps (Pilot reports of malfunctions) per 1,000 hours are now below the 75 mark - but once again, taken longer to sort than anyone of us could have thought.

Fuel System Issues - been in the press - and here is my take.

The basic problem with the fuel system is that software faults result in the automatic systems "not putting the fuel into the right tanks". Revised software fixed it, but the various early problems culminated in a highly publicised incident involving a Virgin A340-600 that had to divert to Amsterdam earlier this year when an engine ran down due to fuel starvation. This incident resulted in Airbus advising operators to instruct crews to check fuel levels every 30min and providing details of actions if automatic transfer failed.

Those Rolls Royce Trents

Probably the biggest "system change" from the -300 to the -600 is the adoption of R-R 53,000-56,000lb thrust (236-249kN) Trent 500 engines in place of the CFM56, providing almost double the installed thrust.

One issue that has afflicted almost all Virgin's Trent engines at some point is oil degradation. The oil gets like a thick syrup and is solved after a change to the oil seal. Another issue - the compressor blade tips rubbing on the engine casing as clearance was too tight, causing damage to the blades. Again, solved in service.

Flying the A340-600

Passengers love it. But early on during the Airbus flight tests, the flexing of the forward fuselage during turbulence was an issue that we worried about. 8 years on, with the FMC software being modified, it has just not been anything to be concerned about. The acceleromerers in the engine pylons send inputs to the FMC and onto the ailerons and rudder which is an effective damping mechanism.

Back in 2002,  our initial training requirement was that pilots needed six months experience on the -300 before being eligible for a mixed fleet flying (MFF) rating on the -600, which required the differences course and two sectors on the bigger aircraft.  When the A340-600 became our fleet workhorse, we put pilots straight on to both variants with the bulk of training on -300 and then four sectors on -600 to qualify for MFF.

Taxi-ing - gulp!

Caution was and IS drilled into us when taxi-ing this monster. Already 8 years ago(!), we all went off to East Midlands Airport, to practice taxi-ing using the ground cameras - and this is the trickiest part of handling the -600. When you get used to it, and your bear in mind the bulk, then like most things it becomes second nature.

Because of the increased fuselage length and possible risk of a tailscrape, slight modifications to the fly-by-wire software have been made in the rotation law, which gives a slightly different feel over the -300, but we had no problems for any crews making the adjustment to the -600.


The -300 is gutless. No two ways - gutless and sometimes you wondered if it would ever rotate! The power from the Trents is such  that the -600 has the facility to use two thrust derates in the climb. As soon as the rate of climb drops to 1,000ft per min [5m/s], we go to the next derate.

Times move on and the A340-600 might be seen by some as a bit of a white elephant. I live and breathe them on long hauls every week - and I love them.


Glenny said...

I love the a340-600 :) It's one of my favourite (top favourite being the 777 of course :) Have you ever flown one of those (or are you only trained on the airbus?

Mike said...

Hi Glenny - apologies for missing this. Never been on the B777 - although our competition over at BA have lots of them.

I am an Airbus afficionado these days...and have never flown Boeings. However, with our B787s on the horizon...somewhere...never say never!

Thanks for dropping in.
All thest best, Mike