Airbus has demonstrated how formation flying can aid sustainability with two test Airbus A350s flying across the Atlantic, in what it has dubbed “the final demonstration”. Taking inspiration from the formation flying employed by geese, Airbus has been working hard on the idea since 2019.
Across the world, the airline industry is looking to cut CO2 emissions. No idea is off the table, with some such as Etihad going as far as to calculate optimal routes that avoid generating contrails. While Airbus is pursuing Hydrogen flight, a solution that may be easier to implement is formation flying, especially on high-density routes such as the North Atlantic Tracks.
A successful demonstration
This morning two Airbus A350s departed Toulouse in close succession. Taking off first was the A350-900 with MSN1, registered as F-WXWB. This departed from Toulouse as AIB 1 at 08:57. Moments later, the Airbus A350-1000 with MSN59, registered as F-WMIL, took to the skies above Toulouse at 08:59 as AIB 2.
Following a slight deviation in their flight path over France to line up, the two jets flew in formation from the west of France until they were well over Canada. They then flew to Montreal in formation over the Atlantic Ocean and landed just a minute apart at 10:40 and 10:41, respectively. The aircraft used the General Air Traffic airspace over the Atlantic to avoid clogging the North Atlantic Tracks.
It seems as though the mission was a success. Airbus commented that during the flight, the second aircraft saved more than six tons of CO2. According to the planemaker, this equates to around 5% on long-haul flights.
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Commenting on the successful mission, the Airbus Chief Technical Officer, Sabine Klauke, commented,
“This demonstration flight is a concrete example of our commitment to making our decarbonisation roadmap a reality… The opportunity to get this deployed for passenger aircraft around the middle of this decade is very promising. Imagine the potential if fello’fly was deployed across the industry!”
How does it work?
How does formation flying work? It’s an interesting question. The planes don’t fly one behind the other but instead in a diagonal pattern, as seen when birds such as ducks and geese fly over. The two aircraft have a connected flight control system that talks to each other. The aircraft following sits in the leader’s wake updraft, which slightly reduces the work that it needs to do.
While the technology is undoubtedly exciting, it seems as though it would be a headache to implement. It would require aircraft departures to be coordinated to ensure that one aircraft isn’t hanging around for another, which could prove challenging on a commercial basis.
Instead, it seems more like a technology that could be employed when aircraft are entering major airways such as the North Atlantic Tracks at the same time. It would’ve been perfect for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, who operated simultaneous flights from London Heathrow to New York yesterday. Of course, in this situation, you also need to decide which aircraft gets to follow, and thus uses slightly less fuel, so it costs a little less to operate.
What do you make of Airbus’ formation flying initiative? Let us know what you think and why in the comments!