While the production of the Airbus A380 may have come to a premature end, the story of the near Herculean logistical feat of building the world’s largest passenger plane still deserves telling. While 30 countries across the world can claim a piece of the A380 legacy, this is the European chapter, taking a look at where the major components of this engineering marvel came together.
Millions of pieces make it to Toulouse
The four million parts making up the double-decker jet once touted as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’ came from over 1,500 subcontractors across the globe. However, in Airbus’ facilities strewn across Europe, they came together to make up the seven major parts of the plane – the three fuselage sections, the two wings, the horizontal and the vertical tail fins.
The main components then traveled by plane, boat, barge, and a convoy of trucks on specially reinforced roads through the French countryside to reach Airbus’ A380 Final Assembly Line (FAL) in Toulouse-Blagnac. The very last procession came through the villages of Gimont and Leignac in June last year. Drivers, trucks and their cargo were cheered on by locals who, for close to ten years, had been a living part of aviation history.
However, before traveling down the roads of Gers and Haute-Garonne in the middle of the night, those components were constructed in other parts of Europe. Here we take a closer look at how they came together all over the continent. However, let us begin just outside of continental Europe, out in the Northern Sea, in Broughton, Wales.
The wings of Broughton
Broughton is the site where Airbus produces all of its aircraft wings, including those of the A380. The purpose-built West Factory opened in 2003 and was then the largest factory built in the UK for years. During its active years, it housed 1,200 employees. At the moment, it lies dormant and quiet. However, the head of the Broughton plant has indicated the facilities are still very much a part of future strategies – without revealing further details.
Airbus’ Welsh location is responsible for the wings of its entire line of commercial aircraft. According to the manufacturer, activities in Broughton include wing skin milling, stringer manufacture, full wing equipping, and wing box assembly. The huge A380 wings were put together from 32,000 components shipped in from nearly every continent.
Needless to say, they are engineering masterpieces designed not only to support the lift of the giant fuselage, but also carry the weight of two massive 70,000lb thrust engines, either the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or the General Electric / Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance GP7200. The final pair of A380 wings left Wales by boat in February 2020.
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Hamburg for fuselage and fin
Meanwhile, on much the same latitude, Airbus’ facilities in Hamburg, Germany, were responsible for the rear fuselage as well as the vertical tail fin. Airbus had dedicated its Hangar 260 to the task. The space is 228 meters long and 120 meters wide and has since been given over to an A321XLR major component assembly pilot line.
First, the main components of the fuselage were put together, moved about the large area supported by a ceiling-mounted crane system. Sheets of metal and composite materials would then come together to form the over seven-meter wide and over 24 meters tall airframe.
The fuselage sections were too large to make the journey to Toulouse by air and thus boarded the roll-on roll-off boat before picking the wings up in the UK. However, the vertical tail fins were transported from Hamburg to Toulouse by Beluga.
The horizontal tailplane in Spain
If we skip to Airbus’ most southern European location, we arrive outside the port city of Cadiz, in the southwest of Spain. The manufacturer’s facilities in Puerto Real specialized in the assembly of movable surfaces and were responsible for the horizontal tailplane of the A380.
Considering that the Giant’s elevator is not far from the width of the wingspan of a single-aisle jet, this is no small task. Its size also meant that transport by air was out of the question. As such, the horizontal tailplane would also travel by boat and join the barges heading up the Garonne.
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Airbus’ second Spanish location, Getafe close to Madrid, has been responsible for the A380s main landing gear doors and the two sections that make up the A380’s tail cone. It has also been a part of producing components for the horizontal stabilizer later transferred to Puerto Real.
Airbus has indicated it will come to close one of its factories in either Puerto Real or Cadiz, as the departure of the Giant means it can no longer sustain both plants.
Forward and center fuselage in France
That leaves us with St-Nazaire in France. Here, Airbus produced the forward and center fuselages for the A380. These parts were also equipped and tested before being loaded onto boats to make the journey to Toulouse and the FAL.
The very last fuselage parts of the A380 ever to be built rolled out of the factory in mid-June last year. A little further to the northeast, in Nantes, Airbus based the production of the A380’s ailerons, just as for the A330 family.
Back to Hamburg for a dash of paint
Following their long and varied trek to the FAL in Toulouse, assembly, and test flights, the A380s would head back to Hamburg and the paint shop. With a 3600m2 exterior, that required 3,600 liters of paint – adding over 600 kilos of weight. Since the paint shop is in the same location as the production of the vertical tail fin, this would be done right after its assembly.
How many A380s have you flown on? And if you haven’t yet, would you book with an airline specifically to get a chance? Do you have any other memorable experiences from the Giant of the Skies? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.