Bonjour from France! During my study abroad program here, my group has been given some rare opportunities to visit some notable European aerospace companies. We are about halfway through the program, and so far we have visited Airbus, Eurocopter, and CRNA (an Air Traffic Control center for southeastern France). Here, I’ll write about those visits. But first, some background information on the program.
Through my school, the University of Michigan, I’m participating in the GEA (Group des Écoles Aéronautiques et Spatiales) study abroad program for Aerospace Engineers. The objective of the program is to provide “aero” students with a European perspective on the aerospace industry. I, along with twenty other aerospace engineering students from all over the U.S., are living primarily in Toulouse and taking classes at the Institut Supériur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace (ISAE) and the École Nationale de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC). So far, we have taken classes in Aircraft Structures, Civil Aviation Safety, European Aviation Organizations, and Airline Economics. Currently, we are in Poitier for 5 days, where we will take classes on Combustion and make additional visits to CESNAC, Snecma, and Futuroscope (topics for another post). Afterwards, we will return to Toulouse for the remainder of our program.
Now for the visits.
For those who aren’t familiar with the company, Airbus is a subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and is a leading manufacturer of aircraft. Airbus is currently the producer of the popular A320 and A330 families of aircraft, along with the A380 superjumbo. The company is perhaps most known for widely implementing the “fly-by-wire” flight controls philosophy. Their primary competition is against the U.S. manufacturer Boeing, with whom the company shares a virtual duopoly in the commercial aircraft market. Airbus’ main production facilities are in Blagnac, France (the facility we visited) and Hamburg, Germany.
Our tour was given by Marc Rolin, an aircraft structural engineer working on the Airbus A400M strategic military airlifter program. For two hours, he showed us around the primary assembly line for the A330, Airbus’ twin-engine, widebody, and long-range competitor to the Boeing 767 and 777. This same facility also formerly housed the Airbus A340 assembly line, the 4-engine variant with the same fuselage and wing as the A330, until production was cancelled in November 2011 due to lack of new orders. Airbus produces about 40 A320 family aircraft per month, along with 8 A330s and just under 3 A380s per month. However, soon Airbus will boost A330 production to 10 per month in order to match the production rate of Boeing’s 777. On the other hand, A380 production will be slightly cut to 2.3 aircraft per month, in order to address a fix for a wing cracking issue.
In this facility, Airbus completes the final assembly for all variants of the A330, including the -200, -300, and -200F (Freighter). The MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) model is simply an A330-200 that is manufactured in Toulouse, then flown to Getafe, Spain for conversion to the military version. All parts and sections of the aircraft arrive here, either via truck or the enormous Airbus Beluga transporter.
Like most assembly lines, each aircraft moves through the hangar, with specific tasks being completed at each station, rather than all tasks being completed at once. First, all the fuselage sections are attached, followed by the wings, and then any additional components (instruments, slats, flaps, etc.). After rolling out of the assembly line, all that is missing are the engines, interior, and external paint. Engines and paint will be added in Blagnac, then the aircraft will be flown to Hamburg to be outfitted with seats and the interior according to the customer’s specifications.
During the tour, we stopped to examine some critical parts of the aircraft, like the engine pylon and flap track fairing for the A330. The engine pylon is the structure that connects the engine to the wing, and in doing so also supports the vertical and torsional loads that the engine exerts on the wing. It is made of high-strength titanium, and also includes other engine support systems, like fuel, hydraulic, and engine control systems. If you like sitting by the wing, you might have also noticed the flap track fairings. These devices stick out from the back of the wing, and move up and down when the flaps extend and retract during takeoff and landing. As their name implies, they guide the flaps to their commanded position and also house the flap track in an aerodynamic shape.
Eurocopter is a global helicopter manufacturer based in France. The company is a result of the merger between Aerospatiale and DaimlerChrysler Aerospace in 1992, and later became another EADS subsidiary in 2000. Their primary manufacturing facility is in Marignon, France (the facility we saw), with other substantial work also completed in La Corneure, France; Donanwörth, Germany; Kassel, Germany; and Ottobrunn, Germany. Among the 130,000 people working at EADS and the subsidiaries, Eurocopter employs about 13,600.
The company is a leader in the commercial helicopter market, which makes up 53% of sales revenues and military sales accounting for the rest. For overall revenue, Eurocopter is very active in customer “aftermarket” support for maintenance, with 38% of their total revenues coming from the source. Furthermore 28% of the sales are for domestic customers (in France, Germany, and Spain) and the remaining 72% are international orders. Despite the recession of 2008 and the decline in business travel, Eurocopter has made steady revenue gains since 2006. As further evidence of their resilience, they delivered 503 helicopters in 2011 and 527 in 2010. Currently, there are about 3000 operators of Eurocopter products in 149 countries operating a total of roughly 11,500 helicopters.
Eurocopter’s best seller is the AS350 Ecureuil, a versatile helicopter that is popular among a wide range of customers, from police departments to tour companies. The latest version, the AS350 B3, offers a new Turbomeca engine and improved performance, especially in “hot and high” conditions. In fact, during testing, the helicopter landed at the summit of Mount Everest at 29,029ft, breaking various records. For our tour, we were shown through the Ecureuil assembly line.
Like the A330 assembly line, the Ecureuil is pieced together at various stages. In this case, there are 10 stations in the line. The front fuselage arrives at the first station from the subcontractor, where the landing skids are attached. Afterwards, it is turned 90 degrees so that the technicians can easily install the various systems (electrical, hydraulic, flight controls, etc) in the subsequent stations. The fuel tank is also installed, along with the engine and main rotor hub, tail boom, avionics, and interior. Towards the end of the line, initial ground tests are conducted, which consists of turning on the electrical system for the first time and other tasks. Afterwards, the aircraft exits the assembly line for additional ground tests, painting, furnishing, and flight tests.
With this arrangement, each station spends 3 days to complete its assigned task. As a result, 15-20 Ecureuil helicopters are produced per month. From the time a customer orders the helicopter, roughly 6 months pass until the product is delivered. However, this does not take into account the current backlog, which pushes back the order-to-delivery-time to 12-18 months.
The Centre en Route de la Navigation Aérienne (CRNA) is an air traffic control facility, providing radar coverage for en-route traffic across France. There are various facilities around the country, but this particular one is in Aix-en-Provence, about an hour north of Marseille, provides coverage for the southeastern portion of the country along with the island of Corsica and a sizable chunk of the Mediterranean Sea.
The Center is operated by the Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC), the French civil aviation authority. The facility consists of a large server room, which is tasked with receiving tons of data from radars, weather stations, aircraft, and other air traffic control facilities in order to provide reliable and up-to-date information. This part of the facility is due for an upgrade shortly, with faster and more capable computers.
The other major portion of the facility is the ATC room, where controllers monitor radar displays and communicate with aircraft in their assigned sectors. Again, CRNA only handles en-route traffic, so all the aircraft they are talking to are in the cruise phase of their flights. The controllers look out for any potential traffic conflicts, handle flight plans and routings, and advise the pilots when to switch frequencies to different sectors. Controllers work in pairs, with the primary controller communicating with the aircraft and the secondary controller managing the flight plans and the paperwork for all the aircraft in that sector. The pairs work for 1.5 hours before taking a break, and typically work on 12 hour shifts.