February 28th saw the very last convoy of A380 sections pass through the French countryside. The story below recounts my experience of this fantastic sight back in 2017. As with all these recent features they are as they were at the time of publication with a few changes. I hope you enjoy.
Twice a month a truly remarkable, yet largely unseen, event happens in the countryside of south western France as six sections of the Airbus A380 are driven from Langon, south of Bordeaux to the Jean-Luc Lagadère A380 Final Assembly Line at the Airbus main site at Toulouse Blagnac airport. I joined the convoy early one morning to see just how the operation runs.
When it comes to the A380, Airbus had to think differently about how it would get the major components to the Final assembly line in Toulouse.
Although certain components of the forward fuselage and vertical tailplane of the A380 could be transported to Blagnac by Beluga, the dimensions of the other components means that they simply would not fit and Airbus therefore had to develop a multimodal transport solution involving ships, barges and trucks.
Therefore the wings from Broughton in North Wales, the fuselage sections from Hamburg in Germany and Saint - Nazaire in France and the Horizontal Tail Plane from Cadiz in Spain are all transported by sea and inland waterways to Langon in France. Each of the various manufacturing sites work with a Component Availability Program (CAP) which determines the date when the part needs to be ready for transport. Before this date, it is the responsibility of the manufacturing site to produce, protect and prepare the component on a jig transport so it is ready in time for transport.
Airbus has had three roll on roll off ships built specifically to transport the A380 components, with each following a specific route ending at Pauillac. The largest is the ‘Ville de Bordeaux’ at 155 by 24 metres which sails from Naples in Italy to Cadiz in Spain and then Saint-Nazaire in France collecting the horizontal tailplane, sub-assemblies of the fuselage and the aircraft floor.
The two other ships are smaller at 127 by 25 metres. The City of Hamburg leaves Hamburg with the rear fuselage before moving on to Saint - Nazaire to collect both the centre and forward fuselage sections. The Ciudad de Cadiz sails to Mostyn in North Wales to collect both wings which have previously travelled 35km down the river Dee on the barge ‘Afon Dyfrdwy from the Broughton plant.
Once all the components have arrived in Pauillac they are transferred to a floating pontoon located on the Gironde estuary. Then two 75 metre long barges take four return journeys and eight days to transport the components the 95km to Langon.
Having travelled to the logistical base at Langon by various means the six components are carefully loaded onto specially designed and constructed trailers which are then hauled by trucks over two nights the 240km Itinéraries à grand cabaret (ITGG), loosely translated as ‘Oversized Convoy Route’, to Toulouse.
I joined the convoy at the daytime halt close to Ordan Larroque, a small village of just 900 people just before departure on the second night.
The six components were parked in two rows of three in a specially constructed and brightly lit compound which appeared out of the darkness in what seemed to be completely in the middle of nowhere. It was a truly spectacular sight with each of the components towering over the ground and making what is already a huge aircraft look even bigger. With only the Vertical tailplane missing it looks like a huge model kit waiting to be assembled.
On each of the trailers there are also boxed sections which house parts and sub components of their ‘parent’ component. Items such as the various flaps and slats belonging to the Horizontal Tail Plane (HTP) for example.
Each wing has its own trailer with the HTP on another while the three fuselage sections are also on a trailer each. The wings are by far the longest and heaviest component in the convoy, at a total length of 45.2 metres and weighing in at 109 tonnes. It is interesting to note that in fact the trailer and jig required to hold each wing is, at 76 tonnes, over twice the weight of the item it is carrying which just goes to show the complexity and enormity of the process. Each of the other component/jig combination weight hovers around 60 tonnes and 20 - 30 metres in length.
When it comes to height however the HTP is a clear winner. As it is fixed at a near vertical angle it reaches nearly 14 metres into the sky with all the other components being under 10 metres. This angle along with the angle of the each wing is determined by the the footprint it makes over the journey whilst attached to the truck.
Initially the convoy took three nights to travel from Langon to Toulouse. However the last step between L'Isle-Jourdain and Toulouse was very short taking only three hours to complete. Airbus and the French authorities (DIRSO) reviewed the situation and assessed modifications to the road to speed up the complete journey. As a result some central reservations were reduced in height on the first stage of the journey between Langon and Gabarret so that the drivers now need not slow down over these sections. Therefore with a maintained average speed, the journey now takes two nights instead of three reducing both cost and the effect on the communities on the route.
As the convoy must travel the route at a prescribed speed, which ranges from 10 to 25 km/h, to meet this average and to ensure it passes though certain areas and road junctions at the correct time, it sets off perfectly on time at 9:45pm.
The whole process of the convoy is subcontracted out with an Airbus Transport Manager on duty 24 hours a day 365 days a year for all of Airbus surface transport activities including the convoy.
At a total convoy length of up to 2km the six component vehicles are accompanied by many other support vehicles and approximately 60 people from the transport service, escort service, mechanics, police and security forces over the course of the two nights as it travels through 21 towns and villages often with very little room to spare.
A WELL PRACTISED PROCESS
The process is now well practised and the army of workers involved go through a similar process along the length of the journey.
Whereas all height restrictions have been removed or rerouted it is not that easy with things such as road signs and other street furniture as these of course need to be there before and after the convoy passes through.
So in front of the convoy there are Police who close off 15 km stretches of road, the times of which have been advertised in advance with lighted signs throughout the route and at major road junctions informing users of the convoys progress and any alternate routes available.
As any potential obstructions in the form of road signs and the like have already been made removable they are simply lifted out and put to one side until the convoy has passed whereupon staff at the rear of the convoy simply drop them back into place.
More fixed obstructions or challenges have also been mitigated. One of the more obvious difficulties are the many roundabouts on the route. So as to allow the convoy to go straight on, these have been altered so that they are paved on one side making them look rather odd but very easy to traverse. Corners have also been straightened and new roads built.
However even with all the planning and organisation the sight of these huge aircraft components almost brushing the treetops and traversing a stone bridge in Gimont or sliding through buildings with what seems millimetres to spare in Levignac is simply awe inspiring. The various parts of the aircraft completely fill your field of vision as they pass by almost taking control of your senses and of the people that still come out in the early hours to witness this spectacle. It seems quite incongruous to see these right next to local shops selling everyday items despite knowing that this is what happens every fortnight.
Then it is over in a flash, the last support vehicle has passed by, the lights of the convoy are gone or hidden behind buildings and the roads are put back to normal and it is simply like nothing has happened. However the convoy continues throughout the night and into the early hours.
Once the morning dawns the proof that it really did happen is lined up outside the Final assembly Line (FAL) at Toulouse ready to go into Station 40 where the components are readied for final assembly.
Presently the convoy happens about fortnightly but with the order backlog dwindling and the subsequent reduction in production coming in 2018 this impressive sight is set to reduce to around 12 per year.
Next time you see, or fly on an A380 to far flung places just remember the first journey the aircraft made was through the leafy countryside of South Western France.
The post Covid world is likely to see fewer A380s in the skies, making it more difficult to get on board. Here is a quick virtual tour showing at least one of each airlines A380s.
Addendum - The eagle eyed of you will have noticed I missed an airline out of the video so lets turn it into a daft little test. - Which airline is missing? Leave your answers in the comments box. I will send the first person to get it right plus one at random a digital image from the video.