I've not bothered looking much at the Airbus A380, other than that one time the engine went kerplooie on a Qantas flight. ("Uncontained engine failure" is Engineer for "something broke and chunks of the compressor blades shot out through the engine cowling in all directions". It hit a bunch of important aircraft parts and threw debris into the other engines, but missed the passengers, and the plane landed safely back in Singapore.) I'm unlikely to run into one any time soon, as no US operators have ordered any. Every time I fly, I get stuffed into an A330, the 1998 Toyota Corolla of airliners. They're everywhere and they work, but they're a million years old, they're not all that big, they don't look very glamorous, and you'll never impress your date with one.

I'm kind of sorry now that I didn't. This thing looks fucking astounding.

Airplanes have to get going pretty fast to get off the ground. The reason liftoff is so loud is that the engines are generally running at or close to 100% power while you're streaming along the runway, so that the airplane will hit what's called V2min -- the lowest velocity at which pointing the nose upwards will make the thing safely leave the ground -- before you run out of tarmac. (V1 is the 'point of no return', i.e., the velocity at which you have to punch it and finish your take off, because you no longer have enough pavement left to safely stop.) They go pretty fast once in the air, too, but watching most things take off is like watching runners in the 100m dash. You have just under two miles of runway to get a jumbo jet from stopped to about 190 mph so you can get airborne. The acceleration is massive.

The A380 is enormous. It has two full decks and carries about 500 people when fully booked. Average take off speed is about 160 mph, and while you wouldn't think that 30 mph would make all that much of a difference, combined with the relative lack of engine noise, it makes the craft downright eerie. If other airliners look like they're taking off at a dead sprint, then this thing looks like it lifts off at a vague jog.


A380 Minimum Velocity Takeoff -- this is actually a tail-strike test, where they attempt takeoff at such a low velocity that in order to get off the ground they have to yank the nose up so hard they drag the underbelly of the aircraft on the tarmac. Not recommended in normal operation, but allowed in a dire emergency, and very impressive nonetheless.


A380 Arctic Takeoff Test -- cold air is denser than hot air and generally improves the takeoff characteristics, from a strictly engine-and-lift oriented perspective. They're also going somewhat faster, and not trying to whack the fuselage on the ground this time.

No one has had occasion to try to glide an A380, at least not yet, but informal flight sim tests suggest it's got a lift-to-drag ratio somewhere between 16 and 20:1. I wouldn't be surprised. The airplane is positively gargantuan, but the wingspan is even more so than the passenger/cargo compartment. It wants to stay in the air so badly that you float it down sideways in a crosswind.


Crosswind landing test in Brest -- plus a crosswind takeoff, where the pilot floats up crab-wise as well. Looks like it's also a contaminated runway test (where "contaminated" means "wet, icy, or otherwise covered in something that won't behave like pavement for braking purposes"). The little jet that lands first and very wobbly is a prototype Falcon model from Dassault. They make small luxury tri-jets with pointy noses and those characteristic little flick-ups at the ends of the wings. Falcons are reportedly nice little critters to fly, with a surprisingly long range and an operational ceiling of about 50,000 ft, which actually puts them above a lot of jetliners in a pinch. Dassault also makes fancy fighter jets, which probably surprises no one. Better footage of an Icelandic certification flight that won't let me embed.

I've also seen a lot of people complain that this thing looks like a Beluga whale on wings. No, that's the Short 360 -- equally accurately described as "a pregnant minivan with its arms out". The A380 certainly looks different. Other airliners, the less-stubby Boeings especially, tend to look as though the fuselage is being carried with its weight slung in a cradle, as if an enormous hand had got the plane by the wingtips and the passenger compartment is just hanging in between them. (Here's a B787 Dreamliner demo for comparison.) It's not an optical illusion, the wings actually do flex upwards in flight; they're supposed to, because if they were too stiff to move, they'd break. The underside of the A380's wings curve the other way, giving it a faintly Art Deco-ish arched appearance. It looks more like it's sitting on an antigravity platter than being swung through the air.

It also looks like Airbus has gone with a smoother-looking set of control surfaces. You don't actually need a completely contiguous wing, as long as you can get contiguous air flow across it. Since more surface area means more lift at a lower speed, this means that most airliners deploy full flaps (the moving bits at the back edge) when slowing down to land. If you happen to be sitting amidships at a window in a 737, you can watch the trailing edge of the wing come apart with a solid, hydraulic SSSHTHK noise as you descend for landing. (This, like the wing flapping bit, makes people who already hate airplanes freak the fuck out right as you arrive, and is why I try always to get the window seat if I'm travelling with someone more neurotic than myself.) The Dreamliner is less self-disassembling than previous planes, but there's still no obvious structural support underneath what look like big metal panels about to fall off the wing. Airbus craft generally have small nacelle-y things that the flaps slide over top of instead.

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