13 April 2017

Looking at big things!

I knew there were ship-shipping ships, but now I also know that there are aircraft-flying aircraft. Not whole aircraft, mind you, but rather large chunks of them: Today, at Airbus, I saw an Airbus Beluga. The company has only ever built five of them, and they fly large bits of aircraft between the company’s different locations in Europe. I had gone to investigate witchcraft with my dad, via a tour of Airbus’ Finkenwerder plant.

Finkenwerder is on the edge of Hamburg, nestled between the port and a stretch of river, in the Alte Land, one of the largest fruit-growing areas, and after the industrial area. Airbus is, the guide, a former Airbus employee, said, Hamburg’s largest employer, with 12,000 people employed directly, and over 100,000 employed indirectly.

Airbus have their own shipping pier and, of course, their own airport – not just because those planes need to go to their buyers in the end, but also because they need to do six test flights before being handed over, plus one final flight with the client’s pilots, and some planes fly in just for painting and final interior work. Air traffic control is co-ordinated with Fuhlsbuettel, Hamburg’s regular airport, and also the port – turns out that having a huge-ass container ship in your flight path isn’t recommended. (Hamburg also has the third busiest port in Europe, and it’s right next door).

I love big planes, and I have both the excitement and technological knowledge of a five-year old for them. But you don’t need much technical understanding in order to appreciate the incredible engineering and precision that goes into putting aircraft together. There was no mention of witchcraft, by the way, but that’s probably an industrial secret.

Finkenwerder assembles the A320, and we saw several of them in various stages of completion. The company produces 46 of them per month, and aims to increase this to 60. Fun fact: If they didn’t sell another aircraft ever, they’d still be busy for a decade. If you order an aircraft now, you’ll get it in seven years. But if you order 100, then you can expect your first one next month, so there’s that to consider! Each fully painted aircraft that we saw has a little sticker with the German flag on the tail: this will be peeled off once Airbus has received the full payment.

We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the assembly hall with the A320, and they are satisfyingly big and shiny. You get to see lots of parts up close, e.g. a winglet (don’t touch!) and where the wheels disappear to. I was allowed to touch one thing, and I did, of course: a tire. Lots of explanations of what happens where, which materials are used, and how all those nuts and bolts (many of them!) are managed.

And then we went over to the assembly hall for the A380. OMG OMG OMG – ladyboner! Our guide said that the full wing span of the A320 was about the length of one wing of the A380. I was bright eyed and bushy tailed before, but this was a different thing altogether! I may sound giddy, but I think my dad was just as excited. It is an amazing piece of engineering!

Fun factoid: My dad is an engineer by training, and he did his first industrial attachment at Airbus’ predecessor company. Aircraft have been built in that location since the 1930s, starting with seaplanes. It’s a huge, well organised, and modern facility, but one with history, and there are a traces left of it, e.g. some older buildings.

The tour had a strict no photographs/no phones/no touching policy, so I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s a Beluga pinched from the internet. Very satisfying morning.



See? An aircraft coming out of an aircraft.