Airbus has long been in a neck-and-neck race with Boeing for the lead in the airplane market. The company is making a big bet with the A350, a plane built with composite materials to make it lighter and more fuel-efficient. However, it’s also a plane designed from a clean slate instead of retrofitting an older design. That potentially attracts more attention but it also means that working out all of the bugs is a much bigger task than usual.
A few times a month, Airbus Flight Test Engineer Patrick du Ché stands up from his desk, takes off his jacket and tie, walks to the coat rack in the corner of his office, and slips into a set of fire-resistant underwear, a bright-orange flight suit, and sturdy black boots. Then he walks down two flights of stairs and out onto the tarmac of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France. There, rising above a fleet of newly painted A320 short-haul jets, is an Airbus A350-XWB long-range widebody airliner—the very first of its kind. Sleek and nearly all white except for the lettering along its flank and the swirling blue-on-blue Airbus logo on the tail, it carries the official designation MSN001. Last May, in a modest employees-only ceremony, the final assembly line workers formally handed the plane over to the Flight Test Department. Or, as du Ché sees it, “They handed it to me.”