Airbus A380 Emergency Exit Test Could Make or Break Superjumbo

After the successful first flight of the A380, Airbus executives are looking towards the plane's next big hurdle: The evacuation test. All 873 passengers and crew must be able to get out of the enormous plane in 90 seconds or less.

The A380 completed a successful maiden voyage last Wednesday, but its biggest challenge is yet to come.

The A380 completed a successful maiden voyage last Wednesday, but its biggest challenge is yet to come.

The A380 was just making its first, telegenic turns through the air when Airbus head Noel Forgeard admitted what had really been on his mind the night before the mammoth jet's maiden voyage. The thought that the plane wouldn't be able to take off hadn't given him a moment's worry. With the date for the first test flight already having been pushed back several times, he said "I was only worried that we'd be an hour late." He probably would have preferred to flip the switch himself.

When the A380 suddenly started up at 10:29 a.m. (CET) last Wednesday, half a minute before its planned time, Forgeard wasn't the only one to breathe a sigh of relief. "I'm so pleased," the Frenchman exulted -- along with thousands of other spectators who'd camped out in Toulouse to catch a glimpse of the historic flight. For hours after the successful landing, employees and planespotters from around the world celebrated the European victory in rowdy pubs or just out in the open. That the plane only climbed to a modest altitude, and that its instruments showed a unsecured landing gear, didn't seem to bother the party-goers in the least. Seldom before in the history of civil aeronautics has the flight of a new airplane captured the imagination of millions the way the European A380 has. But then, never has so much been riding on a plane's debut.

Since last week, the Airbus managers know one thing for sure: Their 650-ton baby can fly. If the Europeans can't manage to deliver the first A380 jets by the middle of 2006 to clients like Singapore Airlines or Emirates, though, it will face strict penalties. And whether the nearly €14 billion (€18 billion) in development costs will ever prove to have been worthwhile is still being challenged -- and not just by arch-rival Boeing. On top of it all, the plane's most difficult test is still to come, and it won't happen in Toulouse, but in Hamburg.

There won't be any sunny skies to accompany this test, and it will take place in a darkened hangar on the Airbus site in Finkenwerder. The main issue this time won't be technical details, but rather 873 people, whose performance is difficult to measure. It's by far the biggest adventure that the airline industry offers to the daring: the simulated emergency evacuation of the A380. To meet the safety standards set up by the American and European aviation authorities, the FAA and EASA, all of the plane's passengers have to be able to exit the plane in 90 seconds -- from just eight emergency exits, half of the 16 available on the plane.

Click above for a look at the plane's evacuation system.

Click above for a look at the plane's evacuation system.

First, volunteers will take their places in a test model of the plane with an especially crowded seating plan. Soon after, the alarm will sound: "Everyone out, quick!" Over pillows, blankets, or paper cups, the test passengers have to find their way to one of the eight emergency slides. The scenario will be exhaustively photographed, all the way from the low-lit interior to the flashlights at the end of the emergency slide.

A few seconds too long, and the testers might not give the plane its certificate for passenger service use. The test can be retaken once, but if the plane fails a second time, the number of possible seats has to be drastically reduced. Then, at the very latest, the EADS managers may have to knock their hoped-for turnovers and gains down another notch. A reduced number of seats would make the A380 less attractive to airlines like those in Japan that might plan to use the high-volume plane for short domestic trips -- airlines that Airbus would like to have as clients.

Sliding to Safety

Company executives, like A380 safety director Francis Guimera, are trying to calm any doubts about the plane's capabilities in emergency situations. "We would have never started the program," he affirmed recently, "if we weren't sure from the very beginning that the evacuation system would pass." Airbus engineers -- and those at Goodrich, the American company which supplies the evacuation system -- have spared no expense in providing passengers in emergencies the best possible way out. The Americans even developed a new type of nylon material for the slide that is especially light, but can still withstand heavy gusts of wind and extreme changes in temperature. To help increase the evacuation rate, the slides are for doubles, meaning that couples can stay together as they slide to safety. A380 passengers should even be able to survive an involuntary water landing unscathed. The slides can become rafts which can each carry up to 54 survivors and can withstand 24 hours of wind and heavy weather, as Airbus proved in tests last month in the waters off the coast of California.

That leaves the big test in Hamburg. For the evacuation test, Airbus managers have to recruit volunteers -- and not just all male employees from the Hamburg plant. The group must consist of 40 percent, and 35 percent of the total must be over 50. Since neither of these two populations are well represented at Airbus' Hamburg operation, the company will be looking for volunteers from other local companies in the coming weeks. As an incentive they're offering not just the kick of participating in the trial by fire of the world's largest passenger jet, but also €60.

To complicate matters, the jump into the slides isn't entirely safe: Every second, 1.6 passengers will have to get out of the plane, so whoever hesitates will get pushed. Those in the test who have the luck of sitting in the upper deck of the plane -- where later first and business class passengers will relax -- will need especially good nerves. They get to slide from the height of 8 meters (26 feet). In a real emergency, high-earners flying in the upper seats might take to one of the plane's two staircases in order to make their slide a little shorter. During the test in Hamburg, though, such short-cuts won't be allowed. The escape route to the lower floor will be sealed off, though it will be open on some future tests.

Dealings between the planemakers and the authorities over the details of the tests have already turned vicious. The regulators are pushing for ever more realistic tests, with increased risks. In 1991, a 60 year-old woman taking part in a test for plane builder McDonnel-Douglas' MD-11 caught her foot and slid head-first into a group of test passengers. Now she's quadriplegic. Still, A380 chief engineer Robert Lafontan denies that Airbus has been haggling with the authorities over the tests. "We will do everything exactly as it is asked of us," he says.

When, exactly, the test will take place is still not clear. Originally it had been planned for the summer, then Airbus managers said October, and now the unofficial word is "towards the end of the year." Then, at the very latest, Airbus managers again have to hold their breath. Meanwhile, the next countdown is already running: the delivery of the first A380s to Singapore Airlines is due sometime in the second half of 2006.

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