Airbus crams Iqaluit cold-weather tests into one short weekend
Test crew takes off after temperature rises, with blizzard not far behind
Two full days of Arctic cold weather was all they needed, and that’s exactly what an Airbus test flight crew got in their short visit to Iqaluit, Jan. 24 to Jan. 26.
A crew from the France-based aircraft manufacturer cut short their intended five-day visit with their company’s newest passenger jetliner, the A350-900, on Jan. 26, when temperatures hit a balmy -18 C.
That was more than seven degrees too warm to continue any further, and the crew of 48 engineers, mechanics and test pilots had to pack up and return to base in Toulouse, France.
“If we stay one night we’re going to lose time,” flight operations manager Pedro Dias said at the start of an unseasonably mild Sunday afternoon.
“We have other flights to perform just after, so if we can save one day, it’s better to save it in Toulouse than in Iqaluit, because we’re not going to work.”
Warnings of an incoming blizzard, expected to hit Iqaluit in the next 12 hours, were not the deciding factor, Dias said.
Flight test engineers decided all mission objectives were covered by day three of the mission, after two full days of work at ideal temperatures measuring -25 and below.
“Things must have gone really well,” said Juan Solano of Honeywell, the principal project engineer for the plane’s air conditioning systems.
With that, the international crew gathered boxes and bag loads of equipment and personal effects at the airport’s forward base operation facility in the afternoon, and reloaded the plane for departure. And off they went, Europe-bound, at around 5:00 p.m.
The crew’s next round of tests, in about a week, takes them to Qatar for the opposite extreme: hot-weather testing.
The Iqaluit airport has hosted Airbus for aircraft cold-weather testing since the 1990s, when the city’s mayor John Graham served as airport manager.
“It’s routine. I have come to this place several times, and I like it,” said Dias. He recalled first meeting Graham 10 years earlier, on his first visit to Iqaluit.
“We’ve stayed in contact since then,” he said. As airport manager for more than 15 years, and as mayor last summer, Graham has worked to promote Iqaluit as the world’s “premier cold-weather test site.”
Iqaluit’s Arctic conditions are not the only reason Airbus comes to Nunavut’s capital for cold-weather testing.
The city happens to be under some of the world’s major flight tracks, including pathways from North America to Europe and the Northeast U.S. to Asia, which “can also reassure our customers,” Dias said.
“Because we’ve already come to this place to do our tests, they know in case of any problem they could have during a flight, they can land in Iqaluit, no problem.”
The airport’s 2.7-kilometre-long runway and the community’s hotels and regional hospital, with medevac services, make Iqaluit an ideal emergency stopping point, he said.
As in other test flights staged from Iqaluit, Airbus’s most recent one tested all the plane’s systems under extreme cold-weather conditions, on the ground and in the sky. The A350 pushes the boundaries on fuel efficiency with a light carbon-fibre body, greater aerodynamics and increased space for passengers, engineers said.
“The 350 is a next-generation” aircraft, said Solano.
“It’s the direct competitor of the Boeing 787,” Dias added, pointing to Airbus’s U.S.-based rival. In its finished form, the A350 will take on about 315 passengers for long-range travel between continents.
Seen from the outside, the plane on Iqaluit’s tarmac looked exactly like one passengers will ride in by the end of 2014, once all systems are fine-tuned, and orders from airlines start to fill up.
On the inside, though, the test model bristles with sensors, wiring and fuses that monitor everything from the engines and air conditioning, to electrical systems, hydraulics and doors. As test pilots run the plane on the ground and in the air, a group of nine crew members keep track of all systems in a “computer compartment” on board at any given time, with continuous support from a team of about 10 on the ground.
Engineers from suppliers of different systems — such as the plane’s Rolls Royce engines or Honeywell air conditioners — are part of the test team.
The plane must pass tests “in every extreme environmental condition around the world,” Dias said. Iqaluit’s cold-weather leg came two weeks after high-altitude tests in Bolivia.
“Coming to an extreme place means we can break anything,” Dias said. The crew carries complete spare parts with them for all systems, ready for replacement if anything breaks down. “We have no limitations, we just come and we see how the aircraft reacts.”
In fact, there are two limitations: tight timelines and sub-par weather conditions. Airbus’s three-day visit was the shortest one Dias has made to Iqaluit since his first, 10 years ago.
“Generally, we stay four or five days,” he said. Despite this, he was quick to add the mission was a success “for sure.”