Landing without takeoff

06 May 2008

By any standards the A380 is huge. It can accommodate up to 555 passengers in rows of seats that run on two decks along almost the full length of the aircraft. Its non-stop operating range is 15000 km. The empty weight of the aircraft is 277 tonnes and maximum take off weight is 560 tonnes. Its dimensions are also breathtaking: the A380 has a wingspan of 79.8 m, is 72.75 m long and 24.08 m high.

Airbus assembles the planes in Toulouse, France, where the fuselage is delivered in three large sections. Both wings arrive almost complete. The final part of the cross-European transport is carried out by road, in a complicated operation that won French heavy transport contractor Capelle the 2004 ESTA Heavy Transport award.

This time five identical loads had to be moved to the testing facility of IMA Materialforschung und Anwendungstechnik in Dresden, Germany. IMA is a subcontractor of main contractor Industrieanlagen-Betriebsgesellschaft (IABG).

Airbus chose the difficult-to-reach inland location because of the successful completion and experience gained by both companies on an earlier project. The fatigue-testing programme, however, required construction of a completely new testing facility to accommodate the A380 and the testing equipment.

It was realised from the beginning that getting the sections to site would be crucial. Therefore, IMA, also responsible for the logistics, ordered Kübler Spedition in Schwäbisch Hall to carry out a feasibility study. Kübler gained special experience in moving aircraft, for example, a Boeing 747, a Concorde and the Russian equivalent, a Tupolev TU144.

Kübler's project manager, Thorge Clever, carried out his first road surveys about 3½ years ago. Those initial investigations revealed that the testing facility at the airport could only be reached by making a final temporary road connection to a nearby public road. Further, more in depth investigations over time convinced IMA and its principals of the feasibility of the project.

Starting work

Construction of the new test facilities began. Kübler was awarded the contract to discharge all five aircraft sections at a temporary location across the Elbe River, just outside the city limits of Dresden, and move them to site, including all necessary preparations.

Preparatory work involved both lifting and lifting locations, and the transport equipment and the route.

Soft ground on the bank of the Elbe River meant both the crane and the temporary storage locations required stabilisation up to 1.5 m deep. A complicating factor was that this was in a nature-sensitive area, which required careful negotiations, planning and execution of work with specialized subcontractors to comply with the requirements of the nature reserve environmental and local and government agencies.

Kübler designed, built and tested a lifting frame to accommodate all five different sling positions. Care was taken to avoid building up stress in the aircraft parts, which could affect the final fatigue test results. All slinging points were designed per section in such a way that the slings would always hang to the vertical, with the centre of gravity in the middle, to guarantee that the load would be lifted in full equilibrium.

Local roads through the countryside had to be widened because of the extreme width (up to 10.50 m) and the requirement to use double-width modular trailers. Sharp bends were avoided by making bypasses. Due to the high gross vehicle weight of up to 245 tonnes, ground preparation, stabilisation and compacting was necessary at all those locations.

Kübler chose aluminium temporary roadway panels, supplied by TPA from England via BSV in Germany, to cover all temporary roadworks. This included a double layer aluminium road on the final 180 m-long connecting road to the airport and around 800 panels were used. Load supports were designed and built to fit the trailers at predetermined locations to guarantee equal load distribution, also in combination with the supporting transport frames underneath each section, to avoid stresses in the load and to guarantee securement.

Setting out

In mid-September 2004 the operation started in Hamburg, Germany. At the Airbus facilities all three fuselage sections were moved to the waterfront on a specially built Nicolas self-propelled transporter. Local crane specialist Thömen supplied two cranes to lift each section, tandem, on to barges. The largest and heaviest middle section is 23.2 m long, 9.2 m high and wide, and weighs 62 tonnes, including its transport frame. A week later both wing sections arrived onboard the purpose-built Airbus seagoing ro/ro ship Ville de Bordeaux.

After transfer by the Nicolas transporter, Thömen loaded both wings on to flat top barges. Each wing weighs 30 tonnes and measures 45 m long, almost 11 m wide and 3 m high. It took the five barges almost two weeks to cover the 570 km trip on the Elbe River, passing more than 40 bridges.

As soon as the first barges arrived all preparatory work was finished, including erection of a Terex-Demag CC 2500 in superlift configuration. Helling now owns the 800 tonne crane, which used to belong to Scholpp. Helling also had a smaller crawler on site as assist crane.

According to plan the first rear fuselage section, weighing 52 tonnes, would be lifted Friday night at 11 p.m. Heavy winds meant a delay of three hours before the 22.8 m long and 8.6 m high section was lifted from the barge on to the motorway bridge crossing the Elbe.

The section was loaded on a double-width 14-axle line Scheuerle InterCombi hydraulic modular trailer while the road was closed in one direction. When the transport set off, it required a full road closure to allow the 28-axle configuration to cross the road so it could leave via the next entrance. On this stretch of road three overhead signs were removed and were left hooked on to the crane so they could be lifted back into place as soon as the load had passed through.

The next part of the route took the load through two villages with narrow roads. Finally, a left turn was made on to the road specially widened with the aluminium panels leading in to the airport. The last 180 m of connecting road, which included a 10 % uphill gradient, required a second four-axle Titan tractor.

Early that morning the first section reached the new test facilities and was discharged. The following night both the middle fuselage section and the 19 m long, 8.4 m high and 41 tonne cockpit section were lifted and moved in the same way. This time Kübler used a second double – width 10-axle line trailer to carry the cockpit.

On to the wings

The following weekend both wings had to be moved on two consecutive nights. Again the CC 2500 provided the lift. Due to the 45 m length of each wing, and the relatively light weight, Kübler configured a seven-bed-five Scheuerle InterCombi. The only purpose of the vessel bed was to create sufficient length and keep the overall weight low. Some problems were created during the feasibility stage of the project by the overall length of about 60 m combined with the 10.5 m width initially created. Although the same route was preferred, noise reduction panels at the highway entrance made that impossible. After careful consideration it was finally decided to remove the panels, although this still did not mean the route was easy, especially when negotiating crossings.

Careful manoeuvring was required on the final temporary uphill road to prevent the vessel bed from getting stuck on the aluminium roadway.

Each section was lifted by a crew from Airbus using an overhead crane and a Thömen mobile. The A380 will be integrated with the test set-up and tested on its own until August. In September the fatigue testing will start. It will simulate some 47500 flight cycles over a period of 26 months. After 5000 successful simulated flights the A380 may enter commercial service, planned for March 2006.

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