Long before an Airbus jetliner takes to the skies, the flawless operation of its electrics, hydraulics and flight controls is meticulously confirmed with the help of a giant test rig nicknamed the “Iron Bird.”
The Iron Bird is a framework in which major working components are installed in the relative locations found on the actual airframe, brought together in a test installation comprising 170 tonnes of scaffolding arranged in the skeletal shape of the aircraft being tested. With the components out in the open, they can be easily accessed and analyzed.
In the years leading up to a new aircraft’s first flight, changes made during the development phase can be tested and validated using this valuable tool. Aircraft components that function well in isolated evaluations may react differently when operating in concert with other systems – a situation the Iron Bird, with its integrated testing of an aircraft’s systems, is ideally suited to identify.
With the aircraft’s primary system components operational on the Iron Bird (except the jet engines), they are put through their paces from an adjacent control room. There, within a mini cockpit, a pilot “flies” the Iron Bird on a computer-simulator through varied environmental conditions while engineers rack up data on the flight.
Interestingly, an Iron Bird’s work isn’t done once the aircraft it’s testing is certified and put into use. The Iron Birds for Airbus’ A350 XWB and A380 jetliners are still in operation at its Toulouse, France headquarters facilities, where they can be used to provide insights into specific issues that arise or to test new enhancements before they are introduced on in-service aircraft.
Even in the age of advanced computer simulations, the Iron Bird maintains a vital role in Airbus’ testing protocols. They may never fly, but each Iron Bird is the precursor to an Airbus aircraft that does.