Before reaching series production, Airbus aircraft undergo a complex, rigorous flight test and certification campaign. Once approved and certified, the aircraft is cleared for service. This extensive process is detailed in the paragraphs below, with specific examples from Airbus’ A380, A350 XWB and A320neo.
Airbus’ 21st century flagship A380 was certified by the two major international governing bodies – the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – in December 2006, following a programme that began more than five years earlier and ultimately comprised more than 2,600 flight hours with a fleet of five test aircraft.
To ensure the A350 XWB’s reliability from the moment it entered commercial service in January 2015, Airbus implemented one of the most thorough test programmes ever developed for a jetliner. Lasting just over 14 months, an industry record, the A350-900 flight test and certification programme comprised a five-aircraft fleet that performed over 2,600 flight hours in total – with Type Certification received from EASA and FAA in September and November 2014, respectively.
Testing and certification of the A320neo Family of jetliners involve six versions, with the A319neo, A320neo and A321neo undergoing validation of their airframe, systems and the two powerplant options offered on each aircraft type: CFM International’s LEAP-1A and Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW1100G-JM engines. The campaigns also confirmed the aircraft meet their performance targets in terms of fuel burn and range – based on the latest-generation engine choices and large Sharklet wingtip devices.
In preparation for first flight clearance, a new-production jetliner – such as the double-deck A380 and new-generation A350 XWB – undergoes structural static tests that include: Flight Test Installation (FTI) calibration test, maximum wing bending at limit load, ailerons and spoilers functioning test during max wing bend, fuselage pressure test, and fatigue tests and flight cycles simulation.
Fatigue testing examines how the aircraft structure responds to stress over a long period of time and during different stages of its operations, such as taxiing on the runway, take-off, cruising and landing. To re-create these conditions, a combination of loads is placed on the airframe and activated by computer-operated hydraulic jacks.
As an example, the A380’s fatigue testing lasted 26 months and was conducted to 2.5 times the design service goal.
Testing accumulated a total of 47,500 flight cycles: 2.5 times the number of flights that an A380 would make in 25 years of operations. A 16-hour flight was simulated in just 11 minutes. The tests pushed the aircraft structure to its limits to identify any necessary design improvements. Final test and preparation for flight is a phase that includes calibration of the gauges, cabin pressurisation testing and testing of navigation systems.
An aircraft’s flight test campaign is designed to assess general handling qualities, operational performance, airfield noise emission and systems operation in normal mode, failure scenarios and extreme conditions – culminating with certification by airworthiness authorities.
For the A380 extreme weather trials, Airbus flew the double-deck jetliner from Northern Canada to the desert heat of the Persian Gulf and hot and high altitudes of Ethiopia and Colombia; while the A350 XWB’s evaluations included cold weather testing in Iqaluit, Canada; high altitude evaluations in La Paz, Bolivia and a hot weather campaign in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.
In addition, the A350 XWB became the first Airbus aircraft to visit the McKinley Climatic Laboratory in the U.S. state of Florida. At this unique location the jetliner was subjected to a range of climatic conditions ranging from 40 deg. C. to negative-40 deg. C in a climate-controlled hangar.
Further certification flight testing is dedicated to water ingestion trials, low speed take-off tests, flutter and rejected takeoff and landing. In addition to the wake vortex trials – air turbulence created behind the aircraft at takeoff – required for certification, Airbus continues to perform an extensive series of tests and measurements in this area.
With the A320neo Family, certification flight testing included validation of the jetliners’ new-generation LEAP-1A and PurePower PW1100G-JM engines – including their lower amount of fuel burned, and lower environmental footprint with reduced NOx emissions and engine noise – along with aircraft handling qualities and performance, as well as operation of systems such as the autopilot.
Certification is a regulatory obligation, with all aircraft, their engines and propellers certifiable. The “Type Certificate” – issued to signify the airworthiness of an aircraft manufacturing design – is followed by the “Airworthiness Certificate,” which authorises aircraft operations in a certain countries or regions.
The certification process covers the complete development process of a new aircraft. It includes various phases:
The competent authorities in each geographical jurisdiction control the certification process. Today, the two main aircraft certification systems are:
Each authority has the right to require specific conditions, while an aircraft manufacturer must always plan in advance for certification by importing countries.
In addition to flight test success, further highlights of the A380’s entry into service included airport compatibility trials, with a total of 38 airports visited around the globe demonstrating the aircraft’s ability to operate just like existing large aircraft.
For the A350 XWB, a global route-proving tour – one of the final steps toward certification – took this highly-efficient jetliner to 14 major airports on four different trips, flying approximately 81,700 total nautical miles in 180 flight hours.
Another important aspect of A380 and A350 XWB testing was the Early Long Flights (ELF) programmes, which went above and beyond certification requirements. For these evaluations, a cabin-equipped flight-test aircraft was operated on simulated commercial services with real “passengers” – comprised of Airbus employees – and actual airline flight crews to evaluate cabin systems in typical operating conditions.