Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A weekend with Delta Kilo

The Airbus A380 is the worlds largest commercial airliner. The double-decker 'Super Jumbo' first flew in 2005 and is currently in service with 8 airlines worldwide. It's arrival on the scene sparked mass interest worldwide. In February 2012 I had the opportunity to experience a flight aboard this special aircraft.

Throughout history the human race has always needed something to marvel at. Mother nature often trumps man made efforts to amaze us in a spectacular display of beauty. Having said that, there are some things that are unrivalled in the ability to turn heads and they're made by people and not glaciers. Compared to, for example, the motorcar, powered flight is still in it's toddler years. The first powered, heavier than air flight was achieved in 1903. Just 86 years later, I was born. As a result of the youth of aviation, aircraft still very much intrigue, interest and fascinate people. In aviation there has always been an iconic aircraft at any one time. An aeroplane that for one reason or another just can't help attracting a crowd. During WW2 young children couldn't resist running outside to catch a glimpse of a spitfire squadron flying overhead. Concorde always had a following wherever she happened to be and I can only imagine the looks on peoples faces in the early 1970's when a Boeing 747 arrived at their gate. Since 2005 another aircraft has taken on iconic status. It was built across many countries in Europe and came to life in Toulouse. It's an aircraft that always turns heads, always attracts a crowd at the end of the runway and never ceases to amaze. The Airbus A380.

4th Feburary 2012

Super Jumbo: A6-EDK taxiing in after arrival.
Having checked-in online the night before, I arrived at Terminal 1, Manchester Airport and immediately proceeded through security. After finding my way out of the maze that is the duty free shop I sat down to enjoy some breakfast and patiently wait for my gate to open. Whilst watching other aircraft operating around the airport, something caught my attention. In the distance turning off the runway was A6-EDK, an Emirates A380-800. Around an hour before scheduled departure, gate 12 started accepting passengers travelling on Emirates EK18 to Dubai. Boarding was a drawn out affair. It soon became quite clear that Manchester was not the most competent of airports currently handling the A380. Nevertheless I managed to board. I was greeted by a member of cabin crew, immaculately turned out in her iconic Emirates uniform. She welcomed me on board and directed me to my seat, 73K. I immediately took in the view out of the window. The rapidly deteriorating weather did not distract me from the simply colossal, awesome wing of the A380. The aircraft was de-iced before push back, a process that took one and a quarter hours.
The view: Deteriorating weather

Once the engines were started it became clear that this aircraft deserved its quiet reputation. Loud enough to be heard but still quiet enough to ensure a comfortable experience. After a slow taxi behind a 'follow me' car the aircraft was holding at Manchester's Runway 23R. As a Ryanair 737 was vacating the high-pitched whirring resumed. The undeniable sound of the engines spooling up, providing the necessary thrust to get the huge, heavy Airbus rolling and onto the runway. Once lined up the brakes were applied and the engines idled.
Rotate: The aircraft lifts off Manchester's 23R

Around 10 seconds went by. The whirring resumed again, this time a little more power applied. The now familiar humming continued until take off power was applied. The whole aircraft, still holding on brakes, began to rumble. The sound was magnificent, the sheer power was awesome. The engines were now fully spooled up, moments later the brakes were released. The aircraft hurled itself forward, all the momentum released. The engines permitted to carry out their job of hurtling the aircraft down the runway. I've never experienced thrust and acceleration like it. The sheer power of the A380 on full display for all on board to enjoy, I certainly did. The reviews I'd heard of take off in an A380 were very different to what I'd experienced. At around 170mph and 2 hours after boarding, the aircraft hauled itself into the air with ease. It didn't feel heavy or sluggish at all. Just fast and steep. We continued to climb before turning to pick up our track for Dubai, total flight time; six and a half hours.
FL390: Sunset 

The aircraft emerged above the foul weather and the views were delightful, as always. The crew, at this point, were already in full swing and by the time I had selected to watch 'Not Going Out' on the In-Flight entertainment, a complimentary drinks service was making it's way up the cabin. The cruise was smooth and the seat was comfortable. Everybody, including myself, had settled into the flight. Our route to the Middle East was to take us down over Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Iraq to name a few. It was dark before the meal had arrived. Having the choice between two mains was a welcome surprise. The parmesan chicken was delicious, washed down with more complimentary drinks.

A quick check of the flight information screen confirmed that we were nearing Dubai. The captain began his announcement. Although we had started the descent he informed us that Dubai ATC had asked him to join a holding pattern around 30 miles from Dubai. Hardly surprising when you consider the size of the airport. At around 8,000 and having been circling for around half an hour the wings were levelled and the nose was pointing at Dubai. Power was reduced, 3000ft was shaved off the altitude and more flap was selected. Around 12 miles out the lights of Dubai could be seen out of the window. The palm island could be seen, Burj Khalifa could be seen. The landing gear was extended and the flaps were fully extended sending a mechanical scream throughout the cabin. The whole aircraft was rumbling. The airflow was disturbed by the undercarriage and now the spoiler which was being used to slow us down to approach speed. Forward facing camera was selected on my headrest screen. The runway lights were visible. Finals for Dubai's Runway 12L.

Dubai International

Trafford Centre? : View inside Dubai's T1 next door to T3
We arrived at 0205L and by half past I was in the departure lounge of Dubai's Terminal 3. The airport was a cocktail of architectural perfection and bitter disappointment. Two small merchandise stalls were the only references to the fact Terminal 3 is an exclusive Emirates terminal. I can't help thinking that the whole project was a missed opportunity to create something special. Certain parts of the terminal looked like the Trafford Centre in Manchester. Through the centre of the long, thin terminal building ran a designer duty free shopping outlet with the boarding gates running along the outsides. At either end was a food/restaurant area which included a la carte restaurants, seafood bars and the familiar looking fast food restaurants. There was one bar (which was in T1 next door to T3). Terminal 3 was near enough impossible to see out of meaning that observing the traffic was extremely difficult. There were around 15 Emirates aircraft lined up along T3. A combination of A330/340s, B777s and A380s and they could only be seen individually through gate windows.
During my visit I ventured into Terminal 1. Used by other international carriers the Terminal was not as impressive and too looked like a shopping centre. At least there was a bar in this terminal, but still no view of the aerodrome.
As for T3. The building looks superb. It's such a shame they've so obviously and distastefully focused all their efforts on making money, rather than creating a memorable experience for all who transit through it. Discouraging sitting with a drink enjoying the view and encouraging shopping. In the centre of the terminal was a water feature that ran from near enough the top of the building down to the bottom where arrivals was located. A superb, impressive sight that was only visible from a lift running between arrivals, departures and the premium lounges. It was at least 100ft tall. Shame it could not be photographed as it was blocked from view on the shopping level.
Peaceful: Water feature in terminal building

At one end was another water feature, a relaxation garden in the centre of it. A tranquil spot located in the middle of what is otherwise a busy, speedy, soul less place. The first time I felt like I was in the Middle East was at around 0600 when the 'Fajr Prayer' was recited over the airport announcement system. After purchasing all of my gifts, freshening up, feeding myself and enjoying a beer I headed over to my gate.

5th Feburary 2012

Same aircraft: 'Delta Kilo' on stand in the morning heat
Boarding was quick and efficient. By 0730 I was on board A6-EDK for the second time that weekend. She hadn't moved all night. Same aircraft and same seat, 73K. The sun was up and the sheer size of the airport became apparent to me. Aircraft movements were often and varied. Mostly made up of Emirates and flydubai, a low cost airline. A very interesting mixture of international, middle eastern and cargo carriers made up the rest of the morning operations. Part of the Dubai skyline was visible in the distance.

Once some baggage belonging to a passenger who had failed to board was removed from the hold, we were under way on flight EK17 to Manchester.

It was during push back I experienced one of the greatest sights I've ever witnessed in aviation. Along the length of the terminal were around 14 Emirates aircraft lined up wing tip to wing tip. A view I would have
Impressive: Multiple Emirates aircraft alongside T3
enjoyed seeing from inside the terminal building as well as outside.

A short, slightly faster taxi than at Manchester soon saw us holding short at Runway 12R. A patient wait was in order as around 3 aircraft were ahead of our flight in the departure sequence. An Emirates A330 and a B777 followed by a flydubai B737-800. The captain released the brakes and slowly applied power. The aircraft started rolling. After a sharp flick to the left the captain turned right to line up perfectly on the runway centerline.
Climb Out: Very pleasant, quiet and comfortable.
The aircraft was still rolling down the runway when the captain applied take off thrust. A rolling start. The acceleration was less intense, the take off roll more civilised. The runway is 4km long and it is apparent that every aircraft that uses it, utilizes its length. After what seemed like a considerably long amount of time, the captain slowly pulled back on the control column and the aircraft gently rose up into the air. The take off was a delightful contrast to the departure I had experienced just the day before. I had witnessed both aspects of the A380. Capability/performance and comfort.
A shallow rate of climb was maintained throughout the lengthy, ascent to FL380. The route this time was to take us over Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland and Germany. Flight time was slightly longer at 7 and a half hours.
It was very much service resumed on the way back from the Middle East, the new crew taking care of all aboard expertly. More drinks services, more snacks and more meals. A breakfast platter was served shortly after take off, an excellent start to the on board dining experience. A hot meal was then served around 2 hours before arrival into Manchester. This time the beef in mushroom sauce was very tasty indeed and was well received throughout the cabin.
Stunning: Mountain range in Georgia

The views on route to the UK were breathtaking. I was incredibly thankful that the entirety of the flight took place during the daytime hours. The in-flight entertainment system was obsolete for a sizeable chunk of this sector. After all, the choice was views like that (right) or 'Family Guy'.

30 miles off the UK's east coast was the chosen location to start the descent into Manchester. The announcement had already came through informing us that weather-wise, other than poor visibility, there was no difference from the previous day's weather. The descent did seem rushed, but not uncomfortable. We had just descended into the layer of clouds that covered England when the announcement came through ordering the cabin crew to prepare for landing. The flaps were extended in increments. We continued to descend through the clouds. The ride was bumpy, the spoiler was deployed and the aircraft slowed right down. More flap was selected to compensate for lost airspeed. A fairly steep left was the final turn and saw us line up perfectly for a 10 mile final toward Runway 23R. The view out of the window was white.
CATIII Conditions: Extremely challenging conditions
The visibility had not improved. The final stages of flap arrived with the same mechanical scream and the undercarriage was extended. The large bang felt in the floor of the cabin was an indication that the gear was down and locked. The spoilers were deployed again for the final rumbling deceleration. Once the spoilers had disappeared the aircraft was fully configured for a CAT3 ILS approach. 8 miles to go.

The approach was stable. The ride was of course bumpy but nothing compared to smaller aircraft. I noticed there was very little eye shutting. Hardly any people gripping loved ones hands. Something that is quite often witnessed in abundance during landings of this nature. Everybody seemed comfortable. I often said before the weekend that the A380 could be capable of curing fear of flying. My dad agreed with me and I'm sure other people would too. The fact that it's so stable, smooth and quiet means it's capable of providing a whole new, reassuring flying experience.
Down again: Smooth touchdown on Runway 23R

As the aircraft crossed the threshold the runway became visible. Not much beyond the wing tip could be seen. I wasn't sure what to expect with the touchdown. Having said that, when the aircraft finally did hit the runway I was surprised. Like the landing in Dubai, the aircraft seemed to 'kiss' the runway. A marvellous landing. What followed was a huge roar and rumble as reverse thrust was selected and the spoilers deployed. The deceleration was an incredible sensation, something which I've never really experienced before, especially in those conditions. The aircraft vacated to the right before starting the long, slow taxi to the stand. The whole team of ground handling companies were there to meet us at the stand. As soon as the aircraft came to a stop they swung into action. For an aircraft this size even a two hour turnaround is a challenge. I left the aircraft via the front left door and continued down the air bridge. I looked back to get one last look at the aircraft before continuing toward passport control.

Many people may think I'm ridiculous for what I did. I've been passionate about aviation for my whole life and it's experiences like this that I will never forget. It has been a fantastic, life changing experience. There are over 30 of these wonderful machines flying around the world. Millions of people will fly on them for years to come and despite this, I still feel that I am now apart of a special group. Part of a special collection of privileged people who have experienced what this magnificent aircraft has to offer. I will never forget the weekend I boarded Delta Kilo and set off for Dubai. I am so thrilled that I have been able to see for myself what this aircraft can do. She's a real joy in every single way possible. A triumph and testament to every single person involved with the design, manufacture and operation of her. An aircraft that has transformed the way we're able to travel. I'm obviously going to continue travelling to see her visits at Manchester. I hope to see her in other places too but now I will see the Airbus A380 in a different light. I'll see her fly overhead or taxi past and smile. Because I'm no longer a jealous spectator wondering what it's like to experience flight aboard this aircraft. I'm now someone who can say I've flown on her and loved every single minute of it.

I'd like to thank my Dad for this whole experience. It was him who made it possible for me to make this extraordinary, once in a lifetime journey. It was his stories that ignited my appreciation for the aircraft and I'm glad that we're now able to share our stories and experiences of the Airbus A380. Thank you Dad.

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