Building Virgin Atlantic's A350 wings

Building a plane is no mean feat but with Virgin Atlantic preparing for new planes to arrive next year, Airbus is working hard to get them ready.

Virgin Atlantic recently visited the Airbus factory in Broughton, North Wales, to see how building the wings for one of the new Airbus A350-1000 XWB aircraft is coming along.

A wing’s main job is to provide lift for the aircraft – but there’s a lot more to it than just that. Wings also have control surfaces (the panels you may have seen extending during take-off and landing) called ‘high lift’ systems. These consist of slats at the front and flaps at the back to increase the size of the wing area, which allows the aircraft to fly at slower speeds.

The A350 wing being assembled at the Airbus factory in Broughton

The wing also contains ailerons, which control the rolls of the aircraft and help to steer it, and spoilers that help to slow the aircraft in flight and reduce lift as it lands. A lot of the fuel for the flight is also stored in the wings – and they act as the anchor points for the huge Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines.

The new A350 wing is one of the most efficient wings ever built, having been developed using more than 4,000 hours of wind tunnel time.

Airbus Broughton, the factory where the wings are assembled, is as big as Wembley Stadium – and it needs to be to build parts as big as the 32-metre-long A350 wings. The skins for the wings arrive on a modified freight aircraft named Beluga for the distinctive white to which it bears a resemblance. Then the engineers get to work putting the pieces together, starting with the ribs and internal components. It takes five days to assemble an A350 wing and then it’s loaded back onto the Beluga to fly off to Bremen where the high lift systems and hydraulics will be fitted.

The Airbus Beluga takes off

While the wings are in Bremen, Virgin Atlantic’s team of engineers will scrutinise every centimetre of them to make sure that they are correct. But how do you inspect and sign of something as big, complicated and important as an aircraft wing?

Paul Reilly, Virgin Atlantic’s aircraft production and delivery manager, explains: “It’s basically a large box with lots of equipment hanging off it. We inspect using industry best practice, looking for any debris, clipped cables, leaking connections or paint and surface defects.”

Once the team is satisfied with it, the wing takes its final flight as a passenger onboard the Beluga, where it travels to Toulouse to be united with the rest of the aircraft.

The A350 wings are united with the body of the aircraft in Toulouse

Once the wings arrive at the Airbus Final Assembly Line in Toulouse, they are joined to the rest of the aircraft. “It’s basically a huge flange,” Paul explains how the wings are attached to the plane. “The wings are hoisted into position, then laser aligned and bolted on using high tech fasteners. The finishing touch is the upturned sharklets at the end of the wing, which bring the first splash of Virgin red onto the aircraft.”

Although it now looks like an aircraft, there’s still a lot to be done before the newly built A350 can take to the skies.

Read more about Virgin Atlantic’s new A350 aircraft on the Virgin Atlantic blog.

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