Touchdown for engine which will take R-R to new heights
STANDING on a concrete apron, beneath the grey skies at East Midlands Airport, the huge A380 aircraft turned over its four massive engines.
Up close, the sheer size of this aircraft – which is officially the world's largest passenger airliner – is enough to strike awe into the casual observer.
But on this occasion, the A380 was playing a supporting role. The star of the show was on one of its wings.
The A380 is normally powered by four Trent 900 engines – two on each wing.
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But on the aircraft that had descended into the Castle Donington airport yesterday, one of the engines was different to the three others.
This was the Trent XWB engine.
Larger than its Trent 900 neighbour and painted blue to make it stand out from the others, the XWB is a vital engine to Rolls-Royce.
It is widely regarded as holding the key to the Derby aero engine-maker's fortunes over the next decade.
Designed and developed at the company's civil aerospace division in Sinfin, the engine has been made specifically for the Airbus A350 XWB (extra wide body) aircraft.
The actual aircraft is still being designed and developed by Airbus and will not be ready to have its engines fitted until the middle of next year.
So, in the meantime, the Trent XWB, is being put through its paces on an A380, which Rolls-Royce describes as a "flying test bed".
The XWB has been many years in development.
A key moment in the engine's evolution came in February, when the XWB ran for the first time in the air.
Since then, it has been put through a range of tests to assess its performance in different environments and weather conditions.
Once it passes these tests, it will receive its certificate of airworthiness, allowing it to be used on the A350.
But yesterday, the engine took a break from testing to allow Rolls-Royce staff to see the fruits of their labours up close.
The A380's visit to East Midlands Airport had been specially organised by Rolls-Royce and Airbus to thank to 2,000 Rolls-Royce staff in Derby who have worked on the XWB engine programme.
About 650 of those workers were taken to the airport to see the engine on the wing and have a tour of the A380 test plane which, unlike those in service, is devoid of passenger seats and other fittings.
Among them was Andy Knox, 48, of Heage, who is head of production readiness for the XWB.
He said: "It was a proud moment for us and for Derby to see the A380 and the XWB at East Midlands Airport.
"We have a very busy production schedule ahead of us over the next few years.
" My job is to make sure we are ready to handle that work, along with our suppliers.
"When production really ramps up we will be making one of these engines a day.
"The company has invested a lot of money in this engine.
"It has also spent large sums making sure the Derby site is ready for production.
"It's a great privilege to work on this project. We're absolutely delighted with the number of orders we have received so far and we are looking forward to the engine getting all of its certification and then getting on with the job of making them in big numbers."
Chris Orchard, 29, of Littleover, a project development engineer for the XWB, said: "To actually see the engine on the wing, in the flesh, was quite an emotional experience.
"A lot of people have devoted years of their lives to this project. So, days like this are very special.
"The engine itself is amazing – and not just to look at. It is the most efficient large gas turbine engine ever built.
"That probably explains why so many customers have ordered them."
There was also an extra special treat for the Rolls-Royce staff.
Innovation is embedded in the company's history and this was perfectly illustrated by a Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered Spitfire, which had been wheeled out to sit next to the A380. Contrasting the old with the new, the Second World War fighter plane was dwarfed by the huge A380.
And as Rolls-Royce staff admired the next generation Trent engine, it was fitting that the potential next generation of engineers was given a chance to have a look.
Rolls-Royce had arranged for a group of pupils from Gayton Junior School, in Littleover, to see the XWB engine and have a tour of the A380. Among them were Lucy Tomlinson, nine, and Joel Sherwin, Sofia Eslamian and Fraya Murphy, all 10.
Joel said: "Seeing the A380 was really interesting.
"But one of the best things I saw was the Spitfire because we are studying the Second World War at school.
"I couldn't believe how small the Spitfire was. But that may have been because it was sitting next to such a huge plane."
Sofia said: "Because there were no seats or panels, you could see all the wires and things that help make the aircraft work. You never see those when you go on to a normal plane."
Fraya said: "The A380 was amazing. I can't wait to go on my holidays in one of these!"
Lucy said: "The A380 is cool. I now think I would like to be an airline pilot when I grow up and fly something as big as this. "
The man who was flying the A380 yesterday was Peter Chandler, chief test pilot at Airbus.
He said: "The XWB is performing well. Although the XWB is designed specifically for the A350 aircraft, it is possible to test the engine on an A380.
"The XWB produces around 10,000lbs more thrust that the Trent 900, so you can feel a bit more of a pull on one side but it something that can be managed.
"The XWB is being put through its paces in different environments.
"We were recently near Dubai carrying out hot-weather testing.
"It will soon be going to Siberia to do some cold weather testing. I haven't put my name down for that!"
According to Chris Young, Rolls-Royce's project director for the XWB, the engine should be united with the A350 aircraft by the middle of next year.
Both engine and aircraft will then be tested as one unit – and if all goes well, the first deliveries will be made to launch-customer Qatar Airways in 2014 and then Singapore Airlines.
Chris said: "The XWB is the fastest-selling Trent engine ever.
"I think we have an order book of around £20 billion. So it will be playing a key role in our future success.
"It will also bring high-tech jobs to Derby – a city which has played an intrinsic role in the design and development of the XWB – over the next decade and beyond."
The aircraft then took off to make one final gesture of thanks – a fly-past of Rolls-Royce's plant at Sinfin.