There was a time when air travel over Africa was an odyssey about flying “low and slow” over unchartered terrain and stopping en-route for refreshments and rest. Inter continental flights were responsible for expanding links between South Africa and England.
The spirit of aviation travel meant braving waves of nausea and inhaling fumes of aviation fuel wafting into hot non-pressurised cabins vibrating to the sound of four radial engines mounted onto the large overhead wings of Sunderland Flying Boats.
Those were the adventurous years for explorers and pioneers of aviation who might never have dreamed that the future of aviation would evolve to what has become the norm for long distance travel by air.
Such was the need for improved international air travel, it is hard to imagine how opportune it was that jet powered aircraft became the norm for rapid travel.
When the first jet aircraft began plying the skies in the early sixties, among the first routes operated by then BOAC was London – Johannesburg.
The De Havilland Comet jet airliners transformed the 6000nm distance between London and Johannesburg into a previously unimaginable journey taken in under 12 hours. The glamour and benefit of jet travel was enhanced by the accessibility of flights connecting Europe with North America. The American development of aviation unfolded with the growth of the Boeing organisation creating the B707 and B747 Jumbo Jet airliners. During those early years, fuel prices seemed reasonable, safety in the skies meant most medium to long haul aircraft were designed around the safety quad engine airplanes..
The reaction to fast and efficient air services resulted in fierce competition to create aircraft that were competitive affording critical seat/mile economy combined with speed and comfort..
Entering into the world of a more competitive aviation specter was the emergence of the Airbus conglomerate of European aircraft manufacturers competing against the North American civilian aircraft manufacturers.
Travel by air is naturally expensive and accentuated by growing expectations of passenger’s demands to travel on the latest aircraft and enjoy iconic appeal.
For airline operators it is a cautious balancing act to continuously upgrade fleets preferably before routine maintenance incurs expensive and time consuming inspection schedules.
Singapore Airlines operating an Airbus A350-900 XWB (Ultra Long Haul variant) held the record for operating the longest non stop flight between Singapore and New York, a non stop journey of almost 9000nm for almost 19 hours flight time. The effects of passenger physiology on ultra long haul flights are continuously being studied by aircraft manufacturers and of concern to airline operators. Numerous studies consider the benefits to create in flight physical exercise routines and variant meal offerings at times to be suited to metabolic comforts.
Ultra Long Haul flights are considered as normally longer than 12 hours duration and flown possibly following a Great Circle route over the Polar Regions.
Long Haul flights are those extending beyond 6 hours and may include stops en route to the final destination.
By nature of its geographical position, South Africa is separated from most world capital cities and continents by vast distances accessible by long haul flights..
South African Airways has negotiated a “Short Term Lease” agreement for four Airbus A350-900 XWB aircraft. These twin-engine wide body jet airliners in typical three class configuration meet the requirements for most long haul operators.
Features incorporated into the ultra modern cabins adding to passenger comfort for long distance flights include dynamically controlled cabin lighting solutions to simulate the transition of night to day conditions in a pressurised cabin maintaining hull pressurisation to significantly lower cabin altitude. The A350 advanced cabin temperature management systems allow for settings to be controlled more precisely in different zones of the aircraft, while the air conditioning system regularly refreshes clean air throughout the cabin every two or three minutes.
Fitted to every seat throughout the cabin is a 4th generation “In Flight” entertainment system providing audio and HD video into 30cm touch screen monitors.
The SAA aircraft has seating for 339 passengers, however accommodation only for 30 Business Class seats incorporating “Lie Flat” horizontal sleeping comfort. The Economy Premium seating allows for additional passenger comfort offering extra legroom. Seating in the economy section caters for 246 passengers.
These 275-ton MTOW twin-engine aircraft are intended to replace the ageing A340-600 aircraft currently servicing the nightly 16-hour non-stop flight between Johannesburg and New York.
Airbus has incorporated latest technologies into the manufacture of 70% of the fuselage and wing structures by using advanced materials including carbon fibre and other composite materials. The composite materials are considered as fatigue and corrosion resistant, resulting in easier maintenance, and offer significant benefits by increasing the mandatory airframe inspection schedule upwards from 6 to 12 years.
The A350 families of airplanes are the -900 and the significantly larger -1000 variants. These airplanes are considered to be the result of further system advancements and features first introduced into the A380 airliner.
Designed around high level of redundancy and safety features with multiple backup equipment including six sources to generate electrical power from either of two generators fitted to each engine, if these were to fail entirely, the APU can deliver enough electrical power to keep all systems active. If an entire hydraulic system failure had to happen, alternative electric motors and drives connected to control surfaces can sufficiently compensate for any catastrophic hydraulic failure.
The auto pilot/s are fail-safe to maintain control of the aircraft in the event of pilot incapacitation. Auto Emergency Descent Function activates in event of unanswered loss of cabin pressure predicting cabin altitude to rise above 14000 feet within 15 seconds. The system is a result of a new flight guidance function using combined vertical and lateral modes to perform an Emergency Descent.
An emergency descent function automatically engages the auto pilot and auto thrust to “ON”, arms the TCAS and performs the TCAS RA traffic avoidance manoeuvre if conflicting traffic is encountered during the emergency descent.
Taking into account possible altimetry corrections including lower temperatures and lower atmospheric pressure the aircraft will descend to an altitude between FL100 or corrected MORA for the area. In the event of possible crew incapacitation the transponder automatically resets to 7700 while the speed brakes extend and retract automatically.
The fuel tank inerting system features “Air Separation Modules” depleting oxygen levels and generating nitrogen enriched air to reduce flammability of fuel vapors in the tanks. Lessons learnt from previous lithium battery incidents have been heeded and the chosen option has been for nickel cadmium batteries for energy storage capacity.
Twin engine long haul and ultra long haul aircraft can offer up to 30% improved fuel efficiency over similar size quad engine airplanes and contribute reduced carbon emissions into the atmosphere, an important consideration for airlines operating into rigorously regulated airspace.
Airbus have equipped the A350-900 with Rolls Royce Trent XWB-84 engines capable of delivering up to 84 000 pounds of thrust efficiently propelling this wide body aircraft at speeds up to Mn.89, consuming in the region of 5.8 tons of kerosene per hour, allowing planners to operate the aircraft on route segments of up to 8 100nm.
SAA the operator of eleven A330 airplanes is the first Airbus operator to be granted 180min ETOP certification for these airplanes.
Both the A330 and A350 family share common type rating (CTR) and are accredited by EASA with 300 minute ETOPS certification. The SACAA is expected to consider further extending the South African ETOP certification for these South African registered A350 aircraft.
While flight crews and engineering crews under supervision of Airbus instructors are in the final stages of completing initial operator experience of the A350, these aircraft will operate a daily domestic schedule between Johannesburg and Cape Town before being released into international service before the New Year.
Interesting facts about the A350-900 XWB (Extra Wide Body) airplane indicates the impressive size of these ultra modern long haul airplanes..
- Interior diameter of the A350 = 221” (561.4cm)
- Exterior diameter of the A330 = 222” (563,9cm)
- Length of the fuselage (67m) is wider than a Rugby Field
- Area of the wings is greater than that of two tennis courts
- The wing cover of the A350 is the biggest single aviation part ever made from Carbon Fibre material
- The front diameter of the Rolls Royce Trent-XWB 900 engine is the same diameter of the fuselage of the Concorde airliner !!