Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 27/4/2005Congratulations to Airbus, which has created literally high technology by launching the mammoth A380 into the skies above Toulouse.

Wednesday 27/4/2005

Congratulations to Airbus, which has created literally high technology by launching the mammoth A380 into the skies above Toulouse. Times have changed since test pilots strapped themselves in for the first flight with nothing but wind tunnel tests behind them: the A380 has been designed to feel like any other recent Airbus and has a very similar cockpit layout — and the simulators the test pilots have trained on are as close to the real thing as twenty-first-century technology can manage. The aircraft had been born, built and flown in virtual reality long before the real thing hoiked itself into the air. It still takes enormous courage and skill to fly something so complex for the first time, but I'd be surprised if any test pilots before have had quite so many reasons to be confident.

Other things have changed on the flight deck. Pilots are a puckish lot, and there's a tradition of referring to the cockpit as 'the office'. This has never been truer than on the A380, where the business end has desks in place of the normal control columns, instrumentation is courtesy of eight high-resolution LCD screens and the whole lot is hooked together with 10/100Mbps switched Ethernet — a version called AFDX, for Avionics Full Duplex Switched Ethernet, if you want to go and look it up. Our production desk at ZDNet UK has a similar spec, although I don't know whether the A380 can run Quark nor whether our team can translate their unmatchable Playstation and Xbox skills into the ability to throw four hundred tons of screaming metal off the tarmac and back again. They're nice people, but I hope never to have to find out. The day I'm at 38,000 feet and a steward gets onto the PA to ask "Is there a network engineer on the aircraft?" is the day from which I never type another acronym.

Coincidentally, the evening of the A380's maiden flight sees editor extraordinaire Matt Loney at dinner with HP's server folk. They have done a lot of work with Airbus, and the conversation naturally turns to the events of the day — as at least one of the journalists present, the evergreen freelance Manek Dubash, has held a private pilot's licence, this provokes a spirited discussion. One half of the table then moves on to another favourite subject, Carly Fiorina — however, Manek (who at his time of life shouldn't really be out this late) fails to spot this and declaims loudly that "She's nice for a ride, but I wouldn't want to live there." He later claimed that he was still talking about the A380; but the rest of the table was laughing too hard to believe him.