In order for an Airplane to be put into service and marketed, it must first pass through an arduous certification process. (Picture of a static test of a wing of an Airbus A380, in IABG, Dresden, Germany, photo taken by them).
One simply does not walk into Mordor, and one simply does not draw an Airplane on a napkin, and tells the town’s brazier to make something that resembles that drawing, and then begins to sell it in downtown, no sir.
The process since an Airplane begins to be designed can easily take years, and for sure it’s going to cost blood, sweat, and tears (as everything in Aviation). Ah, and of course, a crapload of money! (like everything in Aviation).
The certification process can vary depending on the initial place where the Airplane is made, the type of Airplane, and the use the Airplane is going to have. To be accepted worldwide and be sold easily, the most sought after certifications are those granted by FAA (United States) and EASA (Europe).
There are other important aeronautical authorities such as Transport Canada (Canada), CAAC (China), RosAviatsiya (Russia) and JCAB (Japan) that have certification processes, but the two basic ones for Airplane makers that want to sell worldwide are the aforementioned. Without pretending to be a detailed or technical document (and subject to errors), things work more or less this way:
The Airplane maker decides they want to make an Airplane with some given characteristics, and makes some marketing research to see how well accepted would such an Airplane be.
They choose engines that could work from whatever is available in the market or being developed. Sometimes both things are developed simultaneously, for instance, while Lockheed was designing the L-1011 Tristar, Rolls-Royce was developing the RB-211 engine especially for that Airplane (this development almost bankrupted Rolls-Royce, by the way). The RB-211 was later used on the Boeing 757.
Once it’s decided the Airplane is going to be made and “authority” is given from the highest executive levels of the company for development to start, the approach with the aeronautical authorities for certification starts.
When an Airplane has been certified the maker receives a “Type Certificate”, which is the document the aeronautical authority gives that says the Airplane was made according to an approved design, and that said design is in compliance with the applicable laws on safety and airworthiness at the moment it was given.
So the Type Certificate is the first thing that Airplane makers aim to obtain. Standards and laws about the technical tolerances an Airplane must have exist, as well as laws it must comply with to remain airworthy.
The maker and the aeronautical authority officially meet, and the certification process starts. Certification is made based on the rules that are in place at that time, and makers usually have 5 years to finish the whole process from that momento on, at least when the process is based on the FAA part 25 or the EASA rules. This is called the “certification basis”.
This means that if there were to be a change of rules in this 5 year period, the project could still continue to advance based on whatever was in place at the moment of the “certification basis”, that is, the conditions of that moment are “frozen”. There is the possibility of other changes indeed, depending on how serious the situation is, but in general this is how it works.
Por example, if a test needs to be done at 150 knots minimum according to the law, and on the second year there was a change and now that minimum is 160 knots, the 150 knots initial requirement is kept for this project. And the same applies generally to materials, systems, processes, etcetera.
That’s why it’s of paramount importance to finish on time, if the process takes more than the 5 years (or whatever time is given) a request for authorisation to extend the process would have to be made, and if this happens the initial freezing of conditions could no longer be valid.
Here the maker would have to do tests with the rules in place at the moment in which the extension was requested, which probably are different from the rules in place at the time of the initial request.
This can imply from simply sitting a couple of tests again with new parameters, all the way to the full re-design of the fuel system, and other complex and expensive issues such as that one.
When there’s an understand with the aeronautical authority about the fact that the process will begin, what the rules of the game are, and what every player expects from the other (players being the aeronautical authority and the Airplane maker), things get real serious.
In the rules of the game they establish how the maker is going to demonstrate that the Airplane complies with each and every one of the requisites established in the certification basis, and to what extent and in what stages the aeronautical authority will be directly involved.
After this is settled, the testing prototypes are built. These prototypes are initially subjected to various static tests.
All their systems are tested, including the electric, hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel, among others, each one with their own specific parameters and tested by experts from the Airplane maker and also the aeronautical authority.
One of the prototypes is used on destructive testing, that is, they use it like a chav to see how much can it take.
They stress it until it’s destroyed, the bend its wings until they break, they simulate an amount of cycles the Airplane will probably never have when it enters service, and things like that.
The data is used to get a certain concept about the structural strength the Airplane has, and to see if it complies with the rules about that.
In case of no compliance, or of not fulfilling the performance expectations of the maker, whatever fails needs to be re-designed to the extent it wasn’t up to par, and this can be costly and significatively delay the process.
Integration tests of all the systems are made after this (for instance how does the electric system interact with the hydraulic?), and ignition, and taxi (low and high speed) tests are made.
Once both players are satisfied with the ground tests, the flight tests begin, the most critical period.
In these tests the Airplane flies commanded by test Pilots from the maker, and progressively its systems are put to test.
First it’s made softly, they don’t climb to the limit, they don’t reach the maximum speed, the landing gear is not retracted.
When this “soft” tests are satisfactory, the Airplane begins to be put in mode demanding situations.
They climb to the service ceiling, the Airplane is taken to its maximum allowed speed, the landing gear is retracted as well as well the high-lift devices, they determine its wake turbulence, etcetera.
Other risky tests are performed, such as determining the stall speed, determining the maximum demonstrated cross and tail wind components, making aborted takeoffs (this is, accelerating almost until taking off and then stopping suddenly) to know the resistance and temperatures of the brakes, engines water ingestion limits tests, bird strike resistance, on purpose tail strikes while taking off, and things like that.
For example in the video below you can see how a McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 was hit so hard while being tested on its certification process that it literally broke.
There are tests so risky that the Pilots use helmets, parachutes, and an orange coloured uniform to aid identification in case the worst happens and it becomes necessary.
When all these tests are done, the results are compared with what was expected, and the Airplane’s performance is deemed satisfactory, or not, with whatever re-designs may be required.
Once the data is consolidated the flight envelope is obtained, this is, the conditions in which the Airplane may safely operate.
Maximum and minimum speeds, maximum and minimum weights, maximum descent, climb and turning angles, and other such parameters. Those are the data the Pilots will use when the Airplane is in service, and that will be available in the manuals.
It’s forbidden to fly the Airplane Beyond or below these specifications, and whoever does it is doing something that is not technical, that is illegal, and is becoming an unwilling test Pilot, not mentioning the fact that it can be his or her last flight.
With the flight envelope almost ready the flight program proceeds in different conditions, and now also with Pilots from the aeronautical authority (they won’t fly that thing until it is proven to some extent, hihihi).
The authority will be involved according to whatever was agreed when the certification basis was ratified, and everything varies according to the program’s particular conditions. No two certification programs are the same, even though there are elements shared by all, of course.
Knowing that the systems are successfully integrated and working like they should, they start to make flights simulating the operations that the Airplane is expected to have once it’s put to service.
Maximum range and maximum weight flights, airline-like flights, flights from high (great elevation) and hot Airports, intense cold and heat flights, and other scenarios.
As progress is made in the certification program, the maker produces the respective manuals, and the training program the Pilots and the mechanics of the Airplane are going to have.
On top of this, the maintenance program the Airplane will have to undertake to continue being airworthy according to the obtained results is created.
The aeronautical authority finally issues the desired Type Certificate when the agreed flight hours are reached in the agreed scenarios, and the results are satisfactory.
As you have seen, several years can pass from the moment the maker begins to design the Airplane until such time as the certificate is issued.
Now, this is generally speaking about a commercial Airplane for passengers transport, the processes vary slightly when it’s about general Aviation Airplanes, acrobatic Airplanes, military Airplanes, helicopters, etcetera.
There are also experimental Airplanes. For their part, the engines and the propellers have their own certification processes with their respective nuances.
The Airplane maker must also obtain something called the Production Certificate, and this can as complicated to get as the Type Certificate.
This Production Certificate is held by a maker when the aeronautical authority is satisfied that they are able to mass produce the Airplane that has the Type Certificate, keeping the same technical characteristics with high reliability.
I am not really sure now what is required in order to obtain the Production Certificate, but I do know that it’s an arduous and long process (like everything in Aviation), that involves industrial processes, supply chain, quality control assurance, and other things.
A maker that has an Airplane with a Type Certificate, and whose operations have a Production Certificate, is qualified to mass produce this Airplane, and for every unit to have an Airworthiness Certificate (basically the Airplane’s MOT test, that is mandatory to be located on a visible place. It’s illegal for an Airplane to fly without it except by a waiver of the aeronautical authority), and of course, to sell it.
If a maker doesn’t have a Production Certificate for a particular model, but has a Type Certificate, it will be able to produce the Airplane. But each individual unit’s Airworthiness Certificate that leaves the production plant will have to be issued by officials from the aeronautical authority after a thorough revision.
And this, as you may imagine, would be a slow, wasteful and costly process, and wouldn’t allow the mass scale economies needed for such a project to be profitable.
There have been a few such cases, and it’s been a pain in the ass for the maker until they have been able to solve the situation.
So, in normal conditions, this process ends with an Airplane that has a Type Certificate, mass-produced by the maker because it’s allowed to due to having a Production Certificate, and each unit having an Airworthiness Certificate.
When the yearned for objective is finally achieved it usually is an important event, having its respective press conference and celebration, as we can see in the photo below when the Sukhoi SSJ-100 obtained its respective certificate.
This Certificate of Airworthiness will continue to be valid so long as the Airplane follows the maintenance program designed in this process (and other corresponding dispositions), carried out by licenced mechanics according to the designed training program, and last but not least, flown by Pilots trained according to the program designed for them, with the respective Type Rating on their licence.
Welcome to the world of Aviation! (as the guy that sold my first colombian navigation charts kit told me back then, after being almost 200 quid of the time out-of-pocket). And we’re leaving out the STCs, the ADs, and additional things.
Well, good, the Airbus A380, one of the world’s biggest passenger Airplanes and the only one to feature two full levels, was undergoing this process amid the last decade.
It was already in the flight tests phase, and now its performance in high elevation Airports had to be tested.
There are important distinctions between the terms “elevation”, “height”, and “altitude” in Aviation. To summarise here briefly without getting too technical:
The elevation is the vertical distance between a point on the ground (like an Airport’s runway) and the mean sea level.
The height is the vertical distance between something that is flying and whatever it has below on ground.
The altitude is the vertical distance between something that is flying and the mean sea level.
Each term is used in different scenarios, for different purposes.
That is, points on the ground have an elevation, that in Aviation is usually given in feet, even though metres are used every now and then.
This is important because the higher you are with respect to the mean sea level, that is, the more elevation you have, the less dense the air is.
And the less dense the air is, the less air the engines (regardless of their type) have to produce a jet backward that will move the Airplane forward, as per Newton’s laws. We call this jet “thrust”, and is one of the four basic flight forces. That is, the more elevation an Airport has, the more sluggish the engine of an Airplane taking off from there will be.
The less dense the air is, the less particles will be flowing over the wing, and thus the wing will need more speed to produce a force that will make the Airplane fly and support its weight, we call this “lift”, and is another of the four basic flight forces. That is, the more elevation an Airport has, the less the wings have to “grab onto” for the Airplane to keep climbing, or even start flying at all.
The other factor affecting this density is the temperature, the hotter the air, the less dense it is, and thus the aforementioned effects.
If you’re frequent travellers compare the normal take off of an Airbus A320 from Bogotá for example, to one from Cartagena. The Bogotá one will accelerate for a long time and take longer to take off, while the Cartagena one accelerates and takes off quicker. And it’s the very same Airplane with the same engines.
The worst combination for an Airplane’s performance is a high elevation and high temperature Airport.
So Airbus needed to have the data on the behaviour of the engines and the Airplane in general in such conditions.
And as it happened, José María Córdova Airport (Medellín – Rionegro, Colombia) met the conditions they needed. It’s a relatively high elevation Airport with approximately 7000 feet (Bogotá has 8360, Cartagena has 7), that has a good runway, good apron space, and infrastructure for such a big Airplane. And by then it didn’t have much traffic.
There are other high elevation Airports around the world, such as Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, La Paz in Bolivia, Eldorado itself in Bogotá, among others, but in that moment they decided Rionegro fit the bill just nicely.
So Airbus brought the Airplane all the way to Colombia just to be tested in those conditions, to see its behaviour and performance, and to put all that data in the manuals and the flight envelope, and to see if the engines and the systems had any kind of problem operating on those conditions.
The novelty wasn’t only the fact that the Airplane was coming, but also that it was the very first transatlantic flight of the Airbus A380’s history. The very first landing in America, it came to Rionegro before it ever went to the United States or Canada.
The rumour spread, and lots of people went to the Airport to see the Airplane. I didn’t imagine that so many people would be interested on something like that in Medellín. But yes, a private and technical matter that in theory only interested people in the industry became the event of the moment.
I was one of those interested people, I had finished high school not too long ago, and I was just planning how to get my Pilot’s licence in view of the many obstacles I had because of money. I had free time, and the Airplane was going to come right to my local Airport, how could I miss it?
The Airplane was supposed to arrive on january the 8th, 2006, but there were some issues in Toulouse, France (the place it was coming from) and it didn’t arrive that day. The crowd had to go back home empty-handed.
That january the 8th there were only regular operations in the Airport, no giant Airplane being certified appeared.
On january the 9th the crowd was even bigger, but the Airplane didn’t come that day either. At about 1500 local time policemen began to walk and shout “it will come tomorrow!”. People said “Again? Aaaaahhh noooo!”, but yes, that day it didn’t come either. Bad luck like a scooter.
The only more or less certain thing I had on january the 10th was that the Airplane was going to come unless something weird happened, but I didn’t know the time, or anything else really. Back then we didn’t have services such as Planefinder or Flightradar24, nor did I have a smart phone with a dataplan or something like that. I had the typical Nokia whose battery would last 3 weeks and its most advanced function was SMS or snake.
I didn’t have a car either, and foresaw difficulty to reach the Airport and have a good vantage point if I waited too long. So I just chose to be there from 8 in the morning just “in case it arrived”.
Friends from other places had come, including my friendss Willem from The Hague who was in Colombia and came to Medellín just to see the event. With him I took the public bus to the Airport early and I was there in the morning according to the plan.
The Airplane didn’t arrive in the morning, and more people kept coming to the Airport, it was getting packed. Back then I didn’t have a camera of my own, I had a Kodak DX7590 that Juakax had lent to me and that I couldn’t properly use. Meanwhile I took photos of the other traffic that was there with Willem and more people who joined us.
We stayed put the moment we realised it was going to be hard to keep our place if we moved, and we remained there.
Suddenly the firefighters began to test their machines for the reception, while the Airport continued operating as usual.
Likewise, there was movement in the regional platform. People started to take their positions, and all they needed to receive the A380 was put in place.
It was coming! In the control tower they were expecting… and controlling.
The Airbus A380 arrived at 15:29 local time direct and nonstop from Toulouse. I had been taking photos all the day, and just loitering around.
The chosen one was the number 4 prototype, registered as F-WWDD, it had been the second to fly of the whole program. Below you can see the Airplane arriving from another point in the Airport, a video from my friendss Eduardo.
As I write this, almost 12 years after it came to Colombia to be tested, F-WWDD is preserved in a museum in Le Bourget, France. In the video below in can be seen landing there to be delivered to the museum, february the 14th 2017.
I would find that very same Airplane being demonstrated years later in Farnborough, United Kingdom.
I was very tired but it didn’t matter much, it was happening! As soon as the Airplane landed I managed to take about 5 photos and… THE FUCKING CAMERA RAN OUT OF BATTERY!
I didn’t have spare batteries, nor a way to acquire some there, nor anyone to lend me some, and history was happening right in my face. The good thing is that it didn’t run out of battery before, that is, I managed to save those 5 photos of the moment, but nothing else that day.
It was truly impressive to see that Airplane just then right in Rionegro, and since I didn’t have a functioning camera anymore I just watched everything while talking shit with my friendss, I already had photos for posterity anyway, however few as they were. The moment was history in the making, and we were its witnesses.
The day was over but the Airplane was going to remain until january the 14th being tested, and the Airport became a marketplace during that period, the crowd was always huge, and the traffic jam to get out was bad. Of course I returned like the aeronautical quidnunc I am.
On january the 11th I went back again with several friendss, even people not related to Aviation, we saw the Airplane and its operations that day, like in the photo below.
I don’t think a DC-8 and an A380 will be together in Rionegro ever again.
Normal operations january the 11th 2006.
Getting ready for the day’s tests.
I WASN’T envious of the people who had ramp access and could take close photos with the Airplane in that moment. I WASN’T.
All the doors opened.
Good evening, I am from the government of Colombia and I’m here to help you. HAHAHA!
Fuel it MORE…
Who’s that man… that sees me and gets me naked…
Let’s get to business.
The night came and with it my drunk aim (I had no idea of photography back then).
And well, on january the 12th I also returned with my friendss (so much so that they took me by car and I didn’t have to deal with the Rionegro public bus that day).
From the very entrance, not too late, the size of the crowd could be told.
Little place to park…
Even ecuadorian nuns arrived.
Now it’s really full…
Beginning the day’s tests.
Everybody was waiting.
-“Listen to me Margaret, is that Airplane so big or am I so short?” -“Both!”.
Normal operations continue…
Alright, let’s get to business!
People in the Tampa Cargo hangar and the cargo terminal stopped their activities for a few minutes to watch the Airbus A380 taxi in front of them.
Done for the day, Everybody going home! (and the traffic jam…)
Placid traffic jam…
Traffic jam by day.
Traffic jam by night.
Evidently the event became a chance for an outdoorsy outing, and there were people selling food and varied things.
There was even the low-level pickpocket that was caught trying to snatch something from someone’s pocket.
They were selling from example this Pan America BoeinB 747, that wasn’t Boeing, nor BoeinB, nor did it have Pan American’s colours. But anyway… it was there.
Romantic outdoorsy outing, of course.
And while the traffic was calmed and the Airbus A380 was out of sight, there were other ways to entertain oneself.
The Airplane finished its tests in a satisfactory way and left to Pointe-a-Pitre, leaving forever its footprint in the José María Córdova and the local people. It returned to America a month afterward, to be tested in the intense cold of Iqaluit, Canada.
Below is the last group of photos of what I could capture of the event, the following two days I had things to do (sadly) and I couldn’t go:
My friendss Eduardo nonetheless could go on january the 14th 2006 and he made a video of what happened that day.
The Airplane would return two more times to Colombia, but this time to Bogotá, and since then it hasn’t returned. I saw it in Bogotá in one of those two times.
Thanks to this event I ended up living in Thailand some time later (una thing led to the other and the other), but that belongs to another article. Kisses.