One of the biggest and one of the smallest commercial airplanes took to the skies during the past year. In April, the world's largest passenger airliner, the Airbus A380 Navigator, made its maiden flight over the company's Toulouse, France, assembly plant. Soon thereafter the first alcohol-powered aircraft, the EMB 202 Ipanema crop duster, was introduced by Brazil's Indústria Aeronáutica Neiva, a subsidiary of Embraer SA.
A few months later at the Paris Air Show, the massive A380 superjumbo jet wowed the crowds of onlookers, who were amazed to hear how quiet it was. Designed to carry 555 to 800 passengers, which is at least a third more than the current airline heavyweight, the Boeing 747, the twin-aisle double-decker from Airbus will weigh 570,000 kilograms when fully loaded. The plane's wings span 80 meters, 15 meters more than a 747's, and the jet provides 50 percent more floor space. Yet on a per-seat basis, the A380's four turbofans burn 12 percent less fuel than a 747's engines do.
This year's debut follows a complex, $15-billion effort by French, German, Spanish and British aerospace firms to develop what promises to be a significant step for the civil airliner. Airbus designers and engineers have enhanced the A380's flight operations and economic performance by incorporating several cutting-edge technologies into structures and systems. The new mega-transporter, for example, achieves significant weight savings by using lightweight but strong carbon-fiber and other advanced resin epoxy composite materials. About 800 kilograms are saved per plane by replacing conventional aluminum fuselage panels with ones constructed of Glare, a glass-fiber reinforced aluminum laminate that is about one quarter lighter and has much better resistance to mechanical fatigue and damage. A new high-pressure hydraulic system for controlling the flight surfaces provides reliability and cost benefits and reduces weight. The giant airliner also boasts a high-tech cockpit with the latest interactive displays and fly-by-wire avionic systems.
After test flights are completed and the A380 is certified, it is slated to enter service in the second half of 2006 with its first operator, Singapore Airlines. If Airbus planners are correct, the European company's flagship will ease congestion at major airports by transporting more people more efficiently than ever on the world's principal air routes.
With oil prices at record levels, pollution limits in place at many airports and the threat of emission-control regulations, the global aviation industry has good reason to embrace alternative fuel technology. The single-seat EMB 202 Ipanema agricultural utility aircraft from Neiva/Embraer is the first production-series model to burn ethanol produced from sugarcane. This achievement is a natural progression for Brazil because its automobiles have been running on this type of renewable alcohol fuel for more than two decades, an effort that was launched in response to the 1970s oil crisis.
Not only is ethanol a third or fourth the price of aviation gasoline and a cleaner energy source, it helps to improve the aircraft's overall performance. The new Ipanema piston engine also brings other advantages, including lower maintenance costs and a 20 percent reduction in operating costs. So far Neiva/Embraer has received more than 100 orders for the novel crop duster and has plans to install alcohol-burning engines in some of its other models. Company engineers say that conversion of existing aviation gas engines is not only feasible but cost-effective.