Wednesday, April 27, 2005

the beast of blagnac
It's a bit jammy that I'm having some training at the aircraft factory this week, and so I had all the passes I needed to secure my entry onto the runway for the first flight of the A380. This beast took off from Blagnac airport in Toulouse at 1030h this morning and I was there, one head in a crowd of tens of thousands.

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The plans to build the A380 were the first things I learnt about Airbus, and it that that persuaded me to leave England and take my University Industrial Year with them in Toulouse, back in 1996. Watching the whole project coming together has been quite exciting over the last couple of years, whether it was pieces of the aircraft itself, the gargantuan factories it is built in, or the boats and planes and roads that were needed to transport the massive sections of its 550 passenger holding, 600 ton bulk.

I was watching from less than 100 metres away as the beast ran past me on the runway, with me frantically jumping up and down and cheering and shouting "aller! aller!" as loud as I could. It was only a second or two later when the A380 started to rotate into the climb. Seeing the thing lift itself into the air was truthfully a very emotional moment, containing a large share of amazement and a fair dollop of pride. A huge cheer went up from the crowd, with arms flung into the air and smiles a mile wide spread across our faces.

Without a doubt, it is on days like this that being European, experiencing the fruits of European cooperation, is just bloody fantastic. I shall certainly not be voting British National Party in the UK General Election next month.

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Friday, April 22, 2005

a night in
I see some of you have been wondering where I have been, and I'm not surprised since I notice it has been nearly a whole month. Thanks for the concern and the questions, but no need to worry, things are cool over here. I've just been stupidly busy, tis all.

It was the Tuesday after my last post that I flew out to the UK for a day of technical meetings. I was supposed to leave at 1630, but the flight got cancelled so I grabbed the company credit card and booked another flight to Gatwick instead of Bristol. This one was scheduled for 2130, which was going to get me the UK at 2230. I was of course overjoyed to know that it was delayed for an hour. Arriving at Gatwick at 2330, I then grabbed a car and drove the 100 miles up the M4 to Bristol, arriving about 0130.

I left Britain again on Thursday morning on the 0630 plane after getting up at about 0500. I went straight to work and slogged it out all day trying to get loads of stuff done since knew I only had one complete day at work to prepare myself for the troubleshooting trip I mentioned two posts ago. Saturday I chilled out, but Sunday I went snowboarding which again meant getting up at 0500 again.

I was in bed on Sunday night by 0200, after completing my taxes and packing my rucksack for a weeks holiday back home. The plane left at 0730. It was on time. I got to my parent's place about 1100 and spent the next few days chilling, drinking with old mates, checking out my sister's new house, celebrating my parent's 32nd wedding aniversary, mucking about with my neice, and eating too much curry and Easter chocolate.

Friday saw me travelling the breadth of the South, going down to the English surf heaven of Newquay for the three day stag weekend of a guy I lived with at Uni. I have very few pictures due to not trusting my drunken self to carry my camera around. But believe me, you really don't want to see the ones I do have. Neither my mate nor the strippers were a pretty sight naked.

By the time we left the caravan park on Monday morning I had eaten another curry, three English breakfasts and a kebab, and drunk about 20 pints of beer, numerous Vodka Red Bulls and all sorts of other rubbish. I felt great. After sitting at Gatwick for most of the afternoon, I got back to my flat in Toulouse around midnight.

Tuesday morning I got up early to pack my suitcase before going into work. While I'd been in the UK my colleagues had called to say that my troubleshooting trip had changed - I was leaving a day earlier than originally planned. This meant I had only 16 hours back in France before leaving again. Managing to get a bit of work in before leaving, I got to the hotel in Farnborough about 2000. I used to live in Farnborough so there were plenty of people to see, but I decided to spend the night watching TV and dining courtesy of room service.

The next morning saw me out on the airfield, both under and inside the aircraft. It was pretty cool being there like that - I left the town in a run down old Citroen to move to Toulouse, and came back in royal jet. We instrumented the fuel tanks and completed successful tests on the ground. Then we went for a squiggly flight around South West England, around and around, climbing and descending. I was in the cockpit for takeoff and landing, watching the pilots pushing buttons and levers, listening to them taking directions from air traffic control. So unbelievably cool, if you like that sort of thing. The next two days were taken analysing data, hypothesising, drawing up action plans and writing presentations to explain our ideas to the airline. I managed not to eat a single English breakfast at the Holiday Inn, despite the sausages and bacon smiling at me every morning just beyond the fruit salad.

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I flew out to Dallas on Saturday afternoon to catch up with the jet which was going there for it's 5 year service, costing over 2 million dollars. Saturday afternoon wandering around downtown, eating Mexican and looking at Kennedy's fateful grassy knoll. Sunday was iPod shopping day down at the mall, with melon for breakfast, lunch at Souper! Salad!, and steak for dinner.

Monday, I was up at 0700 to check my emails and have a call with the guys back in Europe who were working the last couple of hours of their afternoon and had therefore already had a morning to consider my plan. I met up with the guys from the airline and went to the aircraft, now being fiddled with by the guys in the shop. I gave my presentation, and we scheduled another test for the next day.

That night we went to Al Biernats restaurant where we had some wonderful food. The others had steak but I had delicious Yellowfin Tuna Sashimi Salad. I munched it happily while joking with the crew and watching affluent Americans relaxing in the huge stylish hall, a decorated mix of classical columns supporting domes painted colorful and geometric modern. Driving around the city in a cow horned taxi I loved the States, it's imagination and its energy, its activity and vision.

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The next day saw me donning a set of overalls, gloves and shoe covers and climbing backwards into the aircraft's fuel tanks through a tiny diamond shaped hole in the belly of the beast. Although ventilated with an air cannon, it still stunk in there as I listened for noises and looked for movements. The inspection proved useful and I asked the guys to remove a couple of parts, chatting with them in their thick Texan accents y'awl, warming to their cheerful and relaxed nature.

Tuesday night was calm, just steak again for dinner with the airline technical manager, a man with a wealth of knowledge about planes and ex-pat life. Wednesday morning I packed my bags and headed back off to Dallas For Worth airport in a cab driven by Dr James, a man of tall stories and dodgy trousers. He might have had a silly name, but it was the Embassy Suite's Bell Captain who won the prize on the trip, with his black and white hair making him the very aptly named Mr Napoleon Badger.

British Airways business class may have wonderful seats that recline until they're flat, but sleep was fitful and light as my mind churned over the experiences of the last couple of weeks and filtered out the noise of air rushing past outside the cabin at hundreds of miles per hour. Two films and two airline meals later at 0730, after some chat with Carol from Texas Instruments, I was at back at Gatwick again for the sixth time in three weeks. Like an old friend who wanted to spend a bit of time with me, she kept me there for a few hours as I waited for my 1400 connection back to Toulouse.

Toulouse. My home. Nothing much had changed. The awful driving was the same, the parking just as bad.

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Less than an hour and a half after opening my suitcase, I was back out the door and off to the pub to watch the Jacqui Chan Band. Almost everyone was there. So many people I was glad to see and to joke with. Tonight after another day's work and a couple down the pub, I was going to go back out again. After all, it is Friday night. I hope you won't think me square and boring if I tell you that I have decided to stay in. I'm chilling out at home for a change, catching up with y'awl.

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