The giant Airbus A380 and the tiny French village

Road Trip 2011: Each time Airbus prepares to build another A380, it must first send a convoy of the giant components for this mammoth airplane on a 124-mile journey that passes straight through the middle of the tiny French hamlet of Levignac.

Airbus sends the giant pieces that make up its A380--the largest passenger plane in the world--on a convoy that passes through the tiny French village of Levignac. CNET got a chance to see the spectacle up close as part of Road Trip 2011. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LEVIGNAC, France--I'm looking up toward the sky at two things you wouldn't expect to be right next to each other. One is the "boulangerie" sign outside the bakery in this tiny French village. The other is the "Airbus A380" logo emblazoned on the protective cover on one end of a segment of giant airplane fuselage.

Why would two such things be next to each other? Because late Friday night, a truck convoy carrying all the major components of the next A380 that Airbus will build --the world's largest passenger plane, a full double-decker giant--passed through this hamlet near Toulouse, France, often literally within inches of some of Levignac's buildings.

Airbus manufactures these components--the wings, the tail fins, the fuselage sections--in facilities in Spain, England, Germany, and France. Each is then shipped to Bordeaux, France, and then together, they're put on a barge to another French town, Langon. And from there, each segment is put on the back of a truck, and then, along with a large escort of police and security vehicles, the whole lot crosses about 124 miles of countryside on its way to Toulouse, where Airbus actually assembles the gigantic A380s.

To accommodate the massive task of ferrying all these airplane parts across so much territory, France created a new road, the Itineraire a Grand Gabarit, with the primary goal being that the convoy should be able to skirt towns and bridges. But in Levignac, the convoy has no choice but to pass right through the middle--usually after 11 o'clock at night, and every two weeks or so, when Airbus is ready to begin working on the next A380. And that means it's party time. As part of CNET Road Trip 2011, I stopped in to check out the festivities.

Hundreds of locals--and others--line the streets, many with drinks in hand, waiting for the convoy to make its way through town. At first, the flashing lights that get the crowd perked up turn out to be just a cop showing up to give a car parked on the main drag--where the trucks will soon be driving--a ticket and get it towed. And then it's the vanguard of convoy vans, making sure all is in order. But then, there it is: Something very large appears at the far end of the street--it's a little hard to see, because it's after 11, remember--and while you can't quite tell what it is, you know it wasn't there a minute ago, and that it's not an everyday thing in this little burg.

And then, there are wings. Gigantic A380 wings--first one on its own truck, wrapped tight in plastic, and then the other. And then the massive tail fins, which themselves are as big as the wings on an Airbus A320. And then three huge sections of A380 fuselage. One after another--each piece dominating your field of vision, and grabbing the full attention of everyone nearby.

It is something to see. And then, just like that, just when you're getting used to what's going on, and hoping for more, the convoy is past. Having cleared the main part of town and reached the place where the road widens, the trucks suddenly pick up speed. And then they're gone, and the crowd spills into the street, and it's like a concert has ended--cars driving in every direction, people milling around, a sense that something cool just happened. But now it's over.

An animation on the Web site dedicated to the road France built to handle the A380 convoy illustrates--albeit in comic tones--how Airbus ships the segments of its massive airplane. Itineraire a Grand Garabit

Except if you happen to drive the next morning near the A380 assembly plant in Blagnac, outside Toulouse. You can't get inside, but you don't need to. From a frontage road just alongside, you can see them. All those giant airplane segments, stationed quietly outside the plant, with no one around except a stray security guard. And since it's a Saturday, all you can think is one thing, even though you know it's not quite like this: On Monday, when all the folks at the plant get to work, they're going to discover one heck of a package waiting for them.

 

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