In rural France about an hour outside the southwestern city of Toulouse is a large parking lot set between fields. Here is where a truck convoy carrying six pieces of a giant A380 airliner rest during the day as they drive from a port near Bordeaux to Airbus' Toulouse factory for final assembly.
To avoid fouling daytime traffic, the trucks hauling the wings, tailplane and three fuselage sections travel over the course of two nights on the 150-mile journey. And because the parts are so enormous (the tailplane is 45 feet high when resting on a trailer), the convoy must avoid overpasses and stick to country roads instead.
The twice-monthly convoys are a bizarre and strangely wonderful sight that the public is free to witness. But if you can't make it to France, keep clicking to ride along for a night with the Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit (in English, "oversize convoy route").
The parking area, which Airbus specially built for the convoys, is surrounded by tall fences and guarded during the day. When we arrived at 10 p.m., the convoy was just coming to life as drivers warmed up their trucks and the support crews began to assemble. We were free to walk around and gawk, which we did.
Separate trucks haul the 150-foot long wings, which are tipped on their sides. From this angle, it was hard to imagine them lifting an aircraft and hundreds of people into the air.
Each wing is covered in what looked like a sort of shrink wrap. Brilliantly white under the tall lights surrounding the lot, I imagine that it would be great fun to remove.
Instead of being shipped in two sections, the tailplane (or the horizontal stabilizer) arrives in Toulouse in one piece, ready to be attached to the fuselage. Made mostly of composite material, it's a pale yellow color.
The largely aluminum fuselage sections are pea-soup green. The nose was wrapped to protect the cockpit windows and radome on the aircraft's nose.
The middle fuselage section is the longest at 76.1 feet. The fuselage section are assembled in Germany and elsewhere in France, the wings in the United Kingdom, and the tailplane in Spain.
The rear fuselage section narrows to a point at its end. When it arrives in Toulouse, it will be joined to the other sections to form the A380's 238-foot fuselage.
The passenger windows and doors are already cut into each section.
Parked next to each other, the trucks carrying the wings make for a curious sight.
As the convoy gets ready to depart on its journey, escort vans and motorcycles assemble in a formation surrounding the trucks.
Each truck carries the very appropriate warning sign "Convoi Exceptionelle."
As the convoy begins to move, we jump into a van and race ahead through the town of Ordan-Larroque to a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Just before the convoy arrives, motorcycle riders race in to pause traffic.
The wings were the first to rumble by. The convoy travels between 6.2 and 15.5 miles per hour.
As we watched, the trucks turned the corner and disappeared behind a hill.
Next came the tailplane.
The fuselage sections are arranged in the convoy from front to back. It's almost as if the aircraft was flying along the ground.
Just think that in a few week's time, passengers will be sitting inside this section, watching movies and eating a meal as they fly through the air.
After the rear fuselage section passed by, the darkness returned and we got back into the van to drive ahead of the convoy again.
Next we parked at the entrance to the village of Gimont. A giant A380 wing is about the last thing you'd expect to see passing over this old stone bridge.
As before, the tailplane followed.
And the fuselage sections bring up the rear.
It takes about 15 minutes for the trucks to pass by. The convoy can be up to a mile-and-a-quarter long.
The trucks slowed as they entered Gimont's cener. After midnight by this time, only two locals came out to watch. When the convoys first started in 2003, though, they were spectator events.
Trees along the convoy route are kept trimmed and some road signs are temporarily removed.