Just before landing at London's Heathrow Airport, you're likely to see a complex of enormous hangers flash by your window. Along with offices and parking space for stored aircraft, the complex houses the engineering division of British Airways, which is charged with keeping the airline's fleet in the air.
The largest two hangers, which are adjacent to its crew training center (where I piloted a Boeing 747 simulator two months ago), are big enough to house BA's biggest aircraft, the Airbus A380. First built in the 1950s during the days of the British Overseas Airways Corporation, BA's predecessor airline, they have been enlarged several times as commercial aircraft grew continually bigger. Before the airline's first A380 arrived in 2013, crews had to cut a slot at the entrance of each hanger to accommodate the aircraft's 79-foot (24-meter) tail fin.
On June 21, the day before BA accepted delivery of its twelfth A380 (and the last in its original order), I had the chance to tour the hanger as one of the airline's massive A380s was undergoing an engine change. The airliner had arrived at Heathrow that morning from Johannesburg, but was pulled from service temporarily to fix a non-critical oil pressurization issue.
The maintenance hangers are on Heathrow's eastern edge, well away from the terminals where you spend your time as a passenger. The Boeing 777 in the background is parked in a penlike structure that allows engineers to run engine tests while limiting jet blast and noise to the surrounding area. Just above a Cathay Pacific 777 from Hong Kong is about to land, just one of the continuous stream arrivals that roared overhead during our visit.
As technicians inside the hanger prepared to remove the faulty engine and send it it away for inspection and repair, the replacement Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine sat on a wheeled cradle on the the hanger floor. Rolls-Royce will deliver a new engine right to your door if you like. That would be one hell of a present to unwrap.
Robert Crew, BA's engineering head for the airline's A380, A350 and Boeing 787 fleet, stands in front of one of the A380's four engines.
The airline's Heathrow and London Gatwick bases only handle light and routine maintenance. Heavier jobs such as "D Checks", when almost the entire aircraft is taken apart and inspected, occur at separate facilities in Glasgow in Scotland and Cardiff in Wales.
These "pink pigs" are ground support equipment used during maintenance jobs. The nozzles lining each side are used to provide air line connections to the aircraft from a single point inside the hangar.
Considering how big and complex the A380 is, its cockpit is much simpler than you might expect. LCD screens have replaced mechanical gauges and there are fewer controls than in older aircraft like the Boeing 747.
The bumps on either side of the throttles on the console house trackballs for controlling the computer screens. Like all newer Airbus aircraft, the A380 uses controls sticks (the joysticklike things next to either seat) instead of controls columns.
Just behind the cockpit on the lower deck is the First Class suites. BA's premium class lacks the bars and showers you'll find on other A380s, but it's still the most luxurious place on the plane to spend 12 hours. During our tour, workers cleaned the cabin and readied it for its next flight.
The business class section on the upper deck isn't quite as posh as First, but it's still a world away from economy. In business class, BA uses a staggered arrangement between standard and rear-facing seats.
The wings support four Trent 900 engines, each of which is almost 10 feet (3 meters) wide and weighs almost 7 tons. The spirals in the center of each engine fan let ground crew know the engines are running.