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Where giants are born

Building the world’s largest airliner all starts on the back of a truck in the French countryside.

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Mark Mann

An hour's drive outside the French city of Toulouse, just beyond farmhouses set in verdant fields and rose-colored villages basking in an early spring sunset, sits an unexpected sight: six sections of the world's largest commercial airplane.

I've arrived not at an airplane graveyard, but at the starting point for the final leg of the Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit, the route that Airbus uses to transport parts of its ginormous A380 airliner to Toulouse for final assembly. The newly built wings, tailplane (or horizontal stabilizer) and three fuselage sections that will make up an A380 destined for Qatar Airways balance on a convoy of trucks in a large concrete lot. It's a surreal sight, especially in a rural field in southwestern France.

A grand itinerary

An impressive feat of logistics, the Itinéraire is almost as complicated as the giant A380 itself. Because the aircraft's parts are so enormous (see gallery) -- Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit roughly translates to "oversize convoy route" -- Airbus couldn't transport them to Toulouse by existing road or rail. (Only the A380's tail, produced in Germany, is small enough to fit inside the company's curious Beluga cargo aircraft.) Instead, the company had to devise a custom land-and-water route that brings the sections to the factory.

The Itinéraire begins at sea, where cargo ships pick up airplane sections from plants in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and elsewhere in France (see map) and transport them to the port of Pauillac on France's Atlantic coast. After a short trip on a barge down the Garonne River past Bordeaux to Langon, they're loaded on the truck convoy and driven 150 miles to Airbus' Toulouse headquarters. Much about the route, including the docks where the ships load and unload and the parking areas like the one where I'm standing, was designed and built from scratch.

To minimize traffic disruption, the convoy travels over two nights, laying over during the day in the guarded lots. To avoid overpasses it sticks mostly to country roads, but that creates other challenges. Traffic is briefly stopped when a convoy passes, trees are kept trimmed, and some road signs are temporarily removed. When the 23-foot-wide fuselage sections squeeze down the main street of small towns, they barely fit between the buildings on either side.

All of those things made the Itinéraire a spectator event when regular A380 production started in 2003. Fourteen years later, the twice-a month trips (each convoy carries the parts for one A380) attract little local notice. Now, it's only aviation geeks like me who agree to follow the convoy from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m.

On the road again

It's dark when we arrive at the last layover area near the town of Ordan-Larroque. The wings, sitting side by side on separate trailers, are entirely covered by a sort of shrink wrap, making them brilliantly white under the tall lights illuminating the lot. The three aluminum fuselage sections are mostly a pea-soup green color, while the horizontal stabilizer, partially made of composite material, is a pale yellow. 

As we walk around to shoot photos and gawk, the convoy drivers take a smoke break or chat. I'd love to linger, but the stillness breaks quickly as the convoy begins to roar to life for the start of tonight's leg. Meanwhile, my group jumps into a van and races ahead so we can watch the parade pass by a few miles up the road. About 20 minutes later, we pull over pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It's a clear, pitch-black night with a gorgeous carpet of stars overhead. But soon, the silence is broken as the convoy's headlights appear around a bend. It takes about 15 minutes for the trucks to rumble by (the convoy can be up to a mile-and-a-quarter long) and the darkness returns.

It's extraordinary, but it also feels comfortably routine. Crew members on motorcycles smoothly pause traffic at intersections, a relatively simple task given the few cars on the road at this late hour. The delayed drivers don't raise a fuss as they're held back. Some barely look up from their phones. It's obvious that they've seen it all before.

The full route of the Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit

Steve Stankiewicz

Next, we speed ahead to our second viewing point in the village of Gimont, arriving around midnight. Aside from two spectators who briefly pull over to watch, there's no one around as the convoy snakes down a hill and across an old stone bridge at the entrance to town. Then, after slowly following the rear fuselage section through Gimont's narrow streets (the trucks travel between 6.2 and 15.5 miles per hour), we head back to our hotel around 1:30 a.m. The convoy continues on to Toulouse, rolling into Airbus' plant next to the city's airport about 3 a.m.

Under construction

The next morning we're on the floor of Airbus' massive A380 final assembly line. Compared with the busy, but well-orchestrated, activity of the night before, the bright and spotlessly clean factory is surprisingly calm. Just a handful of workers are visible, making it almost eerily quiet, but our Airbus guide tells us that this is the normal pace of work for lunchtime on a Friday.

Two almost-completed A380s, one destined for Emirates and another for Singapore Airlines, tower above us as they await installation of their engines. Outside, the aircraft look almost ready to fly, but inside they're still empty shells with cables and tubes stretching the length of the fuselage ceiling. It's a far cry from a finished airplane with passenger seats, but without any interior fittings the immense scale of the A380 is inescapable (the typical A380 layout fits 544 passengers, but the number varies depending on the customer). I could go bowling in here on a lane four times the normal length. You can buy one if you want; you just need a cool $437 million.

How big are the A380's parts?


Feet long Feet wide Feet high
Wings 148.3 22.3 37.7
Forward fuselage 69.9 25.6 32.5
Center fuselage 76.1 25.6 33.1
Rear fuselage 75.5 25.6 32.5
Tailplane 90.2 23.6 44.9

The aircraft's size is equally apparent as we climb on top of the fuselage and stand under the 48-foot tail. From behind, the polished skin of the rudder reflects the factory's lights so brightly that it almost disappears when viewed from behind. Looking ahead, the A380 stretches on for another 200 or so feet and the 261-foot wingspan barely fits even in the wide-angle lens of my camera. I could spend all day clambering around this big beast, but my flight back to London on a significantly smaller Airbus A320 is inching closer.

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As we end the tour, the convoy we followed last night is resting outside the factory. Here, next to completed A380s and A350s parked in the bright sunshine, the sections look much more at home than they did passing a village boulangerie. By next week, they'll disappear into the factory for final assembly. And about eight months after that, the completed airliner will begin flying hundreds of passengers all over the world. But no matter how far it goes, it all started on the back of a truck in the French countryside.

This story appears in the fall 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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