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