From the air traffic control tower at Charles de Gaulle Airport on the outskirts of Paris, the action below plays out like a well-choreographed dance. At Europe’s second-largest airport, a plane lands every 30 seconds. The logistics involved with coordinating all of those passengers’ journeys are nearly impossible to comprehend. And yet, that is exactly the job of Air France’s 51,000 employees.
To keep its fleet of 305 aircraft in top operating condition, Air France operates six maintenance hangars at the Paris airport, with one hangar built specifically for the Airbus A380. Designed by Cardete Huet Architectes and completed in 2008, the hangar is over 25,000 square metres — about the size of three and a half soccer pitches.
Airbus began making the double-decker A380 in 2007, but just this winter announced production would stop by 2021 — making my rare close-up glimpse that much rarer. Even with my fear of heights, climbing up 115 steps to the top of the tail was totally worth the wobbly knees, just to get the photo of the giant bird with its wings spread out below — a full 80-metre span from end to end.
A separate hangar sits nearby, dedicated to engine checks and testing. Inside, maintenance bays are lined up like an operating theatre, stark and clinical, with teams of mechanics. Mechanics and engineers dressed, appropriately, in white lab coats. The intense precision of their every move rings through the air. Once turbine blades are changed and other maintenance is completed, engines are moved into a giant metal-clad soundproof test cell. While standing next to a GE90 during takeoff (when it reaches its maximum thrust of 115,000 lb-ft) would be truly deafening, standing next to one during testing is still incredibly loud. Even with ear protection, my body is vibrating from the 3,000 lb-ft engine test.
Touring these spaces, one builds a totally new appreciation for the movement of people, vehicles, and goods through an airport. Just out of sight of a terminal’s passengers lies an incredible infrastructure — thousands of people working on the ground, behind the scenes, to launch giant metallic wonders into the sky.