When Airbus entered into a partnership with Bombardier to take a majority stake in the C Series program in October 2017, the European airframer added a brand-new 100-150 seat single-aisle aircraft to its lineup. Since its tie-up, Airbus has pushed the former C Series program beyond most observers' imagination. Closing in on 550 total orders, the rebranded Airbus A220 is now demonstrating its efficiency by surpassing its original fuel savings and direct operating cost estimates with operators around the world.
This clean-sheet design was developed to tackle the lower end of the Airbus and Boeing lines, the A318 and 737-600. The C Series program received the final green light when the Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW1000G geared turbofan family was introduced; this development offered an “out-of-the-box” fuel savings of 15 percent. Aerodynamic efficiencies and the use of advanced weight-saving material bumped the savings up to 20 percent over legacy airliners in this space.
Ironically, the C Series and geared turbofan technology also pushed Airbus and Boeing to launch the A320Neo and 737 Max programs; however, without the smallest members of each family, the A318 and 737-600, leaving a great opportunity for the A220.
As of June, there were 72 A220s in service with five operators. A number of these aircraft are being heavily utilized, flying up to 13 legs and in excess of 18 hours per day. Depending on configuration, the A220-100 seats between 100 and 130 passengers and the A220-300 130 to 160 passengers.
Among current operators, A220s have begun or soon will be replacing legacy Boeing 717s, 737-300/500s, Avro RJ100s, and MD80s. In addition to replacing older aircraft, some operators of the A220 see the aircraft's long range—up to 3,400 nm and 180 minutes ETOPS certification—enabling them to develop new markets. As an example, the A220-100 is the largest airliner certified for operations into London City Airport (a steep approach and short runway); from that airport, it can reach the U.S. East Coast, Russia, West Africa, and the Middle East. In the U.S., Delta plans on using the A220 to replace older aircraft and “up-gauge” routes currently served by regional jets to increase revenues.
Several key features differentiate the A220 from legacy airliners. Considering that most airliners in this class were certified 20 years ago or more, the A220 takes full advantage of advanced technologies including Fadec controlled geared turbofan (GTF) engines, a fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system, fully integrated avionics, and is constructed using composites (wing), titanium, and the latest aluminum-lithium alloys (fuselage), making for a lighter more cost-efficient aircraft. As a comparison, the A220-300 is six tons lighter than an A319Neo and eight tons lighter than a Boeing 737-7 Max. For the pilot, the main purpose of this advanced technology is to reduce workload and enhance safety.
A220 Familiarization Course
To experience the aircraft firsthand, AIN was invited to Montreal to complete an A220 familiarization course and to Wichita to fly an A220 Flight Test Vehicle (FTV-2). The familiarization course included a complete computer-based training program and a four-hour session in the full-flight simulator. Throughout this entire experience, my goal was to view this flight through the lens of a line pilot and safety zealot.
In Montreal, I met with A220 standards and training manager Pierre Francoeur for an in-depth introduction to aircraft systems, avionics, automation philosophy, normal procedures, and non-normal procedures. Francoeur, like any great instructor, had an infectious passion for teaching. His favorite topics were technology, upset recovery training and, of course, the A220. In addition to his training role, Francoeur is a production test pilot at the factory at Mirabel (CYXU), so he knows the aircraft well.
From the start, I learned that the A220 is light years ahead in technology, automation, and operating philosophies compared with the aircraft that I am most familiar with, primarily earlier third-generation jetliners (Airbus A300-600 and Boeing 757/767). In fact, the FBW system and Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics on the A220 are more closely related to the ultra-advanced Global 7500 than those on any other airliner. The main difference is a leap toward simplicity, safety, and highly integrated systems.
As an example, on the A220 there are no “boxed” memory items for emergencies and minimal use of flows to set up the flight deck. Bringing the A220 to life is simple: ensure that the parking brake is set, select both batteries to “auto,” and select the electronic checklist. Then wait, and do not touch a thing. As the aircraft comes to life (and either external or APU electrical power is added), nearly all systems are self-tested (only the anti-ice system must be manually tested, a regulatory requirement), all inertial reference systems align, and the primary flight control computers become active. Within a couple of minutes, an electronic checklist (ECL) verifies that all systems are ready to go. The ECL is fantastic and is used for both normal and non-normal checklist and automatically “checks off” items that the system senses. As I gained more experience with the A220, I really began to appreciate learning an aircraft designed from a clean sheet with considerable input from pilots.
Simulators are useful to perform maneuvers that are difficult or too dangerous to perform in the actual aircraft. Francoeur created a training profile that exercises most systems, exploring low-visibility operations, in-flight upset and windshear recovery procedures, and engine failures at V1.
A lot of time was spent on upset recovery training in the simulator. Francoeur pointed out that crew coordination is a primary element of this procedure; during the actual upset, the pilot monitoring will first callout “upset” followed by either “nose high” or “nose low.” The pilot flying will then verify (by scanning the ADI and standby instruments) acknowledge and announce the condition (either nose-high or -low) and begin the recovery. In an FBW aircraft, in addition to the flight crew comparing and confirming that all the flight instruments either agree or disagree, this two- to three-second exercise allows the aircraft—through its flight envelope protections—to begin the recovery process.
Technical Flight Evaluation
A few days and 1,500 miles later, I would again find myself in an A220 cockpit. This time, however, I would visit the flight test center in Wichita to fly FTV-2 (SN 50002), the second A220-100 prototype. This aircraft was used extensively during the certification process and continues to be used to test future enhancements, such as high-elevation landings and RNP-AR (required navigation performance – authorization required) that will enable lower approach minimums.
The crew for our test flight consisted of experimental test pilots Dave Lewandowski and Andy Litavniks and flight-test engineer Mark King. Following our preflight briefing, we walked out to the flight line to begin preparing the A220 for the flight. As we exited the hangar door, my first impression was that the A220 is a big airplane; its ramp presence is far more mainline than regional jet. Once at the aircraft, Litavniks, King, and I would climb aboard, stow our gear and begin the interior safety briefing.
Next, I would join Lewandowski on the ramp to complete the walk-around preflight inspection. The walk-around, like that for any other airliner, begins with the typical clockwise pattern.
Most items, the probes, oxygen blowout disks, etc. are like most jets'; however, as we approached the PW1525G, the large fan section and beautifully contoured composite blades really stood out. The PW1525G is the highest-thrust variant available for the A220-100 and is rated at 23,300 pounds of thrust with an additional 5 percent reserve. There are a total of four engine configurations available on the A220-100 and three for the larger A220-300, each with slightly lower thrust ratings. According to Lewandowski, from the cockpit, there are very few operational differences inflight. Other unique items inspected during the preflight included electric brakes (advantages: no hydraulic leaks and lower weight) and a very quiet Honeywell 131-9C APU that is, as standard, configured for ETOPS.
With the preflight complete, we settled into the cockpit. The A220 flight deck is huge; it’s clean, uncluttered, and provides a great workspace. Overhead, there are minimal systems controls. The flight deck uses the dark, quiet concept—all switches are in the 12 o’clock “auto” or “on” position and push buttons remain pressed in. Only during non-normal operations or configurations are there any changes.
The Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics are the heart of this flight deck. Five large 15.1-inch LCD display units take center stage; each is configurable to meet a pilot’s needs based on phase of flight. In the event of a display failure, that information automatically reverts to one of the remaining displays. The aircraft can be dispatched with up to two display units inop. An optional HUD for both the captain and first officer is available that replicates the symbology from the PFD, easing the transition to an outside view and reducing training requirements. To date, both Swiss International and Korean Airlines have ordered the HUD. In addition, there are two other airlines that will take delivery of HUD-equipped A220s later in 2019 and in 2020.
On this flight, Lewandowski would sit in the right seat and guide me through our test card; a profile that would include high-altitude airwork, low-speed maneuvering, an autoland, several additional landings, and a simulated engine failure after takeoff. Litavniks would serve as a safety pilot in the observer seat and provide input and valuable assistance throughout the flight. Smith—the flight-test engineer—would keep us all honest and provide additional performance data when needed. I would occupy the left seat for the next three hours.
During the exterior preflight, Litavniks stayed inside and performed most of the cockpit set-up duties. All that was left for Lewandowski and me was loading the flight plan into the FMS via datalink and completing the before-start checklist. Engine start on the A220 is fully automated. The start sequence is initiated by placing the engine start switch to “run” and everything from normal to non-normal starts is completed automatically. During one phase of the start, before ignition, the engine will motor to prevent rotor bowing to stabilize internal temperatures. Total start time for both engines was just under three minutes. The left engine EGT peaked at 780 degrees C, while the right engine peaked at 766 degrees C. Next, we shut down the APU, performed a flight control check, cleared the ground crew, and were ready to taxi. Taxiing the A220 out of the flight test center to Runway 19R took little effort. The aircraft taxied with idle thrust at a manageable speed and the electronic brakes and nosewheel steering were responsive but not too touchy.
The weather for the flight was typical for Wichita in the spring; VFR with a high broken layer of clouds and strong winds from 180 degrees at 15 knots, with gusts to 24. Takeoff weight was 107,700 pounds (about 80 percent of mtow) with 20,950 pounds of fuel onboard. Speeds for a Flaps 4 takeoff were V1-111, VR-111, V2-120, and VFTO of 190 knots.
Cleared for takeoff, I lined the aircraft up with the centerline and advanced the thrust levers to 55 percent N1. Once the N1 stabilized, I further advanced the thrust until the autothrottle engaged. Acceleration was brisk and the airspeed soon reached VR. I then increased back pressure on the sidestick—less than one-half-inch travel—and pitched towards the “pitch target marker” (during takeoff, displays are decluttered) on the ADI. After takeoff, we accelerated and retracted the flaps in accordance with the speed cues on the airspeed tape.
During the climb or any other phase of flight, when hand-flying (autopilot off) the pilot must adjust the pitch trim as speed increases or decreases. On the airspeed tape, there is a “FBW trim speed" bug that is the cue to identify the speed the aircraft is trimmed for in manual flight. When the autopilot is engaged, the pitch trim is automatically adjusted. This is different from larger Airbus aircraft; those types incorporate auto-trim during auto or manual flight. In general, depending on the airspeed, the maximum allowable pitch—according to the flight envelope protections—is 30 degrees nose up and 20 degrees nose down (this is further limited during takeoff, for tailstrike protection).
In roll, the FBW system has neutral spiral stability up to 30 degrees of bank. These banks, once established, will maintain the angle once the sidestick is released. At steeper than 30 degrees of bank, the aircraft has positive spiral stability; meaning that when the sidestick is released, the bank will return to 30 degrees. The maximum allowable bank angle is 80 degrees; this is controlled through the flight envelope protection system.
Hand flying the A220 is extremely precise. The Collins Pro Line Fusion system uses a flight director cue (a small circle with wings) for guidance; the pilot simply steers the flight path vector into the flight director cue. Once the aircraft is properly trimmed, the FBW system is rock solid. I hand flew the aircraft up to FL280 where we engaged the autopilot and set up for the next demo.
Level at FL280, the next item on our agenda was to demonstrate the emergency descent mode (EDM). EDM is an automatic function that is active above 25,000 feet. In the event of a rapid depressurization (cabin altitude above 14,500 feet), EDM activates. EDM automatically engages the autopilot and autothrottles (if not already engaged), selects 15,000 feet on the mode control panel (MCP) and resets “7700” (the emergency code) in the transponder. Next, the system will reduce the thrust levers to idle and begin a descent near VMO/MMO. The pilots only need to don oxygen mask and deploy the spoilers.
To demonstrate, Lewandowski lifted the guarded EDM switch and manually selected it. At this point, we simulated putting on the oxygen mask and I extended the spoilers to the maximum position; in less than a minute and a half we were level at 15,000 feet—the average descent rate was approximately 9,000 fpm.
Next, we would demonstrate the A220's low-speed handling characteristics and FBW high-alpha protections (HAP). To begin, the aircraft was configured with landing gear down and flaps 4. Smith—the flight-test engineer—provided data for a Vref of 124 knots in this configuration. I then began trimming the FWB trim speed bug and set the MCP speed to 124 knots. At 124 kias, I rolled the aircraft to the right and left at 45 degrees of bank. At this speed and configuration, the A220 was responsive, with no signs aerodynamic buffeting.
Continuing with the HAP demo, I next turned off the autothrottles and reduced the thrust levers to idle for a wings level approach to stall. In pitch, the A220s sidestick has a soft and hard stop. The main differences between the hard and softs are the level of angle of attack and load (G) protections provided. To reach the hard stop requires an additional 16 pounds of force to move past the soft stop. By design, HAP will reduce the angle of attack to maintain control, and regardless of what you throw at it (and I tried); it won’t allow the aircraft to stall. During this demo, I would pull on the sidestick to the soft stop and then farther aft to the hard stop. The aircraft was not pleased with my actions. First, it provided a visual warning on the airspeed tape, followed by an aural warning (“Speed, Speed” and then “Stall, Stall”) and finally a tactile nudge and lowering of the nose to increase the angle of attack.
Additional demonstrations of the HAP included adding bank, a dynamic approach to stall with max thrust, and a final attempt in the clean configuration. In each case, I would pull aft on the sidestick to reach the hard stop and get the same result: no aerodynamic stall. During these demos the lowest indicated airspeed recorded was 101 knots; impressive for a 105,000-pound aircraft.
Recovering from the airwork portion of the flight, Lewandowski negotiated with ATC to obtain a clearance to Kansas City International Airport (KMCI) for an autoland demo. Kansas City Center accommodated the request with direct routing to MCI and a climb to FL290. ATC would soon re-clear us direct to the “JHAWK” intersection for the JHAWK 6 arrival (STAR) into MCI. This was a great opportunity to demonstrate a real-world route modification using the cursor control device (CCD) to manipulate the FMS. I was able to easily insert new waypoints and add in altitude constraints. Additionally, by inserting an arrival (JHAWK 6) and approach (ILS 19L at MCI) into the FMS, the system automatically placed the appropriate charts in a queue to be reviewed by the pilots.
With the approach brief and checklist complete, we were prepared for the approach into MCI. The autoland function on the A220 provides approach tracking, runway alignment, de-crabbing (in a crosswind), landing flare, and runway tracking during rollout. Designed to provide the highest level of approach capability based on system status (automatic up-mode capability), there are no different actions required by the pilots when compared with a normal ILS approach.
Configured with landing gear down and at flaps 4, we calculated a Vapp of 130 knots (Vref of 123 + 5 knots for the autothrottle and an additional 2 knots for gusty conditions). The autopilot and autothrottles performed flawlessly during the entire approach, flare, landing, and rollout (even with a slight crosswind). Autobrakes and full thrust reversers were used to slow the aircraft. Once clear of the runway, we taxied back for another takeoff and return to ICT.
Holding short of Runway 19L at MCI, we set up for a NADP-1 (close-in noise abatement) departure with flaps 2. Speeds for a flaps 2 takeoff were V1 110, VR 110 and V2 122 knots. Following a normal takeoff and climb, we leveled off at FL230 for the quick trip back to ICT. Again, ATC would provide another route modification to gain more practice with the CCD and FMS.
Descending into ICT, we planned and set up for a normal hand-flown ILS to Runway 19R. The weather in Wichita was VFR with southeast winds from 160 degrees at 17 knots with gusts to 23. The calculated Vapp was 126 knots for another flaps 4 landing. During the approach, the autothrottle did a nice job maintaining speed in gusty conditions. Hand flying an ILS using the HUD made it easy to track the localizer and glideslope. At 30 feet, the autothrottle commanded the thrust levers to idle and I began my flare. The touchdown was smooth, but a little long since I initiated the flare a bit too early (a habit from flying the larger A300-600).
After taxiing back to the departure end of Runway 19R, we set up for a Flaps 3 takeoff and discussed our planned simulated engine failure at 200 feet. Speeds for a Flaps 3 takeoff were V1 111, VR 111, and V2 123 knots. After takeoff at an airspeed of approximately V2 + 10 knots, Lewandowski reduced the right thrust lever to idle. The aircraft yawed slightly to the right, but I was quickly able to maintain runway heading. During this maneuver there was very little drama. First, I anticipated the engine failure and got a lot of help from the aircraft. During an engine failure, the FBW system will sense the change in yaw and apply rudder in the correct direction. The system applies about half the rudder required to maintain directional control and the pilot does the rest.
On downwind, back to Runway 19R, Lewandowski returned the right engine to normal and I continued around the pattern to perform my final landing without the aid of autopilot, autothrottles, or autobrakes. The approach was flown primarily using the HUD for guidance and the approach and touchdown were normal. Afterward, we taxied back to the flight test center and shut down. Total block time was 2.8 hours and we burned 11,000 pounds of fuel.
From a pilot’s perspective, the A220 is a wonderful airplane that is safe, efficient, comfortable, and a joy to fly. A recent Airbus study comparing accident rates over the past 50 years shows that each generation of aircraft makes a substantial improvement over the preceding generation. This study points to fourth-generation FBW aircraft with flight envelope protection systems—like the A220—to reduce the likelihood of a loss of control in flight (LOC-I) by 75 percent. Another study identified the challenges of pilots managing operational complexity, such as environmental threats (ATC, weather, etc.) that cause distractions. The A220's automated features not only reduce workload, but systems like the electronic checklist will double-check “sensed” items (flaps, thrust settings, and other configurations) to ensure it matches what the crew planned. From my view and the market's acceptance, Airbus got a winner with the A220.
Pilot, safety expert, consultant and aviation journalist - Kipp Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org