April 27th, 2005, Blagnac airport, Toulouse. It’s a perfect day: clear skies, not a single cloud on the horizon, a light breeze. 50.000 people have gathered in the fields and roads around the landing strips. The CNN and SKY are broadcasting alive. 640.000 people are logged in a website which will register 14 million visits today. They all want to witness an extraordinary event. It’s taken 15 years of plans and efforts to get here. And exactly at 10.29 in the morning, at the hands of Airbus chief test pilot Captain Jacques Rosay, the A380, pride and joy of the European aeronautics industry, takes off for the first time.
The world’s largest passenger airliner, with a capacity up to 850 passengers, the first plane to have 2 full-length decks, born to solve the problem of airport saturation, is the climax of a long aeronautics tradition in the city of Toulouse that goes back to 1918 with the Société des lignes Latécoère, which in 1927 would become the mythic Aéropostale. Its founder, Pierre George Latécoère, dreamed of connecting France with America and the world by air. Curiously the first trip, on December 25th 1918, was a Toulouse-Barcelona (proof of the historic link between both the Occitan and the Catalan capitals).
This was an era of brave and pioneering flights, immortalized in the work of one of its most famous pilots, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry –his novel Night Flight recounts one of these postal trips to South America. Aéropostale would end up fusing with other companies to create Air France in 1932.
Toulouse has seen the birth of the Caravelle, the first civilian jet aircraft, and of the legendary Concorde, capable of covering Paris-New York in 3 hours. It is not surprising, then, that Airbus chose this city to build its headquarters. Today, 80.000 people live off aeronautics in Midi-Pyrenees, it is the region’s economic motor.
The main characters on this aerial adventure chose to share it with the world and created Aeroscopia, an exceptional collection inside a 7000m2 hangar. You need a large space to house 25 aircrafts, more so if among them you have a Concorde, an A300B and a Súper Guppy – a massif cargo plane which welcomes us with a movie about aviation. The museum combines explanation panels, interactive spaces, simulators and miniatures with real airplanes. The two undeniable stars are the Concorde – a test model- and an A300B with a glass floor that allows you to see into the hold, naked walls so you can check the insulation, and several examples of interiors: from the archetypical seat rows we all know to a meeting room, a kitchen or even a bedroom suite with shower (nice to catch turbulences there!).
We also have historical pieces, like a replica of the small aircraft Roland Garros flew over the Mediterranean in 1917. It is amazing to realize how, in 60 years, we have evolved from an aircraft made of wood and piano strings to the jet Concorde. And the museum gives us a very visual and interactive summary of aviation history (being able to walk under the planes as if we were on a landing strip also helps).
Outside we can see another Concorde, the last one that flew – expected to be open soon-, an A400M, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft, and a Caravelle.
As usual, the museum’s souvenir shop offers all types of stuff related to aviation and aircrafts (from miniatures to pilot goggles and fridge magnets).
LET’S VISIT AIRBUS!
You can complete the trip to Aeroscopia with a visit to Airbus, the European aeronautical giant. They are barely 300 metres apart in Blagnac airport. Airbus offers you 2 different tours: the A380 and the panoramic. The first one takes us to a viewpoint above the final assembly hangar of the A380, at the 50HA Jean-Luc Lagardère plant. On the day of our visit there were 3 of them on site, the closest one with an Emirates logo (the only time I’ve flown an A380 was an Emirates, on a BCN-Dubai flight). No photos are allowed for security reasons. The other tour includes offices and the assembly lines of models A320, A330 i A350, etc… but as we chose the big bird I cannot compare.
The parts of the A380 are made in 4 different locations at the 4 founding countries: UK, France, Germany and Spain, and then are brought here, to the Airbus main production site. They arrive by boat and then are loaded on special trucks which are only allowed to move around at night. Their final assembly will take 10 days. It is the only Airbus that cannot be transported with a beluga aircraft due to its size. The wings span 80 metres, 20m wider than any landing strip.
Once assembled, it’s testing time – it takes 30 days to test hydraulics, 530km of cables and all mobile parts and to look for leaks in the 320.000L fuel tanks. Once the tests are done, the engines are assembled – the only part not build by airbus. Depending on the client it will be Rolls Royce (British) or Engine Alliance (American) and it accounts for 1/3 of the total cost of the A380 (437M euros in case you’re planning to buy one). Finally it comes off the hangar to test cabin pressure before its first flight. At Blagnac landing strips 6000 tests are conducted every year (10% of the total air traffic of the airport. Airbus occupies 750HA, with 20.000 employees and 20.000 suppliers).
Finally, the aircraft is sent to Hamburg for painting and interior. It takes 18 months from order to delivery. By the time of my visit, in September 2017, Airbus had delivered 215 A380 since October 2007. The visit ends with a video of that first test flight I recalled at the beginning of this piece.
Airbus visits are managed by www.manatour.fr, an agency specialized in industrial, scientific and thematic tourism. Aeroscòpia-Airbus receives 290.000 visitors every year.
The importance of aeronautics in Toulouse goes beyond Earth’s atmosphere. In 2017, the Cité de l’Espace celebrated its 20th anniversary hosting the Astronauts World Congress. So if you wanna make your inner kid happy – happier as you already took her/him to see some planes- the space city is the perfect place. A 53m full scale replica of the Arianne presides the garden of wonders of this museum focused on space science where, among others, you can seat inside a Soyuz, walk by a weather satellite or visit an exact replica of the MIR station and feel, first hand, how those astronauts lived – the control panels in cyrillic script are priceless.
Inside, a whole area focused on the ISS, The International Space Station, shows us how they live today. What do they eat? How do they shower? What do they do up there? And most importantly, the question we all want to ask, how do they go to the toilet? (There’s a video explaining it). There are also educational spaces focused on planets, satellites and their use on Earth (weather prediction, agriculture, fishing, science…); an exhibition of astronaut insignias which made my nerdy heart beat; pieces of meteorites… Then we have the Terradome, a venue focused on Earth’s extreme life forms, a 3D planetarium with a 600m2 screen, a kid’s planetarium, a day sky observation dome, an IMAX 3D cinema with a 400m2 screen…
And also temporary exhibitions, lectures and activities.
Tickets range from 21 to 25€ for adults (reduced fares for kids, students and senior citizens…). The website offers help to plan your visit, as it can take the whole day if you go with kids or you want to enjoy the planetariums, Terradome, Imax, moonwalk… http://en.cite-espace.com
In case you forgot to take a sandwich there are 3 restaurants within the complex: L’Astronaute, Le 149 Cafè and La Terrasse Guyanaise (in the garden at the foot of the Arianne, of course).
Important: For the Airbus visit an official ID is compulsory, like your Passport.
Aeroscòpia is located at Blagnac airport, Toulouse.
You can get there by tram (Line 1 Arènes, every 8-10 minutes, Beauzelle-Aeroscòpia station + a 20 minutes walk); or by car following signs to Blagnac Airport; parking at C/Allée André Turcat.
You can also take a taxi: we used CapitoleTAXI. Tel: +33 534250250. www.capitole-taxi.com
It is open all year round from 9.30am to 6pm. 11,5€ adults, 9,50€ reduced fee and free for kids under 6. There is a free guide app or you can pay for a human guide: 3.5€.
Let’s visit Airbus is also located at Blagnac airport, Toulouse. Opens all year from 8am to 10.00pm except Sundays and bank holidays (take into account it is a business and it works during business days). It is mandatory to book in advance, by calling +33 534394200 or via website at www.manatour.fr. The price for adults for one tour: 15,50€, 13€ reduced fee and free for kids under 6. The combined ticket for both tours is 23€.
THE PACKAGE INCLUDING AEROSCÒPIA + AIRBUS (1 tour) is 23€ for adults, 19€ reduced fee and free for kids under 6.
La Cité de l’Espace is located at Avenue Jean Gonord, BP 25855, Toulouse. Tel: +33 567222324 By bus: line 37, “Cité de l’espace” station. You can transfer from the subway, Jolimont or Ramonville stations.