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Up to 50,000 people are reported to have lined the runway at Blagnac International Airport in Toulouse to watch this morning's first lift-off of the Airbus A380, which took to the skies at 8.29 GMT and landed safely almost four hours later.

Airbus A380 lift-off. Picture courtesy of Airbus

The monster twin-decker - nicely registered as F-WW0W - carried a crew of six and a "full set of flight-test instrumentation to record the thousands of parameters necessary to enable in-flight performance analysis". The maiden jaunt marks the start of up to 2,500 hours of proving flights on five test aircraft.

Airbus had already carried out extensive ground-based testing of hydraulic and electrical systems before the flight, and test pilot Jacques Rosay told the BBC his team was "confident with what has been done up to today". He did, however, add: "But we still have some doubts. We have to be very careful during all the flight because, as you say, when you are looking at new things, something may happen." Accordingly, Rosay and his team were equipped with parachutes just in case the superjumbo decided not to play ball.

The A380 was lifted from the ground by its four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines at a record-breaking weight of 421 tonnes (928,300 lbs). The behemoth is designed to carry up to 555 passengers up to 15,000 km (8,000 nm) in "an unparalleled level of comfort, with wider seats and aisles, open spaces for passengers to stretch their legs and access to lower-deck amenities".

Total orders for the A380 currently stand at 139 aircraft spread across 13 customers - a healthy percentage of the 250 unit break-even figure previously estimated by Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard.

However, it's not been all blue skies for the A380. Back in January, Airbus commercial director John Leahy dismissed a controversial €1.5bn overspend on the project thus: "That sounds quite a lot of money until you realise you are dealing with a programme which is about €11bn."

In May last year, the planned deployment schedule suffered a knock-back when Virgin Airlines postponed delivery of the A380 until 2007 - a year later than planned. The company cited difficulties in kitting out the aircraft, and added that "delays in airports - particularly that of Los Angeles (LAX) - preparing to receive the enormous aircraft are partly behind the decision", as we reported at the time.

Nonetheless, Europe has high hopes for the A380. At the roll-out ceremony in January, Jacques Chirac described it as the "crowning achievement of a human and industrial adventure", with Brit PM Tony Blair dubbing the beast "the most exciting new aircraft in the world, a symbol of economic strength and technical innovation". ®

Related stories

Airbus rolls out A380
A380 Airbus suffers Virgin knock-back
Airbus behemoth faces the press

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