The official photo blog of J. David Buerk Photography.

British Airways A380 at Dulles

For years, British Airways has had daily service between Washington Dulles International Airport and London Heathrow Airport by 747, but this continental air link has now been further strengthened by the introduction of Airbus’ A380; the largest commercial passenger jet in the World.

The A380, if you are somehow unfamiliar with it, is the World’s first fully double decker passenger airliner - where the 747 spearheaded adding a second story to the front fuselage, the A380 manages to push this upper level the entire length of the cabin, allowing for much higher passenger capacity, as well as added amenities, and overall freedom to design newly innovative luxury interiors in an otherwise difficult environment where space is usually a major constraint.

Although British Airways is not the first A380 to serve travelers through Dulles, the jumbo jet is still a rare bird among the skies - a true albatross, but one that is slowly becoming more popular.  30 lucky individuals got the chance to welcome Dulles’ second daily serving A380 on it’s maiden arrival flight on the route, and to Discover Dulles.

Before the flight’s arrival, Discover Dulles guests enjoyed a small reception courtesy of Dulles Food and Shops, and caught up with one another; many Discover Dulles entrants are plane spotters or generally aviation enthusiasts, many of whom know one another as it is a fairly tight community.  One of the primary local groups that has always had at least one member at every Discover Dulles event to-date is The Washington Baltimore Spotters.  Although I am not a member of their spotter group, I’ve come to know a number of their members since a lot of my aviation work directly overlaps with plane spotting - we all love interesting aircraft and aviation news!

During the reception, waiting for the A380 to get closer, spotters and repeat attendees share stories with one another, and talk with first time Discover Dulles guests.  Some are even pilots, showing videos of interesting approaches and landings on their phones.

As the flight drew closer, guests also had had the chance to speak with British Airways Brand Ambassadors, who told details about the aircraft and the amenities offered.  Then it was time to hop on the Plane Mates and head out to the runway.

There was still some time left before the A380 arrived, even with it running early.  Participants got to watch and photograph some of Dulles’ daily operations from as close to the active runway allowed under FAA restrictions, standing along the K2 high-speed to view R/W 19L in operation.  As always, this access is especially great for spotters, since it offers a proximity and on-the-ground perspective that is otherwise impossible without physical access to the airfield - this is what makes the Discover Dulles events so special: it brings people from all walks of life as close as possible to the action on the airfield; if you’re not already an enthusiast, you will be by time you leave for the day.

After about 15 minutes watching the Southerly operations, the A380 finally appeared in the sky.  Even 10 miles away on approach, these aircraft are easy to spot, but on final at less than 5 miles, it’s impossible to miss.  With wheels down just moments away, an electric feeling hushed the small gathering - many of these people have never seen an A380 in person, despite Air France’s daily service to Paris via A380 for the past few years.

At the gate, onlookers anticipated the traditional water arch welcoming the massive aircraft to her newest port.  As the A380 is larger than any passenger aircraft before it, traditional jetbridges are not able to service the aircraft as passengers disembark - at Dulles, larger jetbridges had to be installed at Air France and now British Airways’ gates even to allow service to an A380.  The new and improved jetbridges are longer in order to reach the extra distance along the fuselage, and an additional jetbridge provides service to the upper deck, so that passengers may board both upper and lower levels directly and simultaneously without ever climbing a set of stairs.  777s and 747s were the largest aircraft for decades, so traditional jetbridges had no reason to accommodate more - theses larger jetbridges will gradually become the norm for international and high capacity airports with even a chance of servicing this new class of jumbo jets.

Here is the entire group of Discover Dulles attendees.

Nearby BA’s gate where the freshly landed A380 is parked and being serviced after an 8hr flight is Airport Operations, which monitors all activity on the airport campus, ensures logistical security, and responds to airfield incidents.  These are the guys that often are instrumental in allowing me to work hot from their trucks, getting me close to the action on an active airfield so I may focus on photographing my assignments without being distracted driving and communicating with the towers.  Operations allows myself, and everyone operating on the AOA, to be safe, and you simply won’t find a better group of folks in this line of work.

Once inside Airport Ops, one Discover Dulles attendee was awarded a roundtrip ticket on the British Airways A380 in the raffle - 1 in 30 are pretty amazing odds for winning free plane tickets to London!

The Discover Dulles group was in for a treat - for the first time, these visitors were given a tour of Airport Operations, including the 110 foot tall Ramp Tower; it’s not quite as tall as the 320 foot FAA Air Traffic Control Tower, located on the South side of the airfield, but it still provides a great view of the airfield in a manner most people don’t ever see, plus it has the best view of Eero Saarinen’s historic Main Terminal Building from the rear.  

While up the Ramp Tower, guests took photos of both British Airways’ and Air France’s A380s (both at the B Gates simultaneously), and listened to explanations from different Ramp Controllers about how different aspects of the airfield are managed.  Controllers were asked how gate assignments are made, and demonstrated the radio communications to direct aircraft along taxilanes.

A fact about Dulles that most passengers would never even notice is that every Mobile Lounge is assigned a state name as their callsign.  The ramp controllers direct all ground traffic between the taxilanes and gates, including the behemoth Mobile Lounges - the lounges respond to their state callsigns over the radio; for example, the communication for the lounges leaving Main and going to the runway would have been something like, “Lounge Wisconsin, cleared to proceed via Alpha under escort; hold short Juliet; contact Ground via 121.9.”  Those instructions are of course very uncommon, since lounges rarely drive on taxiways, but it is applicable and demonstrates how each lounge has its own callsign.  These callsigns are printed on the roof and sides of each lounge (WI, VA, etc) as do all airfield vehicles.

After a few selfies with the A380 from above, it was time to head back down and learn about the rest of Airport Operations’ role in managing Dulles’ airfield.

Duty Officers explained explained the role Operations serves, and pointed out some of the networks they monitor, such as continental air traffic, weather, and comms.  Both Air France and British Airways’ A380s were displayed on security cameras side by side; although special, this isn’t unusual.  Officers also took questions; understandably, given Operations’ work is behind the public eye, and the average passenger wouldn’t realize the logistics of feet on the ground managing an active airfield.

Upstairs at British Airways’ gate, Discover Dulles guests were able to board the A380 and explore both decks of the aircraft cabin and cockpit.  For all but one or two, this was their first time inside an A380.

First Class passengers each have their own compartment with reclining seats the fold into a bed, along with adjustable privacy screens and foldaway guest seats for when you are traveling with others.

Club World, or Business Class passengers enjoy similar seats that recline into beds, visitor seats, and privacy screen, in a more compact, but still very spacious and comfortable, package.

World Traveller passengers have standard airline seats in the modern age, including individual LCD screes with privacy tint, and adjustable seats with variable headrests, lumbar, and footrests.  World Traveller Plus passengers enjoy added legroom.

That’s all great, but how do you serve 469 passengers across two levels?  The A380 has two staircases; a large spiral in the tail, and a straight stair in the front; both staircases are completely natural - no more steep stairs like in older generation 747s.

There are plenty of lavatories on board so you don’t have to wait.

Finally, there is the most important part… the fuel… no, not Jet-A; the galleys, including coffeemakers!

And after all of that… cake!