The wing commander

He admits to being an ‘unashamed aviation nut’, but Airbus UK’s Iain Gray is determined that the A380 project will beat bitter rivals Boeing into second place in the superjumbo race. Andrew Lee reports.

When the first Airbus A380 ‘superjumbo’ takes flight a significant part of it will come stamped ‘made in Britain’ and Iain Gray will allow himself a broad smile of satisfaction. Gray is in charge of the engineering behind the UK’s most significant contribution to the giant new airliner: its wings.

As vice-president of the Engineering Integration Centre at Airbus UK, Gray leads the huge team responsible for applying a host of new technologies to the design, development and production effort needed to get the A380 off the ground.

After a career with Airbus spanning almost a quarter of a century, you can tell that the A380 project is special to Gray. ‘I have seen the development of the A380 since it was nothing more than an idea, an engineering concept. It’s a fantastic, huge project to be involved in.’

The A380 will become Airbus’s flagship, and represents a step into the heavyweight division for the European company in its commercial battle with Boeing, the US aerospace behemoth and its bitter rival.

If Airbus succeeds, the A380 will over the next few decades come to define long-haul, mass-volume air travel in the same way that the Boeing 747 has done for the past 30 years.

Due to enter airline service in 2006, the A380 will carry more than 550 people at a time compared to the 747’s 400 or so. The giant double-deck aircraft will even have space on board for shops, gyms and other public facilities. It aims to achieve this massive increase in passenger numbers while delivering better fuel economy and reduced noise and emissions.

Although an engineer to the core, Gray has worked in other parts of the Airbus operation, including handling external affairs – and it shows.

Gray has a genuine enthusiasm for Airbus and the industry as a whole, according to Richard Butler, who has worked alongside him for several years on the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Bristol committee. Butler, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at Bath University, said Gray has a ‘can-do’ approach that tends to rub off on those around him.

‘As well as being a very good engineer he’s also a good communicator, which isn’t always the case,’ said Butler. ‘I get the impression he is very good at the team-building side of things.’

According to Butler, Gray – who is president of the RAES Bristol branch – boasts a formidable list of contacts in the industry. ‘He knows a lot of people, ranging from the airlines to the manufacturers.’

Gray’s love of his job is obvious – he is an unashamed aviation nut who lists one of his hobbies as ‘collecting aeronautical ephemera’.

He came to the industry straight from a university engineering degree, joining the then British Aerospace’s Airbus wing development programme in 1979.

‘I got hooked on the industry right from the beginning,’ said Gray. ‘It seemed to me like a very exciting place to be, and it still does.’

So exciting, in fact, that he hopes a new generation of engineers can be persuaded to choose Airbus as the place to build their careers – although he admits not all may stay with the company as long as he has.

The company is about to embark on a major recruitment drive, taking on new engineers at all levels from graduate recruits to more senior specialists in specific fields. ‘For an engineer, and particularly one beginning his or her career, there aren’t many better places to be at the moment,’ he said. ‘I came back into the engineering side two and a half years ago, and engineering is the place to be.’

How often do you hear that said these days? It is probably fair to say that this is not the point in the economic cycle of the commercial aviation industry at which Airbus would have chosen to be reaching the closing stages of its most ambitious everproject.

September 11 and the subsequent general economic downturn inevitably sent a chill through the whole sector. But Gray says there was never a question mark over the A380. ‘As a company we made a decision almost straight away that we would remain committed to the A380. This is a project for decades to come, not just a few years.’In the overall commercial context of the A380 project, the downturn in the industry has had some impact. ‘We maybe have to be even more careful about costs, but I can honestly say that the workload for the engineering team has never been greater,’ said Gray.

According to Gray, Airbus’s engineers are well aware of the huge commercial stakes, and of the fact that in Boeing they have a rival unused to seeing its dominance of long-haul passenger aviation challenged. ‘We don’t spend all day worrying about what Boeing is up to, but we are obviously aware of the competition and it is something you occasionally think about. But as engineers our job is to deliver the best possible aircraft for our customers.’

It might once have been possible for Boeing to dismiss the European pretender to its throne as little more than an irritant. That is certainly no longer the case, and Gray said the knowledge that with the A380, Airbus has a plane to seriously rattle the Americans is a huge incentive to the project team. ‘There is a lot of confidence inside the company, because we believe that we are the market leader,’ said Gray.

That seems an odd assertion, given that not a single A380 has yet left the ground while the skies of the world swarm with 747s. But Gray insisted the technology used in the A380 already puts it head and shoulders above its rival. ‘It is technology that will make this project a success,’ he said. ‘The technology we use on the aircraft itself, and the technology we use to manufacture it.’

In many respects the A380 is breaking new ground for a major commercial aerospace project. An unprecedented 40 per cent of the aircraft will be made from the latest generation of carbon composites and advanced metallic materials, designed to be lighter, stronger and easier to repair than conventional aircraft structures.

Applying advanced technology like this to such a major project while still meeting Airbus’s strict commercial deadlines could make some engineers blanche, but Gray is sanguine. ‘Every project brings its own unique challenges, but the important thing for us is that we are meeting the targets we have been set.’

Gray’s UK teams at Filton, Bristol, and the giant wing-manufacturing facility at Broughton, north Wales are just one part of the pan-European A380 effort. Although Airbus has been around as a commercial aviation brand name for many years, it was only in 2001 that it came into existence as a standalone company. It was previously a consortium made up of diverse partner companies from the UK, France, Germany and Spain.

It has sometimes been suggested that Airbus’s multifarious roots have proved a handicap to the company operating as a truly integrated entity. Apart from its multilingual, multinational nature, the various corporate entities that came together to form Airbus encompassed many business cultures, from former state enterprises to long-standing private concerns.

Unsurprisingly, Gray sees the diversity as a positive rather than a negative. He is unlikely to say otherwise, but makes a persuasive case for the benefits of pan-European co-operation.’You have to remember that Airbus has been doing this for a long while – there is nothing sudden about it,’ he said. ‘The A380 is the ultimate manifestation of 25 years or so of evolution.’

Gray pointed out that whatever language they speak and whatever type of enterprise they spent their earlier careers in, the people that matter in Airbus are the engineers and their common language of engineering.

The former consortium’s approach has been to build ‘centres of excellence’ in various countries, focusing its engineering talent on the various tasks needed to produce an aircraft.

Its Hamburg site, for example, handles fuselage, cabin systems and auxiliary power. Bremen looks after cargo holds and handling while Getafe in Spain specialises in tailplane systems. Gray’s team in the UK, of course, is all about wings, along with fuel systems and landing gear.

And at the hub of the whole operation is the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, where the A380 will be built and tested, and which also handles avionics, fly-by-wire systems and the cockpit.

Gray conceded that the formation of the separate Airbus company helped cement its staff’s sense of working solely for the aircraft manufacturer rather than in a sub-division of the various consortium members. ‘It helps when you can wear an Airbus T-shirt and think, ‘That’s who I work for’,’ he said.

For the record:

Iain Gray began his career working on Airbus wing development in the structures office of British Aerospace, which he joined in 1979 after graduating from Aberdeen University.

For eight years he worked on the structural fatigue and damage tolerance aspects of several Airbus aircraft programmes, before being appointed assistant chief aerodynamicist. During the early 1990s Gray held a series of senior posts for Airbus in areas such as international collaboration, external affairs and new product introduction. In 1996 he took overall charge for British Aerospace’s role in the Future Large Aircraft military transport programme, now the A400M.

Gray was appointed engineering director of BAE Systems Airbus UK in 2000 before switching to his current role on the formation of the standalone Airbus company.

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