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The Nation

Jet fans flock to LAX to watch big bird land

March 20, 2007|JENNIFER OLDHAM and ASHLEY SURDIN | Times Staff Writers

Scores of spectators huddled on hilltops and parking garage roofs to witness aviation history Monday as the world's largest passenger plane broke through the haze and settled onto a runway at Los Angeles International Airport on its maiden West Coast voyage.

Onlookers snapped photos on cellphone cameras as the eight-story-high Airbus A380 briefly hung in the air, dwarfing Boeing 737s preparing to take off on a nearby taxiway. It touched down on the airport's northernmost runway at 9:30 a.m.

The enormous craft, with room for more than 500 passengers and a wingspan nearly the length of a football field, flew 12 1/2 hours from Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France.

Another A380 landed in New York a few minutes ahead of the Los Angeles touchdown. The New York flight, which originated in Frankfurt, Germany, carried Lufthansa frequent fliers and the news media. The Airbus that landed at LAX carried several dozen crew members and technicians, as well as banks of instruments and water tanks designed to shift the plane's center of gravity in flight.

Airplane buffs gathered at or near LAX before dawn to claim prime viewing spots for the A380's arrival.

"This is it," said Mark Gagne, 19, of Ventura, listening to air traffic controllers on his scanner as he waited with several hundred spectators atop a parking garage near Terminal 1. Long moments went by, and spectators mistook an incoming Boeing 747 for the A380.

"The anticipation is killing me," said Gagne, putting his hands on his mother's shoulders. "Look, my knees are shaking."

Then, as the words "Welcome to Los Angeles" were broadcast over scanner radios, two faint lights could be seen emerging from the fog, followed by the massive wings and engines.

"How is that thing flying?" Gagne asked. "It's a sperm whale with wings," someone else said.

When the plane touched the runway, there appeared to be a slight shimmy in the front landing gear. But a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman and the A380 pilots said there were no glitches in the landing.

The jumbo jet touched down several hundred yards from a few Los Angeles City Council members standing on a service road on the airfield. Behind them, scores of spectators watched from a fence on the Northside Parkway.

"Did you notice how quiet it was on landing?" City Councilman Bill Rosendahl remarked to Council President Eric Garcetti. "Our Westchester folks are going to love it."

For years, airport neighbors have complained about noise at LAX.

After it touched down, the plane taxied to the Imperial Terminal on the airport's south side, where it was welcomed by hundreds of media and diplomatic and business representatives. The pilots descended a long, wobbly set of stairs to shake hands with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and walked down a red carpet to address dozens of TV cameras.

"Today we're cementing Los Angeles' place as an international hub for generations to come," Villaraigosa said, as traffic on Imperial Highway slowed behind him as drivers got a look at the super jumbo.

Airline representatives in the crowd were overheard saying that the airport stands to lose lucrative international flights -- including A380 flights -- if it doesn't modernize its facilities. LAX has lost 12% of its seats on international flights since 2000 because carriers are taking service to airports with newer terminals.

Later Villaraigosa, council members and Qantas Airways executives, who are helping Airbus test the aircraft's compatibility with the airfield and ground-handling services at LAX, boarded the double-decked A380 for a tour.

The stripped-down interior, with a sign posted near the cockpit door that read "Get in, sit down, shut up & hold on," revealed blankets of insulation hugging the windows and row upon row of bundled wires crisscrossing the ceiling and side panels.

"These are the wires that created delays in the program," said Allan McArtor, Airbus' North America chairman. Airbus hopes the U.S. flights will help burnish its image after production problems in part led to a two-year delay in A380 deliveries.

Villaraigosa and council members were escorted past a bank of large computers where flight engineers monitored the plane's operations with cameras and sophisticated measuring equipment.

Upstairs, the mayor reclined in a seat next to a pilot and, gesturing to dozens of blue metal tanks, said: "You know what's in those big vats? Downstairs it's Bordeaux, and upstairs it's Burgundy."

The super-jumbo is scheduled to depart LAX about 7:30 this evening from the south runway.

With only three short weeks to prepare for one of the two inaugural U.S. test flights, the city's airport agency braced for heavy crowds and traffic. The last major aviation event at LAX was in 1974, when thousands welcomed the supersonic Concorde.

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