European aircraft manufacturer Airbus proposed bringing A320 aircraft manufacturing to Mobile in 2012, and construction on the facilities began in 2013. Local contractors completed 80% of the structures. On Father’s day of 2015, Mobile held a Mardi Gras-style parade celebrating the first fuselages brought to the facility for final assembly. On March 16, 2016, Airbus delivered the first locally assembled A320 plane to Jetblue airlines.
Utilizing the Port of Mobile, Airbus now employs a roll-on/roll-off procedure for the parts arriving by ship from other worldwide Airbus facilities. In collaboration with Flight Works, The Airbus Final Assembly Line Tour has reignited Mobile’s aviation history.
Mobile’s Aviation History
Mobile’s aviation history began in Mobile in 1901 with John Fowler, a repairman of clocks and sewing machines, who built a glider. The story is that after the Wright Brothers visited Mobile, they incorporated Fowler’s wing design in their gliders.
Bates Field was created in 1928 at Brookley Field as a long piece of grass. Both American and Eastern Airlines were using Bates Field by 1934. Bates field was relocated in the 1940s to the west side of Mobile. The army trained glider pilots at Bates Field. In 1949, the City of Mobile reclaimed Bates Field, the runways expanded, and the passenger terminal was constructed. In the late 1960s, the Coast Guard installed a training base at Bates Field for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The training base remains today.
The size of Brookley Field was increased with the onset of World War II, and it became an industrial employer to service military aircraft. At the time, Brookley had the largest area of runways in the county. The government shut down Brookley Field in 1969.
Mobile’s aviation industry has been reignited by Airbus’ Final Assembly Line and the building of the Airbus A320 aircraft at Brookley Field, where aviation took root in Mobile.
Flight Works Alabama Interactive Museum and Gift Shop
Flight Works is comprised of an interactive museum, instruction area, and gift shop. During my visit, I saw many Boy Scouts visiting the site. I spoke with Barney, one of the museum guides who assist visitors. Barney is a former Mobile business owner and concierge at the RSA Riverview Hotel. He is one of the many people you will meet during your visit.
The museum focuses on the tools of the trade for the construction of the A320 family of aircraft. A cockpit simulator is popular with kids and adults alike. There is an A320 cockpit and cabin area to walk through and view.
Final Assembly Line Tour
The 45-minute tour is an immersive look at the construction of the A320. Tours of the final assembly line are presently given infrequently but worth the $13.00 ticket price. A tour bus brings visitors from the Flight Works interpretative museum and gift shop to the massive assembly line buildings.
The two hundred ten thousand square foot assembly line buildings are the equivalent of four football fields. It does make for a bit of a climb up the four stories to the viewing platform.
By design, all Airbus plants have similar layouts in Germany, Spain, France, and China.
The plane fuselages or cigars arrive in Mobile pre-stuffed with insulation, electrical connections, and hydraulics installed. The final assembly line is the culmination of the three million parts that compose each plane.
The A320 family consists of the A319, A320, and A321. Usually, the A320 and A321 are assembled here in Mobile, and occasionally, an A319 might be completed here, depending on airline orders. Airbus produces four planes a month in Mobile and can increase production to eight aircraft in thirty days.
Completion in Sections
It takes thirty days to complete on the Airbus assembly line. What’s the first thing to be installed? The galley and restroom go in first at station 41. Once installation is complete, three thousand rivets enclose the cigar or fuselage. This task takes four and a half days to complete.
Multi-ton cranes are used to move the cigars down the assembly line. The remotely operated cranes all use metric measurements to maintain worldwide standards.
The wings and landing gear are attached at Station 42. The wings of the aircraft are secured within a .01mm tolerance. A single landing gear tire costs thirty-thousand dollars.
Airbus’s A320 holds 60% of the aircraft market because of the efficiency of the plane. The use of composite materials, the Neo engine, and sharklets add to the efficiency of the aircraft. The sharklets attached to the wingtips are not unique to Airbus and are used by many airlines. Surprisingly, only nine bolts hold on the tail onto the fuselage. A weighted plate is placed on the front during the wings and landing gear installation to keep the plane from tipping forward.
At Station 43, the engines are installed. Once the final system tests are complete, the aircraft is moved to another building for painting. The aircraft are painted in three layers, each thinner than a single human hair. The most difficult paint job is for American Airlines because of the silver specs in the paint that make it sparkle. When an airline uses decals for tail cone art, it is laid out and installed like puzzle pieces.
Delivery of aircraft
In the final assembly phase, the plane is fueled, and a test flight is performed. This process is customized for each airline customer. Each plane receives a three and half hour flight test to find any issues. The airline customer let their pilots deliver the aircraft to its preferred location. The cost of an A320 is 100 million dollars.
The final stop on the assembly line tour is how the employees work on the assembly floor. Employees wear different color-coded t-shirts worn to indicate what employees do and for easy recognition. Employees check out tools from a large computer-aided toolbox that accounts for and catalogs every device used on the aircraft.
Airbus in Mobile
At present, Airbus Mobile employs a thousand people at the Mobile plant. And they are hiring. Airbus has brought the aviation manufacturing industry to Mobile, continuing the cities history with aviation.
On August 19, Mayor Sandy Stimpson will proclaim “Aviation Day” in Mobile. There will be special events and reduced admission for the tour and museum. If you have not had an opportunity to experience Flight Works, this will be a perfect time to do so.
Many thanks to Airbus for providing the assembly line photographs.
Learn more about my aviation journeys at Roadrunner Journeys.