24. April 2015

From the Chan­cel­lor Air­bus to a new parabol­ic flight air­craft

The new A310 ZE­RO-G
Image 1/6, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

The new A310 ZERO-G

The new A310 ZE­RO-G at its home air­port, Bor­deaux-Mérignac. The for­mer Ger­man ‘Chan­cel­lor Air­bus’ has been con­vert­ed in­to a parabol­ic flight air­craft and fly­ing re­search lab­o­ra­to­ry, and has been based at the air­port in south­west France since 18 March 2015. Noves­pace is based here. The com­pa­ny ac­quired the A310-304 VIP ‘Kon­rad Ade­nauer’ from the Ger­man Air Force in June 2014.
Group pho­to­graph of the crew
Image 2/6, Credit: Novespace.

Group photograph of the crew

The team on board the train­ing flight on 23 April 2015, fol­low­ing their safe land­ing. The test flights al­low new pi­lots to prac­tice the parabol­ic ma­noeu­vres, en­able the cab­in crew to fa­mil­iarise them­selves with the new Air­bus A310 ‘ZE­RO-G’ and per­mit train­ing on how to re­spond in weight­less­ness. To the left of cen­tre, in a blue flight suit, is DLR Parabol­ic Flight Man­ag­er Ul­rike Friedrich.
In­te­ri­or of the air­craft
Image 3/6, Credit: Jan Brandes/Lufthansa Technik AG.

Interior of the aircraft

All in white – the ex­per­i­ment zone in­side the A310 ‘ZE­RO-G’ is an en­tire­ly new in­stal­la­tion. It oc­cu­pies some 100 square me­tres and is adapt­ed to the spe­cial re­quire­ments of parabol­ic flights. White syn­thet­ic leather padding, grab han­dles, floor rails for the ex­per­i­ment racks and an in­ge­nious light­ing sys­tem with the pow­er of six to eight flu­o­res­cent tubes (800 lux) en­sure con­di­tions are ide­al for sci­ence in ze­ro grav­i­ty. Seats for re­searchers and crew are lo­cat­ed be­hind the nets, to be oc­cu­pied dur­ing take off and land­ing.
Fit­ting padding in the cab­in
Image 4/6, Credit: Jan Brandes/Lufthansa Technik AG.

Fitting padding in the cabin

Soft land­ing – the ex­per­i­ment zone, the cen­tre of weight­less­ness re­search – was equipped with some 270 spe­cial pads by Lufthansa Tech­nik em­ploy­ees.
Re­con­struc­tion of the air­craft at Lufthansa Tech­nik AG
Image 5/6, Credit: Jan Brandes/Lufthansa Technik AG.

Reconstruction of the aircraft at Lufthansa Technik AG

Trans­form­ing old in­to new – the con­ver­sion and re-ap­proval of the for­mer Ger­man Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment air­craft last­ed six and a half months. Em­ploy­ees at Lufthansa Tech­nik AG in Ham­burg made around 1350 mod­i­fi­ca­tions.
The for­mer ‘Chan­cel­lor Air­bus’
Image 6/6, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

The former ‘Chancellor Airbus’

The for­mer ‘Chan­cel­lor Air­bus’ A310-304 ‘10+21’ was de­liv­ered from air­craft man­u­fac­tur­er Air­bus to East Ger­man air­line In­ter­flug on 24 June 1989 and was used by East Ger­man gov­ern­ment lead­ers un­til 1991. On 27 Au­gust 1991, the air­craft be­came the prop­er­ty of the Ger­man Air Force and, with the name ‘Kon­rad Ade­nauer’, the VIP air­craft was used for jour­neys and state vis­its by Ger­man Fed­er­al Chan­cel­lors and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters be­tween 1993 and 2011. The A310 ‘10+21’ was sta­tioned at the Cologne-Bonn air­port dur­ing its mis­sion for the Ger­man Fed­er­al Min­istry of De­fence. Ex­act­ly 25 years af­ter the ini­tial han­dover, the ‘Kon­rad Ade­nauer’ was hand­ed over to its new own­er, Noves­pace, on 24 June 2014.

DLR is on board for the first A310 campaign

The aircraft is 16 years younger than its predecessor, has an eventful history, and is continuing a remarkable legacy. The former A310-304 VIP 'Chancellor Airbus' is the new parabolic flight aircraft – unique in Europe. From 27 April 2015, it will conduct experiments in weightlessness, just as the A300 ZERO-G did before it. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) will be making use of the former German government aircraft to carry out research in 'zero gravity'.

In June 2014, the Airbus was converted from a VIP plane to a research aircraft (see info box 1), and was purchased by French company Noves­pace, which is based at Bordeaux-Mérignac. Since March, the metropolis' airport in south-western France has also been home to the A310 ZERO-G. Prior to this, the aircraft spent six and a half months at Lufthansa Technik AG in Hamburg, undergoing an extensive process of conversion and re-approval as a civilian aircraft, in line with the regulations of the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA.

Between 27 April and 8 May 2015, once the test flights with – in some cases – up to 50 trajectories have been successfully completed, as well as training sessions with the specially trained crew, the new parabolic aircraft is due to undertake its first scientific campaign.

"This is a joint campaign between DLR, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French Space Agency, CNES," reports Ulrike Friedrich, who has been in charge of the DLR parabolic flight programme since 1999. "We have a total of 12 experiments on board, of which eight come from Germany – four of these were selected by ESA. In the first week, the scientists set up their experiments in the aircraft and finalise preparations for the second week. On 5, 6 and 7 May, three days of flying are envisaged – each with a total of 31 trajectories," adds the Programme Manager.

DLR has been working with Novespace on the parabolic flight programme since 1999. For 15 years, German scientists and engineers used the previous Airbus A300 'ZERO-G', built in 1973, for experiments in weightlessness. After 5200 flights, 4200 flight hours and 13,180 parabolic trajectories, the special aircraft went into retirement on 31 October 2014, concluding its period of scientific service. DLR organised 25 research campaigns, totalling more than 400 experiments, using the A300 'ZERO-G' – to tackle biological, medical, physical and scientific questions. Technological tests also formed part of the programme; experimental equipment was tested for use in space – on the International Space Station (ISS) for example.

"The older the aircraft are, the more maintenance is required," says Friedrich. At some point, it is no longer worthwhile. For this reason, DLR was keen to support the search for a suitable 'successor'. "The challenge was to find an affordable aircraft, yet one that had not been exposed to too many flight cycles. This is because the aircraft structure is exposed to the strongest loads during take-off and landing." The German Federal Government's A310-304 VIP 'Konrad Adenauer', approximately 26 years old, best met these requirements. Novespace acquired the plane for approximately 2.5 million euros.

Before the aircraft's maiden flight in its new capacity, Lufthansa Technik AG in Hamburg made some 1350 modifications to it. The most notable of these is the approximately 100 square metre, windowless experiment zone, fully clad with white synthetic leather padding in the centre of the aircraft cabin. This is the science centre – surrounded by black nets so that nothing and no one floats too far during the approximately 22 second phase of weightlessness, and equipped with handles, special lighting and flooring.

The control centre remains in the cockpit – just like any conventional aircraft – but even there, a special piece of equipment has been added – an accelerometer, or 'G' instrument – and a system that enables the parabolic trajectories to be flown precisely. Friedrich says: “There are four pilots on board for each day of flying; three sit in the cockpit, one is 'off duty' until changeover. The duty plan is determined daily on a flexible basis – sometimes there is a change after the fifth parabolic trajectory and sometimes after the tenth." During a parabola, the first pilot controls movements about the longitudinal axis, the second controls motion around the transverse axis of the aircraft and the third the thrust of the engines, and hence the velocity of the aircraft.

  • A brief history of the A310 'ZERO-G'

    The Airbus A310-304 '10+21' was delivered from aircraft manufacturer Airbus to East German airline Interflug on 24 June 1989, and was used by East German government leaders until 1991. On 27 August 1991, the aircraft became the property of the German Air Force and with the name ‘Konrad Adenauer’, the VIP aircraft was used for journeys and state visits by German Federal Chancellors and government ministers between 1993 and 2011. The A310 '10+21' was stationed at the Cologne-Bonn airport during its mission for the German Federal Ministry of Defence. Exactly 25 years after the initial handover, the 'Konrad Adenauer' was handed over to its new owner, Novespace, on 24 June 2014, after which numerous test flights were carried out. From 3 September 2014 until 18 March 2015, Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg overhauled the aircraft and converted it for use in parabolic flights.

  • What happens during a parabolic flight?

    To fly a parabola, the pilots first of all steer the aircraft steeply upward and then put it into a controlled dive. In the upper section of the flight curve, there is a 22 second period of weightlessness. In the phases prior to and after this, the normal forces of gravity are almost doubled. Since the pilots imitate the path of a ball thrown into the air, or a parabolic trajectory, the flights are referred to as parabolic flights. During a parabola, some sections of the aircraft structure are exposed to loads that are almost 30 times greater than those experienced during normal use.

  • Elisabeth Mittelbach
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion
    Telephone: +49 228 447-385
    Fax: +49 228 447-386
    Königswinterer Str. 522-524
    53227 Bonn
  • Dr Ulrike Friedrich
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    DLR Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Mi­cro­grav­i­ty Re­search and Life Sci­ence
    Telephone: +49 228 447-323
    Fax: +49 228 447-735
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Köln
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