Airbus demonstrates formation flying

Airbus has performed the first long-haul demonstration of formation flight in general air traffic (GAT) regulated transatlantic airspace with two A350 aircraft.

The aircraft flew 3km apart from Toulouse in France to Montreal, Canada. Over six tons of CO2 emissions were saved on the trip, confirming the potential for more than a 5% fuel saving on long-haul flights. 

The test flight involved two A350 test aircraft – MSN1 and MSN59 – with the former as the lead aircraft. It was made possible by flight control systems developed by Airbus, which position the follower aircraft safely in the wake updraft of the leader aircraft. This allows it to reduce engine thrust and reduce fuel consumption. A similar principle can be observed with large migrating birds such as geese, which fly together in a distinct V-shaped formation.

The flight was made possible thanks to Airbus and its air traffic management partners and navigation service providers DSNA, NATS, NAV CANADA, Eurocontrol and IAA, with the support of the DGAC.

Sabine Klauke, chief technical officer at Airbus, said: “This demonstration flight is a concrete example of our commitment to making our decarbonisation roadmap a reality. It also speaks to how collaboration across the industry will be key to making this happen.

“We have received strong support for this project from our airline and air traffic partners, plus regulators. The opportunity to get this deployed for passenger aircraft around the middle of this decade is very promising.”

The next step is to gain the support of the authorities so that the new operational concept can be certified, ultimately enabling airlines to reduce their fuel burn and CO2 emissions.