A pit stop with the A380 Airbus, the largest airliner in the world

Inside the A380

Alan Milne, Head of Engineering, Qantas International, shows us around the world's largest passenger airliner the Airbus A380.

It's a bird, it's a plane ... it's a full-blown eclipse?

No. It's a whopping great A380 Airbus, the world's largest passenger airliner. Capable of carrying between 500 and 800 people, depending on the class configuration, it has a range of over 15,500 kilometres, and a wingspan that would take Usain Bolt about (reaches for calculator) ... 7.704 seconds to sprint the 80 metres from one tip to the other.

All of which spells BIG. So very big that you might well ask: how do they stay up?

Well, if there's one thing that keeps these extraordinary aircraft in business - apart from, that is, the elegance of the Bernoulli Principle (the science of airflow over the wings, that lifts all planes into the air), and the general prosperity of the middle classes - it's the four stonking great engines, Rolls Royce Trent 900s, each one the size of a modest family caravan, and with doubtless every bit as much going on inside.

"The engines are designed to be rotated, they get changed out every five years," says Alan Milne, Head of Engineering, Qantas International, who spoke to Fairfax Media during one of the A380's overnight maintenance checks.

"We pull them off, send them in for an overhaul, and to improve the reliability of they aircraft engine as well. We even wash the inside of the engines, and that gives the best fuel return." Naturally enough for such a vital part of plane, the engines must be protected. Milne says the engines' (very expensive) titanium fan blades "don't like any sort of damage" and that any impact with, for instance, a wayward Pelican would be "catastrophic".

Reassuringly, however, Milne means catastrophic for the engine, not the plane, or its passengers.

"It's a four engine aircraft, but it's designed to fly on two. If they lose one on take-off, the aeroplane doesn't notice it from a performance [perspective]."

The engines aren't the only parts of the A380 which get a thorough rinsing: everything is splashed, sprayed and buffed. And not only to look pretty.

Milne says the exterior of the plane must be as clean as possible to reduce drag, and, as with the engines, create greater fuel efficiency.

"Remember there are a lot of ports we fly to where there's some pretty polluted areas, desert areas. But once they're at cruising altitude, they're through [because] there's no bugs or birds up there."

For all the necessary complicatedness in getting 650-odd tonnes up in the air and onto its hemisphere-straddling "bus" route, Milne (perhaps typically for an engineer) relishes the fundamentals.

"I think the best bit of engineering on the aeroplane is probably the simplest - the simpler the better." He points to a rubber tip inside the engine. "When the engine is turning in flight the water builds and it starts to ice up. And, as the ice builds on the rubber, it starts to spin eccentrically, and cracks the ice off and it flows through the engine with no damage. And then it starts to build up again, and cracks off. Absolutely no input is required. It's just the best bit of engineering around. So simple, so cheap, and so effective."

For us, however, there is one other simple and effective component of the aircraft that might compete with the "icer". The big painted spirals that are visible at the centre of each engine.

"Supposedly, at low-speed on approach, when the engines are on idle (because they don't want to be developing create thrust, because they're landing) they look like big bird's eyes to other birds. So if they're flying towards it they see a bigger bird flying toward them, and they go 'Woah!' and turn away. We will do anything to turn birds away from our aeroplanes," says Milne.

So, there it is. The A380. A bird and a plane after all.