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Welcome to Los Angeles, Airbus A380

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

The Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in history, lumbered out of the fog this morning, landing at LAX on a maiden voyage to the United States.

The eight-story-tall Airbus touched down at 9:30 a.m. and taxied toward the specially designed gate built to accommodate the 1.2-million-pound jet. The airplane, which can carry 555 passengers and has a 261-foot wingspan, was making its inaugural test flight from the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France.

An identical A380 landed in New York within minutes of the Los Angeles touchdown. The New York flight was the luxury version, with a plane filled with company executives, guests and the news media. The Airbus that landed in Los Angeles was virtually empty of people, with 22 crew members, but full of added instrumentation for the test flight.

Los Angeles had fought to host the pivotal moment in U.S. aviation history. LAX was promised the first flight if $49 million in improvements were made at the airport. Airbus then announced this year that it planned to land the jumbo jet in New York instead. LAX officials sent a strongly worded letter to company executives in Toulouse and Airbus relented three weeks ago.

Airplane buffs gathered near LAX in the predawn hours to claim prime viewing spots for the A380’s arrival -- a plane Airbus is banking on as the future of aviation with its huge passenger capacity and 9,300-mile range. Several hundred spectators gathered atop an airport parking structure near Terminal 1 for the occasion.

“Oh, that is gorgeous,” said Gregg Atherton, 38, of Santa Monica, as the plane dropped out of the sky and landed at the airport’s northernmost runway.

Another spectator was Gerald Peebler, 88, of La Mirada, who flew a B-17 bomber in World War II.

“This is a step up,” he said as the giant passenger jet descended. “That’s a big boy.”

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

“Here it is. Here it is. This is it,” said Mark Gagne, 19, of Ventura, listening to air traffic with his scanner.

Long moments went by without sight or sound of the aircraft and an incoming Boeing 747 teased the crowd into thinking the A380 was on final approach.

“The anticipation is killing me. My heart can’t take it,” 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 the scanner radios, two faint lights emerged from the fog. Then the massive wings and engines came into view.

“How is that thing flying?” asked Gagne.

Behind him, someone added, “It’s a sperm whale with wings.”

The Airbus glided over the crowd, which turned as the plane did and touched down, its engines rumbling. The landing was the end of a long wait for many who had arrived before first light to see the A380.

Among those settled in under the dark cloud of the early morning fog were Chris Lucak, 49, of Cypress, and Dave Glaubach, 58, of Santa Monica, who camped out in their cars near an In ‘N’ Out near the airport’s northern boundary.

The two friends, with close ties to Airbus’ main rival, Boeing, brought digital cameras and wide-angle lenses to mark the moment.

“We want to see what this big pile of aluminum looks like,” said Glaubach, a retired Boeing employee, his arms crossed over his blue sweatshirt to ward off the chill. “I hope the sun comes out.”

Lucak, who took the day off from his job as a Boeing assembly mechanic, was prepared for the more than four-hour wait. He said he took a 30-minute “power nap” in the back seat of his brown Oldsmobile, in which he carried a portable foldout chair, sandwiches, granola and a thermos of hot coffee.

“I was here 30 years ago, when the [supersonic jet] Concorde made its visit,” he said, thumbing through an album of 50 airplane photos he had snapped over the years. “I want to be here when the largest plane in the world flies in.”

While the two Boeing veterans mulled over whether to try to find a better viewing location, a mother and son from Whittier arrived to claim a spot.

Marina Gomez, 38, and Justin Esparza, 10, stood atop an airport parking garage off Sepulveda Boulevard. The coveted structure filled steadily, with people on the ground calling up to those on the rooftop to ask how many parking spaces were left.

Justin and his mom secured an unobstructed view -- a perfect end to their long buildup of Airbus anticipation.

“We’ve been watching it on National Geographic [cable television channel] for a year,” Gomez said.

The mother and son, who planned to go to work and school late today, woke up at 3 a.m., fed the family dog, fish and turtle, bundled up in jackets, sweatshirts and beanies, and, by 5:50, were on the garage rooftop.

Justin, an aspiring pilot and model airplane collector, brought his camera phone to record the plane’s arrival-video footage he planned to share with his classmates.

“It’s a brand new plane, and it’s gonna be bigger than a 747,” he said.

Airport officials had been bracing for extra traffic in and around LAX, but the airport appeared to be no busier than usual for a Monday morning.

With only three short weeks to prepare for one of two inaugural U.S. test flights by the A380 -- a second aircraft was at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport around the same time -- the city’s airport agency braced for heavy crowds and traffic. The last major aviation event at LAX occurred in 1974, when thousands welcomed the supersonic Concorde.

Once it touched down, the aircraft taxied to the Imperial Terminal on the airport’s south side for a welcoming ceremony that included Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Airbus and Qantas executives. Spectators were not allowed to approach the plane but can catch a glimpse of it at the terminal until about 2 p.m. by going to an airport-parallel road in El Segundo.

The city’s airport agency has spent about half of the $121 million it has budgeted to improve LAX to handle the A380 by enlarging taxiway and runway intersections and building a double-deck gate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal. The agency, along with Airbus and Qantas Airways employees, were to test docking the plane at this gate, as well as ground equipment handling procedures and how the airplane copes with the airfield configuration at LAX.

The super jumbo jet that landed in New York had about 550 passengers aboard and tested boarding and unloading, baggage handling and catering procedures.

Qantas plans to begin A380 flights to LAX next year.

jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

ashley.surdin@latimes.com

Staff writers Tony Barboza and J. Michael Kennedy contributed to this report

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