So close: Europe's first A400M was rolled out in Spain on 26 June under the continent's largest-ever collaborative defence project
This year's Farnborough air show could have offered the first public opportunity to see the Airbus Military A400M transport in action, but development delays have kept the first production aircraft on the ground. It is unlikely to fly for at least the next two to three months.
Flight International visited EADS Casa's San Pablo final assembly line near Seville, Spain on 26 June to attend the lavish roll-out ceremony for the new aircraft, 192 of which are on order for Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, South Africa, Spain, Turkey and the UK.
As the flagship project for the burgeoning aerospace industry in southern Spain, the event drew dignitaries including King Juan Carlos and Andalucian regional president Manuel Chaves, with several air force chiefs also among the 2,000 or so invited guests.
Launched by the programme's seven European partners in May 2003 under a 180-aircraft development and production effort worth around €20 billion ($31.2 billion), the A400M is the continent's largest-ever collaborative defence project, and is managed by its multinational OCCAR procurement agency.
Speaking at the roll-out event, officials from lead stakeholder EADS reaffirmed the company's intention to fly the first A400M during the "summer", but conceded that uncertainties continue to threaten this already revised objective. Aircraft MSN001 - which had its engines installed just weeks before the ceremony - was originally expected to fly early this year.
"It is a tense schedule," said EADS Military Transport Aircraft chief executive Carlos Suarez. "It has risk, but we at EADS, and all our suppliers, are doing everything possible in order to maintain the schedule. It may slip, but this [summer objective] is still our target."
However, company officials also said the delayed milestone flight could now take place in "late September or early October", although a flippant EADS chief executive Louis Gallois argued: "It's exactly the same."
The road to the A400M's roll-out has been a long one. Suarez was at school when the then-Future International Military Aircraft concept was launched in 1981. "It has been a long and less than easy journey," he said, adding: "The race is not yet finished."
© EADS Casa
Suarez noted that the programme's requirement to deliver an entirely new propulsion system and airframe capable of landing and manoeuvring unaided on unpaved strips has resulted in a highly complex software package. "It is not comparable to a normal civil aeroplane," he said. "This is a completely different animal, and the complexity is much higher. The big difficulty on this programme is that we are doing these challenges at the same time."
A prime example of the demanding development programme comes in the form of the aircraft's Europrop International TP400-D6 engines, which will generate over 10,000shp (7,460kW) and be the most powerful turboprops ever produced in the West. The design's full authority digital engine control software is also three times as complex as that required for the Airbus A380's Rolls-Royce Trent 900s, according to EADS.
A new version of the FADEC software will be completed by MTU Aero Engines in August. TP400s have now amassed more than 1,500h of ground testing at six sites across Europe (Flight International, 24-30 June).
EPI expects this total to exceed 2,000h by year-end, and activities to clear the A400M's engine for flight are also now gathering momentum. The first ground run on the wing of a modified Lockheed Martin C-130 took place on 10 June, and the Marshall Aerospace-owned testbed is expected to make its flight debut in late July. This event will occur around 18 months later than originally planned, with the complete TP400 propulsion system having been run for the first time in February 2006.
Initial flight-test engines - including the four now installed on MSN001 - will be subjected to operating restrictions and undergo rigorous inspection after every flight, including through the use of boroscopes that will check for potential damage.
"The engines have proven to be very difficult," said one Airbus source, but Suarez, when asked whether the airframe and propulsion system can work together, said: "This is not a matter of compatibility it's a matter of technical complexity."
But it is not just the A400M's engines that pose a continued risk to the overall programme schedule. Tom Williams, Airbus's executive vice-president programmes, also identified its Thales-developed flight management system and Sagem Défense Sécurité-sourced GPS air data and inertial reference system navigation equipment as areas of concern. "Those are not issues for first flight, but there is a worry about them in the medium term," he said. "When we get into the flight-test programme it will be a challenge: there will be issues ahead."
Activities at San Pablo are meanwhile continuing to gather pace, with MSN002 already on the final assembly line and still targeted to fly in late 2008 or early 2009. Sections for aircraft three are also now arriving in Seville, although delivery of its main fuselage is believed to be behind schedule.
© EADS Casa
"As in every programme, at the beginning we have to optimise the flow of the final assembly line, and we have to adapt the delivery of sections to the optimisation of this flow," said Suarez, who expects the aircraft and MSN004 to both fly during 2009. Meanwhile, the programme's first full-flight simulator has also recently entered build, says Airbus Military.
To replace legacy C-130s and C160 Transall transports now in European service, the A400M has a maximum take-off weight of 141t. Its useful payload of up to 37t will be almost twice that of the new-generation C-130J and approaching half the capacity of Boeing's C-17 strategic transport.
Programme delays have already thwarted Airbus Military's ambitions to sell the A400M to Australia and Canada, both of which have now acquired fleets of four C-17s, and prevented it from competing for a combat search-and-rescue and support tanker aircraft requirement with the US Air Force: a role now likely to be filled by the newly launched HC/MC-130J.
Service entry of the A400M with the French air force is set for mid-2010 in an initial operational capability standard. This would represent a delay of six months, although EADS also highlighted a potential further six-month slippage in an announcement late last year. Late deliveries will also affect the other programme partners under the project realignment.
Gallois used the roll-out event to thank the programme's customers for their "support, understanding and endurance during the challenging process of developing this aeroplane". EADS's senior official has high expectations for the A400M, describing it as "unbeatable" and "unique in its category". And noting its early sales successes with Malaysia and South Africa, which will receive a combined 12 aircraft, he said: "I am sure they will be followed by a lot of export customers."
OCCAR director Patrick Bellouard said: "We still have some challenges ahead to complete the certification and qualification of the aircraft, and to ensure that the full military capability will be delivered. However, I have no doubt that we will succeed."
Early discussions are meanwhile under way on the future provision of in-service support for the new European transport. The UK Ministry of Defence recently held an industry day to discuss potential partnered support arrangements for the Royal Air Force's future inventory of 25 A400Ms. "We are exploring with some of our [international] partners on whether there could be some co-operation," said Air Marshal Sir Barry Thornton, the RAF's air member for materiel. "Industry is very keen to work together with us on this," he added.
The pressure on Airbus Military, EADS and their key equipment suppliers has never been greater to deliver with the A400M. But if their current schedule holds firm and flight-test activities start in Seville late this year, the aircraft could well grab the headlines at next year's Paris air show: and for all the right reasons.