The wait for the newly renamed A400M is almost over, with the first production example within weeks of its flight debut
With Europe's largest collaborative defence project just weeks away from achieving the debut flight of its first production aircraft, Airbus Military will display its A400M at the Farnborough air show using the product name "Atlas" for the first time.
Backed by partner nations Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK, the formal acceptance of the new name is due to be formalised at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire during a ceremony on 6 July. Its confirmation is no surprise, as the event had originally been scheduled to take place at the same show in 2011, before non-essential flights involving the programme's "Grizzly" development aircraft were halted by an issue with the Europrop International (EPI) TP400-D6 turboprop engine.
Now resolved, the same flaw kept the A400M on the ground for all but one brief flying appearance during last year's Paris air show. This makes a successful Farnborough all the more important for the EADS company responsible for delivering its first of 174 aircraft around December.
Airbus Military's internal target date for completing the debut flight of aircraft MSN7 is 23 August. The milestone event will be performed in Seville, Spain, which is the location for the company's purpose-built final assembly line for the A400M.
The first of 50 new transports on order for the French air force, and to follow the manufacturer's five-strong fleet of Grizzlies, which entered flight test between December 2009 and December 2011, MSN7's debut will be followed by a second French example due to take off during the fourth quarter of this year.
Work to prepare the first two French air force crews to operate the Atlas is due to kick off soon at Airbus Military's international training centre, just over the road from the final assembly facility at its San Pablo site. While the schedule is tight, the company says it is on track to complete this task by December. This matches its goal of handing over MSN7 late in the same month, following a delivery process which should commence in November after a short period of development flying.
The procedure for handing over the first customer aircraft is contractually required to occur by the end of March 2013; more than three years behind the timetable agreed when Europe's OCCAR defence procurement agency signed a then 180-aircraft launch order in May 2003 on behalf of the programme's partner nations. This slip, in combination with the severe budget pressures that hit the buyers as the global economy took a plunge, threatened to kill the A400M, and it was not until November 2010 that a revised order for 170 aircraft was finally agreed. The reduction came as Germany downgraded seven of its planned 60 examples to options and the UK trimmed its offtake from 25 to 22 airframes.
Seeing the programme survive came at a major cost to EADS, which accepted major financial penalties linked to the crisis, but the transport's progress towards first delivery has remained firmly on track since the amended deal was agreed.
"The dream is becoming a reality," says A400M programme manager Cedric Gautier. "We are very confident to fulfil our commitment to our customers."
By late May, major structures and long-lead production items were already in work around Europe for the first 13 A400Ms scheduled for delivery to France, Germany, Turkey and the UK. Ankara's first example, MSN9, is also now in final assembly and will be flown for the first time in the first quarter of 2013, before its delivery in the third quarter of the same year. The lead aircraft for Berlin and London will be handed over during 2014.
Such is Europe's need to replace its aged national fleets of Franco-German-built C160 Transalls and Lockheed Martin C-130H/K Hercules that Airbus Military must manage an aggressive ramp-up in its final assembly activities on the A400M.
Counting MSN7, the company expects to formally hand over its first three Atlas transports during 2013. This will increase to seven or eight in 2014, before the programme's planned peak rate of 2.5 aircraft per month should be achieved during the following year.
While this rapid increase in the annual delivery rate from three to 30 aircraft represents a steep curve for Airbus Military and its suppliers throughout Europe, Gautier says: "We have a production ramp-up that is going very well."
Serious efforts are now being made to promote the Atlas to potential further export customers, beyond the type's lone international buyer to date, Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur's first of four A400Ms, MSN22, will be delivered in 2014.
"The first export slots would be in 2016 - that's why we're starting marketing now," Gautier said during a late May briefing at Airbus's Toulouse facilities in France.
Getting the first production aircraft into the hands of the partner air forces will be key to achieving this ambition, according to Antonio Rodriguez Barberán, Airbus Military's senior vice-president commercial. "A satisfied customer is the best salesman you can have," he says, adding that the company expects to secure its next contract for the A400M within 12 to 18 months of the type going operational with the French air force.
During the course of their test activities this year, the company's Grizzly fleet has made visits to Asia and Latin America, including promotional appearances in Indonesia, Thailand, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Peru. In all, A400Ms should visit 16 countries during 2012.
All has not been plain flying, however. MSN4 had an extended stay in Oman following an in-flight propeller gearbox failure while returning from the Asian tour, and Airbus Military and EPI have yet to fully explain the cause of the incident. A manufacturing or quality control issue is believed to have been behind the excessive vibration levels experienced in one TP400 installed on production-standard test aircraft MSN6 earlier this year, which caused a several-week delay in Airbus Military launching so-called function and reliability (F&R) testing of the A400M.
Despite these challenges, relations between the airframer and its propulsion system supplier - a consortium formed of ITP, MTU Aero Engines, Rolls-Royce and Snecma - are much improved from the crisis points of past programme delays, contract renegotiations and the restrictions imposed during mid-2011.
To total 300 flight hours, the F&R process is intended to prove the maturity of the A400M and its systems to be operated intensively, and is one of the main remaining hurdles standing in the way of the type securing full civil type certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). If all goes to plan, all F&R flights will have been completed by late June, leading to a certification approval during July. MSN6 should then be available to appear at RIAT and Farnborough in the UK, and also at September's Berlin air show.
Despite the limited participation made by MSN6 between making its flight debut in December 2011 and starting F&R work on 2 June - it had flown only 19 times and for a total of 77h by mid-May - the Grizzly fleet had by the same time logged a combined total of almost 1,100 flights and more than 3,200h. And in an historic event, all five of the aircraft took to the air together from Toulouse on 7 June, providing a formation photo opportunity before continuing with their individual test activities.
Recent work has included completing natural icing tests from Toulouse, landing in a 35kt (65km/h) crosswind and making 200 noise certification passes flown at Spain's Moron air base, which Airbus says demonstrated "exceptionally low noise levels for a military aircraft." Early flights have also been made with A400Ms carrying under-wing hose and drogue refuelling pods and an aerodynamic shape on the tail ramp to simulate the future presence of a fuselage refuelling unit. These resulted in "no issue on handling or performance," says Fernando Alonso, Airbus's senior vice-president, flight and integration tests.
A first attempt at operating the Atlas on an unpaved runway at Cottbus-Drewitz in Germany was cut short in late May, after the aircraft's left main undercarriage broke through the strip's grass surface during a maximum rejected take-off run. The company says the issue was more the result of errant pre-trial assessments of the runway condition than any design flaw, and further work will be conducted later this year.
"We are asking a lot of the engines, and we are asking a lot of the aircraft. We are taking the aircraft to their limits," Alonso says. "But the more issues and problems we find now, the better it is."
Key lessons are being learned about the aircraft's performance beyond the conditions required to secure full EASA certification, says Alonso. Referring to sorties flown last year behind a Royal Air Force Vickers VC10 tanker, he notes: "We made the right choice in 2011 in de-risking the certification of the military activities." Fresh flights were made earlier this year, and Alonso says the company is "very happy with the modifications we had made in the flight controls." These mean that the Atlas is now "a very solid aircraft in the approach" to the tanker: an important step as it prepares to accept fuel for the first time from the firm's Airbus A330-based multi-role tanker transport.
Also looking to its operational applications, the integrated flight test teams at Toulouse and Seville will support trials of the A400M's military communications and defensive aids subsystem equipment during 2012, while MSN6 will undergo electromagnetic testing at EADS's Manching site near Munich in Germany. The aircraft's ground collision avoidance system is also being assessed, while its enhanced vision system and head-up display combination have already been used to make landings at unlit airfields.
Paratroops and gravity loads will also be dropped this year, while ground tests will prove the A400M's capacity of 37,000kg (81,500lb), by loading equipment like helicopters and vehicles into its roughly 4m x 4m x 23m (13.1ft x 13.1ft x 75ft) cargo box.
Noting that perhaps 1,000 more flight hours must still be flown by the Grizzly fleet in support of the aircraft's military testing, Alonso comments: "There is still a lot to be done, but I am as happy as ever with the airplane. We think it has tremendous potential, and want to show it to the air forces of the world."
MAINTENANCE DEALS TO BOOST AVAILABILITY
With its first A400M potentially just five months away from being accepted, France is due to have signed an initial support contract by the show to cover its first period of operating the type.
To include the Atlas aircraft and its Europrop International TP400-D6 turboprop engines, the contractor-managed service will be provided until a planned joint support model can be put in place with the UK.
"The first part is only covering the first 18 months for France until the UK gets into service," says Philippe Galland, Airbus Military's head of customer services. "A joint contract is still the intention."
Launch production aircraft MSN7's entry into service with France will be backed by the provision of ground support and mission planning equipment, technical documentation and training services.
"We are working with France on provisioning the final spares to support entry into service," says Stephan Miegel, head of the A400M services programme. "We are intending to offer a spares availability service as an option later in the year," he adds, with this to also cover fleet management and maintenance scheduling activities.
To prepare itself for the A400M's introduction, Airbus Military has already held its first workshops under a so-called "Boost" model, which is intended to enhance the range of services that it is able to offer its customers across multiple platform types. Offers will be made under its full in-service support model, which runs through three levels, named material, fleet and mission.
"Our global target is for 80% availability on the A400M," Galland says.
While its main focus for now is on preparing for early operations with the French air force, Airbus Military is already making its support offers to several other near-term users of the type.
A first proposal was made to Turkey in April, with Ankara expected to approve a support system by year-end. Offers will also be made to Germany and the UK in late 2012, with both due to commit to their preferred models during 2013.
MORE BUYERS SOUGHT FOR A330 MULTI-ROLE TANKER TRANSPORT
Beyond seeking new customers for its A400M "Atlas", Airbus Military hopes to sell more A330-based multi-role tanker transports (MRTT) to nations beyond the four that have selected the type so far.
Having lost the US Air Force's 179-aircraft KC-X tanker battle with Boeing's 767-derived KC-46A, the European company has missed the chance to usurp its rival's decades-old dominance of the air-to-air refuelling (AAR) market. Gaining several smaller victories is now its ambition, with opportunities existing in France and India.
By the end of this year, Airbus Military should have delivered 13 of the 28 A330 MRTTs under contract for the air forces of Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the UK. The last of the remaining widebody aircraft will be handed over by around 2016.
A combined seven tanker/transports are to be delivered during 2012; up from six last year. This total should include the remaining two KC-30A examples yet to be accepted by the Royal Australian Air Force, pending the certification of requested changes to the type's aerial refuelling boom system.
Canberra's last of five MRTT airframes arrived at Airbus Military's Getafe conversion centre near Madrid, Spain, in June to support work on the Australian enhancement package, which already includes the nation's first aircraft.
The work is focused on enhancing the functionality of the human/machine interface and reducing operator workload. Changes include refining the fly-by-wire boom's flight management system, adding a stick shaker function to alert the "boomer" if the design is approaching the edge of its operating limits, and adapting the MRTT's dedicated control laws to support the refuelling of large aircraft types.
"We intend to certificate the enhancements by September/October and to be fully implemented by the end of the year," says Francisco Carrasco, director of the company's MRTT programme for Saudi Arabia, which is acquiring six aircraft based closely on the Australian model.
Riyadh's first aircraft is in Spain supporting crew training activities, and half of its eventually six-strong fleet will have been delivered by December. Its three remaining examples are expected to follow between 2014 and 2016, but Carrasco says: "We know they are interested in increasing the fleet."
In-country trials with the UAE's first MRTT performed earlier this year cleared the operation of its boom with the Dassault Mirage 2000 and Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60. All three of its tankers should be transferred by year-end.
The UK has signed the programme's largest deal to date, with 14 modified A330s to be operated under a private finance initiative arrangement with the AirTanker industry consortium. The Royal Air Force's first "Voyager" has been flying passengers since May, and UK personnel should begin to receive instruction in AAR operations from August, once a fuel venting issue has been fully resolved.
Meanwhile, Airbus Military is awaiting the outcome of an Indian air force tanker contest, which pits the A330 against a modified version of the Ilyushin Il-78 already flown by the service for a six-aircraft requirement. The company has been contracted as a consultant while France seeks ways of acquiring 14 MRTTs to replace its aged Boeing 707-based C-135FRs.
Further business could come via an initiative being studied by the European Defence Agency, which has identified the air-to-air refuelling mission as a critical capability shortfall among its partner states. If advanced, this could lead to the acquisition of a pooled fleet of tankers, under a multinational funding model similar to that used to obtain three Boeing C-17s for the NATO/Partnership for Peace Strategic Airlift Consortium.
Elsewhere, the A400M has undergone early flight testing configured for the tactical tanker mission, and Airbus Military is offering a roll-on/roll-off payload that would allow its medium C295 to deliver up to 6,000kg (13,200lb) of fuel to combat helicopters.