EADS launches ground tests using first A400M transport

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This year could be make or break for Airbus Military's A400M as it moves towards first flight. Good progress will help EADS in its bid to sell to the US Air Force

Europe's Airbus Military A400M programme has entered 2008 on a positive note, with ground system and load testing having commenced at EADS Casa's Seville facility in southern Spain using flight test aircraft MSN001. Towed from its final assembly line jigs on 2 January, the aircraft remains on schedule to make its flight debut in mid-year, insists lead stakeholder EADS, which last week refuted a report by German business magazine WirtschaftsWoche that the already revised target could slip further.

EADS late last year incurred a €1.4 billion ($2 billion) charge after confirming that first deliveries of the tactical transport faced delays of between six and 12 months, and the company has made "no new evaluation", says chief executive Louis Gallois. "I said that the first flight would be in the summer, and I continue to say that," he said on 7 January. Industry sources say MSN001 is still on track to fly in July, but concede there are risks to this schedule.

a400m 
© EADS Casa   
Airbus Military's first A400M remains on track to fly in July, but European industry must first prove the performance of its TP400 enginesv

The aircraft's 42m (138ft) span wing and tail structures were mated with its fuselage on the Seville line in December, prior to its move to a test hangar. EADS says the newly launched period of ground tests - building on MSN001's "power on" milestone achieved last October - will include strain gauge calibration tests.

Structural testing

The company says this work will see the transport subjected to loads and bending forces equivalent to in-flight manoeuvres of up to 1g. Airbus Military says additional work will also test the A400M's electrical systems and installations, flight controls and hydraulics. Structural testing of the design is being supported using a static test airframe located at EADS Casa's Getafe site near Madrid.

A key precursor to MSN001's taking to the air will be initial flight tests involving the 11,000shp (8,200kW)Europrop International TP400-D6 turboprop engine, four of which will power the approximately 136t transport. One test engine was installed on a Lockheed Martin C-130K testbed at Marshall Aerospace's Cambridge airport site in the UK on 3 December, and its 5.5m-diameter Ratier Figeac propeller is to be integrated during February. The modified Hercules is due to fly during the first quarter of this year, around 12 months late.

The TP400 has been a source of considerable development problems for the A400M, along with unspecified additional aircraft mission systems. These contributed to an EADS decision to delay final assembly activities at Seville by five months until August 2007. Under pressure to deliver the goods after their earlier development problems, the companies behind the power plant - ITP, MTU Aero Engines, Rolls-Royce and Snecma - must hope that all runs smoothly over the coming months.

TP400 development is being managed from R-R's Filton facility in Bristol, the site also housing Airbus UK's A400M wing assembly line, which draws in components and structures from partner countries Belgium, France, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa, Spain and Turkey. EADS recently confirmed plans to sell some of its Filton-based activities to GKN, but composite wing production for the military transport is not included in the deal.

a400m  
© EADS Casa   
MSN001 left EADS Casa's final assembly line on 2 January for ground system and load testing

Once flight testing of the A400M ramps up from later this year, the programme is expected to use five development aircraft: two based in Seville and three in Toulouse, France. A sixth could be added to claw back lost time on the project, which Airbus Military says calls for around 3,700h of flight testing to be completed prior to the type's entry into customer service with the French air force in 2010.

The programme's seven launch nations are now looking at the training and maintenance requirements for their future A400Ms, with the latter to potentially be contracted under an availability-based model in some nations, such as the UK, which is buying 25 of the aircraft for around £2.6 billion ($5.1 billion).

EADS will hope that flight tests of the C-130/TP400 demonstrator and MSN001 run to schedule this year, as Airbus Military is effectively treading water in its efforts to sell the A400M to new buyers. With industrial participation no longer on offer to new export customers, potentially interested nations in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and south-east Asia are waiting to see whether the aircraft's development problems have been overcome in time to secure their business.

EADS needs a good year if it is to advance its possible promotion of the A400M to the US Air Force (see box). However, movement here is unlikely before the outcome of the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America KC-30 bid against Boeing's KC-767 in the US Air Force's KC-X tanker contest.

a400m showing back cargo 
© EADS Casa   

EADS North America believes the US military will need the A400M's 37t cargo capacity