If the Future Large Aircraft (FLA) programme does not get the go-ahead soon, its advocates will argue that an opportunity akin to the original launching of Airbus Industrie will have been missed, while its detractors will take it as confirmation that the project is one which defence budgets cannot sustain.

Whatever decisions are made over the next few months, the debate will enter the annals of European aerospace legend as one of most prolonged and machiavellian ever.

For proponents of the programme, it is "now or never", or as close as now-or-never gets for a project which has already left a trail of false starts. Andy Lewis, commercial director, FLA, for the Airbus Military Company (AMC), says: "We are now extremely eager to get the formal request for proposals [RFP] to allow us to carry out the pre-launch activities on the FLA."

The AMC partner companies consist of Aerospatiale of France, Italy's Alenia, British Aerospace, CASA of Spain and Germany's Daimler-Benz Aerospace, working in consort with Belgium's FLABEL, OGMA of Portugal and Tusas of Turkey.


Increased urgency

In part, the increased urgency attached to the programme results from the pressure to meet, or be as close as possible, to the Royal Air Force's requirement for a second tranche of aircraft to replace its remaining Lockheed Martin C-130Ks. There is also a fear that the project will finally fizzle out through Government apathy.

The FLA was launched in 1982 as the Future International Military Airlifter (FIMA) and involved Aerospatiale, British Aerospace, Lockheed and MBB. The aim of the FIMA projectwas to develop a more capable successor to the Lockheed C-130 Hercules to meet European and US air force requirements.

At the industrial level, the FIMA seemed to progress, but establishing even a European Staff Target took until 1993, and the European Staff Requirement (ESR) was not frozen until 1996.

In the prolonged interim period, Lockheed left the FIMA group to pursue development of an upgraded Hercules, the C-130J Hercules 2, and the remaining European partners, having been joined in 1989 by Alenia and CASA, wound up the group. In its place emerged EUROFLAG, the European Future Large Aircraft Group, with its headquarters in Rome, Italy. Wisely, the partners kept the Future well to the fore of the consortium's title.

Lockheed, however, was not the only one to depart in 1989. In the same year, the UK Government withdrew from the programme, taking up observer status, and perching on the Atlantic fence between EUROFLAG and Lockheed.

Curiously for a country not fully aboard the programme, the UK has continued to exert a great deal of influence on the way in which the FLA has developed. The FLA versus C-130J debate was to lead indirectly to then UK Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, laying out the conditions under which the UK would rejoin the programme. Central to Rifkind's demands was that the FLA programme be placed under the auspices of Airbus Industrie, and that the project be run along commercial lines, to drive down costs.


Body blow

In the meantime, the UK became the launch customer for the C-130J, ordering 25 aircraft for the RAF. While this was a disappointment to FLA supporters, it was the French Government which actually delivered the most severe body blow to the programme, in 1996.

While remaining committed in principle to the project, the French were unwilling to make any development funding available, saying that industry would have to find a route to financing the FLA independently of state coffers. Germany, the junior partner in the Franco-German defence alliance, was to follow suit with a similar statement four months later.

According to both governments, only a "fully commercial approach" will make the FLA affordable. At the time, proponents saw an aircraft with a price and performance which would kick the pillars from under the Hercules; detractors saw only an obituary. As it turned out, France and Germany have struggled to come up with an acceptable alternative approach to funding, with French Government officials and Aerospatiale only recently reaching the Ìnal stages of looking at the problem. Recommendations of their study may be released before the Paris air show.

What AMC wants, premised on a favourable French funding recommendation, is for the RFP to be released as soon as possible. It is possible that this could occur during the show. An FLA policy-group meeting is scheduled provisionally for 17 June.

As part of its attempt to keep the FLA programme alive, AMC is mounting a campaign aimed at key decision makers in the run-up to the air show. The aim is to achieve a stay of execution for the project. "The release of the RFP entails no risk, and negligible cost," says Lewis. "There is no real cost issue." At the end of the RFP assessment, if any of the participating nations do not like the outcome, then they can just walk away, he adds.

Lewis says that the assessment, covering around an 11-month period, will allow AMC to put together a "detailed response" covering the aircraft configuration, including the choice of powerplant. BMW Rolls-Royce, Snecma and MTU, and AlliedSignal are offering competing turboprop engines for the FLA.


Risking little

Even to the sceptical, releasing the RFP and seeing through this phase of the project would appear to risk little. To FLA enthusiasts, it offers perhaps one last opportunity to convince European governments and air forces of the military and industrial value of the programme.

While for its seven-year existence FIMA produced little more that some entertaining turbofan-powered aircraft configurations, including a tri-jet biplane, the FLA has in recent years seen some considerable industrial effort. Much of this has been aimed at minimising risk, a critical issue if the participating governments are to be persuaded to pursue the programme.

Iain Gray, British Aerospace Airbus product executive - FLA, says: "Detailed work on the aircraft is ongoing, as is risk reduction. Key areas of this include the aerodynamic performance." He adds: "We've put together a windtunnel campaign looking at critical areas such as the interaction of the powerplant and the propeller blades with the airflow over the wing."

The FLA, as now configured, will use a turboprop producing 6,700kW (9,000hp), driving an eight-bladed, 5m-diameter propeller. Ironically, it has been in exactly this area that Lockheed Martin has run into problems with the C-130J. Unexpected stall characteristics, the result of marrying a more-powerful engine and advanced propeller to the original wing, have led to programme delays and the introduction of a "stick pusher". It has also earned Lockheed Martin the ire of senior RAF officers, who are believed to have made their displeasure clear to senior company executives.

The FLA windtunnel tests are a cross-partner activity and have involved seven large-scale models of the aircraft. The BAe Airbus Filton site in the south-west of England has completed a series of windtunnel tests which examined the low-speed characteristics of the design, using a 1:15 scale model. Gray says that the results of the tests so far "-show that our design methodology is valid".

One area which remains under study is that of the nacelle configuration. Both high- and low-mounted nacelles have been examined. Gray highlights the engine as being "one of the key technology areas", as far as risk reduction is concerned. "What we haven't done previously is the integration of a large advanced turboprop," he says.

Powerplant performance is critical to the FLA. AMC claims that the aircraft will have a cruise-speed performance not far short of that of the turbofan-powered McDonnell Douglas C-17, and superior to that of the C-130J. Gray claims that the aircraft will fly at Mach 0.72 at 40,000ft (12,200m), which is "only 20kt [37km/h] slower than the C-17".

At the other end of the demanding performance regime spelled out in the ESR, the aircraft must be capable of flying at 130kt with only a 3¹ angle of attack. "It is a stretching set of requirements," notes Gray.


Convincing performance

It is not, however, only the governments, and their respective defence ministries, which must be convinced of the aircraft's performance. "We need to have a clear view ourselves of the aircraft's performance to allow us to commit to a firm price," Gray adds.

Following the submission of the assessment, and the time needed to conclude national negotiations, AMC would then move into what it describes as a "single-phase programme". This would pull together both the development and the production phases.

As well as examining aerodynamics, AMC has also been looking at ergonomic issues within the cockpit, with Aerospatiale taking the lead. The company has built an FLA cockpit simulator to look at design issues, and to show potential operators. Gray argues that FLA purchasers will benefit from "-Airbus' lead in the commercial sector-we will migrate this and use it to best advantage in the FLA".

He recognises that this highlights one of the crucial tasks AMC needs to accomplish if it is to keep the programme alive - to convince its potential customers that it can migrate commercial technologies to a military aircraft.

"There is customer concern over how Airbus technology applies to a military role. We have to develop concepts of how we build the aircraft and to try and educate the customer as to how commercial technology is applicable," he says.

Gray clearly views the cockpit simulator as a valuable tool in achieving this. Transport crews from the participating nations have flown the FLA cockpit simulator, as well as an Airbus A319 at Toulouse in southern France. "It gives us the opportunity to show how we embody the side-stick controller," he says.

The A319 flights have formed part of the work of the cockpit task force, which has been set up with the potential customer air forces.

Other areas which are being studied include manufacturing techniques, and the business end of the aircraft - the cargo-handling system. BAe has built a carbon-composite wing box in considering the materials and manufacturing technologies required.

Considerable work, adds Gray, has also been going into the cargo-handling system. At present, the FLA participant states all use different handling systems, and "-they all want a common solution".

While all this work will no doubt prove valuable should the RFP be released, the fight for the FLA will be won or lost on the political battleground over the next few months.

Lewis, for one, now appears relatively confident that France will pull an acceptable financing solution out of the proverbial conjuror's hat and that the Government is "-now eager for the pre-launch activities to go ahead. Germany is also moving toward this position".

In the immediate wake of the UK general election at the beginning of May, BAe has already briefed Lord Gilbert, the new defence- procurement minister, on the programme. Certainly, a Labour Government, traditionally more sympathetic to employment and industrial arguments, may be prepared to listen to the FLA proponents.

The UK Government has also just embarked on a Strategic Defence and Security Review, the outcome of which has yet to be determined. Airlift requirements, already the subject of several Ministry of Defence (MoD) studies, focused on meeting Joint Rapid Deployment Force (JRDF) needs, will certainly figure in the Government's deliberations.

AMC has carried out its own studies into the suitability of the FLA to meet the UK's JRDF mission requirements. Of those UK loads listed in the ESR, AMC claims that the C-130J carries less than 50%, while all could be carried by the FLA. In terms of fleet cost-effectiveness, measured against C-130J and C-17 mixes, a 50-strong fleet of FLA comes out top, AMC claims. Gray says that AMC has since "-worked with the MoD to explain the assumptions underlying the study."

While the UK election has almost certainly provided a more benign, or at least less hostile, environment for FLA advocates, the socialist victory in the French elections may produce a Government more inclined to support job-creating, or job-protecting, projects.

The UK still holds only observer status on the programme. AMC wants to see the UK Government rejoin the project as a full member, and approve the release of the RFP. France, Italy, Spain and Turkey are "-now prepared to issue the RFP to industry", it says.


EF2000 struggle

The FLA is not the only military-aircraft programme which European states are attempting to sort out in the run-up to the Paris air show. The four Eurofighter partner nations (Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK) are struggling to resolve the vexed issue of the EF2000 production-investment (PI) phase.

Germany, striving to meet European Union currency-convergence criteria, has so far failed to make available the necessary funding for the PI phase. The UK, meanwhile, appears to be anxious to move ahead.

With UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl due to have met on 6 June, there are those who suggest that an element of horse-trading over the EF2000 and the FLA could take place in the margins of the meeting. Certainly, it will take a great deal of political clout to corral together support for the FLA in the present climate of fiscal austerity.

One humorist, when asked what FLA actually stood for, suggested: "Frightens Lockheed anyway". In the light of the project's tribulations, this has in recent years seemed somewhat wide of the mark - AMC has once last chance to prove it correct.

Source: Flight International