France will receive its first A400M tactical transport in late June or early July, after the nation's air force has displayed the type at the Paris air show, says Airbus Military programme head Cedric Gautier.

The company completed production acceptance tests with lead aircraft MSN7 at its San Pablo site in Seville, Spain in May, Gautier says, adding: "We as industry consider the aircraft as ready for delivery. Customer acceptance is ongoing, and is going well."

Meanwhile, the same production acceptance process has also been launched for the French air force's second A400M, which is expected to be transferred "in the summertime". Sources had suggested that aircraft MSN8 was due to make its flight debut late last month, but Gautier on 30 May said a decision was taken to delay this by around one week, due to "some very little short-term conflict with MSN7's delivery process".

Airbus Military also expects to conduct the first flight of an A400M for the Turkish air force before the end of June, with MSN9 scheduled to be delivered in late September. This will be followed by a third example for France, in December, with MSN10 the first aircraft to be completed in the SOC1 software standard - which will introduce tactical capabilities including initial aerial delivery and self-protection equipment. First flight is planned for late September.

Targeted for completion ahead of Bastille Day events to be staged in France on 14 July, the delivery of MSN7 is a key milestone as the European manufacturer looks to attract more export orders for the Atlas, beyond the four units to be delivered to Malaysia.

"Entry into service is the real starting point for us for a marketing campaign," Gautier says. "Our potential customers want to have a clear view of the aircraft being used by launch operators." Airbus Military officials say it is already negotiating possible deals with several undisclosed nations, with the company having previously described opportunities as existing in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Gautier believes a new export order could potentially be agreed within the next 18- to 24-months, although one production slot is available for delivery during 2016, should a buyer emerge in time.

With Germany having previously expressed a desire to operate just 40 of its originally planned 60 and already revised 53 A400Ms, France's publication of a new defence White Paper in April also hinted at a need for a potentially reduced fleet than the 50 it is under contract to receive.

"There is a risk regarding the capability of the [French] customer to take on time all the aircraft," Gautier says. "Perhaps they will take some measures later on, but for now they have an urgent need."

Gautier notes that Airbus Military has had no discussions so far with Europe's OCCAR defence procurement agency about reducing its production total below the 170 A400Ms on order for Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK. "The short term and the medium term is protected," he adds. The company will look to offer any surplus slots to the export market from late this decade if any of the core nations opt to reduce the size of their planned fleets.

Meanwhile, flight testing with the new type has recently advanced to include initial air-to-air refuelling proximity flights, ahead of a Eurocopter demonstrator for the EC725 utility helicopter, says Eric Isorce, head of A400M flight tests. Conducted in late May, the process involved aircraft Grizzly 2 deploying a refuelling hose for the rotorcraft to approach at flight speeds of 130kt (240km/h) down to 105kt.

Further work with the A400M acting as a receiver aircraft during refuelling should be conducted in September 2013, behind a C160 Transall airlifter. More than 30 dry contacts already performed between the types by multiple pilots have shown the new aircraft's ability to maintain contact, even during turns of up to 20˚ angle of bank, Isorce says.

With the company's five-strong fleet of Grizzly development aircraft having accumulated more than 5,000 flight hours through 1,700-plus flights since December 2009, Gautier says: "We are now devoted to the SOC1 and 1.5 standards development." To be fielded by late 2014, the latter will add air-to-air refuelling functionality and expanded self-protection systems: "the vast majority of the tactical capabilities to operate in a hostile environment," he notes.

Beyond the four aircraft to be delivered this year, structures for two more A400Ms are already on the final assembly line, with 15 others currently in the production or subassembly stages at supplier sites, and long-lead items already ordered out to aircraft MSN32. "The A400M is now part of the production landscape in Europe," Gautier says.

Source: Flight International