The final assembly line for Europe’s ambitious airlifter programme – the A400M – is taking shape in Seville ahead of first flight in 2008

Almost three years after it progressed from long-studied concept to programme reality, the A400M transport is the subject of widespread manufacturing activities at sites across Europe and is on track to make its first flight in a little under two years time, according to its developer, Airbus Military.

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An aggresive development schedule is keeping the A400M on track for first flight in 2008
An initial test of one of the programme’s most vital elements took place at Snecma’s facility at Istres in southern France in late February, when the aircraft’s Europrop International (EPI)-developed TP400-D6 turboprop engine was run for the first time integrated with its Avio gearbox and Ratier-Figeac eight-bladed propeller. With this milestone behind them, programme officials from EPI partners ITP, MTU, Rolls-Royce and Snecma can focus their attention on preparing for 15 months of intensive propulsion system tests before the three-shaft engine can receive certification in October 2007. This will include flight tests of a prototype engine from early 2007 with a modified Lockheed Martin C-130 now being prepared by Marshall Aerospace of the UK.

EPI’s first production engine is scheduled for delivery to the A400M final assembly line at EADS Casa’s San Pablo plant near Seville in southern Spain in June-July 2007. This represents an aggressive schedule for the EPI consortium, which conducted the first ground run of a TP400 at MTU’s plant at Ludwigsfelde near Berlin only last October and has now achieved its first full system test just 33 months after its selection to develop the 11,000shp (8,220kW) powerplant.

Assembly jigs

EADS Casa’s 600,000m2 (6.45 million ft2) A400M final assembly hall is in advanced stages of preparation, with the first assembly jigs to arrive this month. Based on the design of Airbus’s A340 assembly building in Toulouse, France, the final assembly line will be completed and commissioned during November. At this point, major aircraft sections will begin to arrive from the six A400M aircraft component management teams (ACMT) located among launch nations Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK.

The choice of Seville to host final assembly of the A400M will significantly boost EADS Casa’s production of military transports, which includes the C-212, CN-235 and C-295 lines, and will also enable it to modernise its assembly techniques. “We are developing a state-of-the-art assembly line with advances in automation such as laser trackers and intense use of robots,” says Carlos Gutierrez Rabanedo, its head of the A400M programme. “Because of the traditional low volume of Casa products, we’ve never been able to do this before.”

The A400M also brings an increase in production responsibility for EADS’s Spanish operation, which has boosted a traditional 4-10% stake in commercial Airbus products to 15% on the new transport. This is divided into 5% sections dedicated to running the final assembly line, building the A400M’s horizontal tailplane and elevators, and producing its engine cowlings and flap track fairings.

Ground- and flight-test hangars are also now in construction at Seville and will be completed before the scheduled first flight of an A400M development aircraft in January 2008. EADS is also expected to decide by mid-year on the location for an A400M customer training centre, with Seville again a likely candidate.

Six flight-test aircraft will be produced to support development and certification activities, with this fleet to be split between military test assets to be based in Seville and others to support civil certification work from Toulouse, including meeting EASA standards. The first three production aircraft will roll off the line in 2008, and this number will gradually ramp up to a current planned peak of 28 a year by 2011. The French air force will in October 2009 become the first service to accept the type.

The A400M’s detailed design was frozen late last year, enabling the start of major subassembly work. Aluminium wing rib manufacturing began at Airbus UK’s Filton plant late last month, with the first completed wing scheduled to be delivered to Seville around year-end.

A400M employment

Manufacturing activities directly related to the A400M employ around 5,200 people across Europe, including around 2,000 supporting fuselage and empennage work and more than 1,100 each working on the systems and wing ACMTs.

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A400M manufacturing activities employ around 5,200 people across Europe

Another significant programme milestone could be achieved next month, when Chile is expected to become the tenth customer to commit to the A400M. The Latin American country is in the final stages of negotiating a three-aircraft deal, which Airbus Military sources believe could be concluded during April’s FIDAE exhibition in Santiago.

Chile’s late declaration of interest in the A400M means that it will not acquire the status of programme partner, unlike early buyers Malaysia and South Africa, which last year signed deals to acquire four and eight aircraft respectively. Airbus Military says required offsets linked to the Chilean deal could instead come from industrial involvement in Airbus commercial projects such as the A380 or A350, or by local companies such as Enaer securing work under subcontracts from existing equipment suppliers.

South Africa’s surprise commitment to the A400M programme followed a late Airbus Military push launched at the Africa Aerospace & Defence show near Johannesburg in 2004, just months before the company’s deadline to secure partnership status and industrial workshare on the project. Denel is to produce the wing/fuselage fairings for every A400M to be built following the order, and South Africa could later boost its purchase by another six aircraft to potentially support African peacekeeping commitments. Malaysian industry late last year also secured long-term business worth around €200 million ($237 million) to design and produce airframe components for the A400M, including carbon-fibre composite and metallic structures.

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A400M Cutaway: click here for ordering information

Airbus Military lists, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand and undisclosed Middle East nations as potential customers. It believes it could secure follow-on business from its European launch customers, for example from Turkey, which is currently to receive just 10 aircraft. The company and EADS are looking at securing a further 200-250 orders from a projected long-term airlift market of 1,200-1,400 aircraft.

Australia had also been cited as a potential buyer, but last week took advantage of a last-chance offer to acquire four Boeing C-17s under a strategic airlift requirement announced late last year. Canada has an aspiration to acquire up to 16 new tactical transports for delivery from mid-2010 and last January sought interest from potential bidders, including Airbus Military and EADS Canada.

A contract for the new aircraft could be signed early next year (Flight International, 29 November–5 December 2005). Ottawa’s requirement appears set to become a battle between the A400M and Lockheed’s smaller, but already operational, C-130J. The choice between the designs is clear, according to an Airbus Military source: “Why would you want to buy a 50-year-old aircraft? We would like to think of the A400M as being the C-130 of the future.”

Potential buyers are being quoted a unit price of around €90 million for a common standard aircraft. EADS Casa says, that if more export orders are secured, its Seville final assembly line will be capable of producing up to four aircraft a month by 2010 without the need to invest in new tooling.

Airbus Military also continues to keep an eye on potential opportunities with the US armed forces. The A400M already has some US content – such as its Goodrich flap actuation system and Moog primary flight controls – but any future campaign would be based around a US prime contractor and US assembly.

Highest specification

Of the launch operators, Germany’s offtake of 60 aircraft represents the highest percentage share of the 192 aircraft now on order, and its aircraft will also be produced to the highest specification among the programme partners. Berlin has opted to divide its 60-aircraft purchase between aircraft configured for either tactical or strategic missions, while 10 will also receive in-flight refuelling equipment.

Germany late last year was among three nations to order the tanker kit for its A400Ms, along with France and Spain, and Berlin is to acquire 10 sets of Flight Refuelling-supplied 908E hose-and-drogue wing pods and six centreline hose-drum refuelling units under the deal (Flight International, 20 December 2005–2 January).

Airbus Military says new missions for the A400M remain at the back of its mind, although it did conduct a maritime-patrol variant study as part of its South African campaign. This suggested the aircraft could offer a mission endurance of around 11h operating out of Cape Town. The company also believes the A400M could have a future in civilian freighter duties, especially in areas with poor airfield infrastructure, such as large parts of China and India.


Source: Flight International