Paris Air Show

A400M on a roll as South Africa joins partnership

 - December 12, 2006, 8:15 AM

Just before the 2003 Paris Air Show, the long-running saga of the Airbus Military A400M finally resulted in a definitive launch for the project, when seven European nations signed up to purchase 180 of the military transports.

The A400M is by far the most ambitious European military aircraft procurement program ever undertaken, with a production run stretching out to 2021, and potential for a significant number of exports as nations look to replace their Lockheed C-130s.

The first customer outside the existing European industrial partners, South Africa, signed a contract for eight A400Ms less than two months ago, on April 28. Officially designated as a program partner, South African aerospace company Denel will build the all-composite main wing-fuselage fairing and Aerosud will provide interior linings. The deal, valued at €837 million ($1.08 billion), will see work packages worth at least ?400 million ($520 million) placed with South African industry,  according to Airbus Military. The company hopes that Malaysia will also commit to four aircraft.

Airbus Military’s optimism about export prospects seems evident in that it has reserved no fewer than 200 production slots on top of the existing 180 positions for the seven partner nations (Belgium, seven; France, 50; Germany, 60; Luxembourg, one; Spain, 27; Turkey, 10; UK, 25). The production run stretches out to 2021, and can reach a maximum rate of 30 aircraft per year, according to Airbus Military marketing vice president David Jennings. “There’s no credible alternative in this size category,” he told Aviation International News. “We’re getting a great deal of positive feedback from air forces as the program gathers momentum.”

The company celebrated production of the first major airframe component on January 26, when Airbus Germany milled the first lower fuselage frame at its Varel factory. The 18-foot-long component is one of 18 such frames that will support the floor and carry the main fuselage structure, and was cut exactly on schedule, just 18 months after program launch.

Manufacturing of the A400M depends on the same tried and tested industrial infrastructure that Airbus uses for its civil aircraft, the main difference being that final assembly takes place in Seville, Spain, instead of Toulouse and Hamburg. Airbus Military has retained the same four centers of excellence for major primary structures.

However, dividing the workshare among seven nations instead of only four industrial partners required a lot of juggling to reflect the number of A400Ms ordered by each.

The final assembly line at Seville is under construction, and by the end of next year the first major subassemblies are to be delivered by the same Beluga transport used by Airbus to distribute civil aircraft components around Europe. First flight is set for the beginning of 2008, at the Spanish city, following rollout in the third quarter of 2007.

Airbus uses Dassault Systèmes’ Catia V three-dimensional computer-based concurrent design system, which generates digital mockups of the entire aircraft down to every detail, from rivets to wiring to systems. However, Airbus Military has opted to continue with physical mockups for some of the most important man-machine interface areas, such as the cockpit and cargo-handling and locking system. “We were conscious of the need to be able to physically represent some things to make absolutely sure we got the MMI right,” said Jennings.

Two cockpit mockups are already in action at Toulouse. A full-sized wooden mockup, representative of the actual cockpit, is used for MMI development. A fully instrumented fixed-base simulator with a visual system is used for testing the A400M fly-by-wire flight control system, which is under development by the same team responsible for Airbus civil aircraft FBW systems.

The A400M will be the world’s first FBW military transport. The system will provide full flight envelope protection, so that pilots will be unable to fly the aircraft beyond its aerodynamic limits–a major asset, according to Airbus Military, when flying extreme tactical missions. Another FBW boon likely to be popular with pilots is the replacement of the central control column with sidestick controls, releasing space in front of them for a slide-out table for maps and other mission-planning material.

The basic A400M to be supplied to European air forces and export customers is called the Common Standard Aircraft, which provides for optional extras to be added by individual customers. These increase capability in various areas and include, for example, the option of a powered crane installed in the ceiling area of the rear section of the fuselage, which will offer a five-ton capacity for loading from the ground, and for cross-loading.

All A400Ms will come with provision of the core systems that allow the aircraft to be used as a tactical tanker. Individual customers requiring that capability will have to order the extra equipment necessary. Likewise, individual nations must specify (and probably install) their own defensive aids subsystems, which are based on nationally driven requirements.

Some 90 percent of A400M contracts have been signed, with the remainder due to be completed by the beginning of 2006, explained Thomas Flege, vice president for A400M program procurement. Contractor selection criteria for the airlifter is being carried out along exactly the same lines as for the civil Airbus range–one of the main requirements set by the seven nations. “It means they benefit from the same fixed-price, guaranteed performance and delivery date criteria as for the civil side, bringing the lowest risk for the nations,” he added.

The majority of the contracts let so far are risk-sharing, chosen after a global competition–except where items are already developed and therefore require only minor modifications to suit the A400M. The program has come a long way from the uncertain days of the Euroflag Future Large Aircraft appears to be gathering momentum at last.