Paris Air Show

Airbus sets sights on A400M targets

 - June 14, 2007, 6:49 AM

It has been a busy year for the Airbus Military A400M program, which has seen the first major components of the European airlifter reach the final assembly site at Seville, Spain, the first run of the TP400-D6 turboprop at Istres, France and–until the beginning of March–the successful achievement of all critical milestones. A three-month delay to the start of final assembly was announced in March, which–unlike Airbus’ A380–will not affect A400M deliveries, due to begin to the French air force at the end of 2009.

The delay will push the first flight back by a few weeks to “sometime in the first quarter” of 2008, but given the troubles affecting the civil side of Airbus’ business, the A400M program seems to have come through relatively unscathed. Officially, Airbus Military says only that it wanted the extra time to review the program and “ensure that subassemblies arrive at Seville in optimum condition.” Unofficially, it has indicated that it wants to look carefully at what it calls “major risk areas” such as the propulsion system and fuselage fitting out.

Nevertheless, the milestones are coming thick and fast. A key event took place in early April with delivery of the first shipset of wings carried by a Beluga transport from the Airbus UK Filton site to the A400M final assembly site in Seville. The event also marked a major achievement for the manufacturer as it was the first all-composite outer wingbox for an Airbus-built aircraft.

Testing of the engine began with the first run of a complete propulsion system in February 2006 and will lead to the all-important flight test program in the second half of this year with the engine mounted on a C-130 Hercules converted by Marshall Aerospace.

The first view of a substantial chunk of the A400M came in July last year, when the four major elements of the 105-foot-long fuselage were joined at Airbus’ brand-new facility in Bremen, Germany, marking the beginning of the integrated fuselage assembly process for the entire aircraft. The $92 million facility can produce a complete A400M fuselage, excluding the nose section, in eight days, including assembly of the cargo door, cargo loading ramp and cargo handling system.

Also last July, final assembly of the first wing set began at Airbus’ Filton plant. The event was of particular significance because this is the manufacturer’s first all-composite wing box for an Airbus as well as the largest composite wing ever made. The Filton facility is equipped with new automated machinery, such as a purpose-built composite automated wing drilling machine. The company has delivered the first wing to Seville, where it will be joined by six more sets for the test program, plus fatigue and static test examples.

In September, the program achieved a sixth milestone, slightly ahead of schedule, marking acceptance of the Class Two A400M cockpit mockup by the customer, the European defense program cooperation agency OCCAR. The mock-up is an exact replica of the aircraft’s operational cockpit designed to test the cockpit environment–in particular, elements of the man-machine interface such as crew mobility, ergonomics, field of vision, ventilation and equipment-structure interfaces.

Also in September, the first complete nose section left Airbus’ Méaulte site in France and was delivered to Saint-Nazaire for equipment installation. The following March, it went on a Beluga Super Transport to the Getafe test facility near Madrid for integration with the first static test airframe, which will eventually be tested to destruction. The rest of the fuselage arrived at Getafe on March 17. Four more fuselages are now in series production at Bremen.

TP400-D6 Approaches Critical Phase
By far the most critical element of the A400M program is its powerplant, Europrop’s 11,000-shp TP400-D6, the Western world’s most powerful turboprop. Equipped with a huge eight-bladed 17-foot diameter Ratier-Figeac all-composite propeller, the four TP400-D6s will enable the A400M to fly at near-jet speeds as well as provide survivability and durability in the tough working environment of a modern airlifter.

The engine ran for the first time in February last year. However, according to sources at Europrop International, engine testing is now running more than 600 hours behind schedule. More than 760 engines will be required for the 192 A400Ms ordered so far.

Europrop International partners are Rolls-Royce, MTU and Snecma, each with 28 percent share of the program, and ITP, with 16 percent. The TP400 is a three-spool engine, with a gearbox developed by Italy’s Avio, that will be “handed” to turn the propellers in opposite directions on each wing.

EPI is approaching the first flight of the engine later this year aboard a C-130 being converted at Marshall Aerospace in the UK. This will be followed by delivery of the first shipset of production engines to Seville in the first half of 2008 for the first flight of the A400M. A total of 10 TP400-D6 engines will be built and tested for the certification program.   

EADS Tanker To Fly Soon

The first flight of the EADS CASA Airbus A330-200 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) for the Australian Defence Force is expected before the end of June. Conversion of the first aircraft has been taking place at EADS CASA’s facility at Getafe. The remaining four will be converted in Australia by Qantas. Aerodynamic and handling trials of the tail-mounted EADS CASA advanced refueling boom system are under way using a converted Airbus A310.

In February, EADS CASA was named “preferred bidder” by the United Arab Emirates to supply three A330 MRTTs for air-to-air refueling and troop carrying. The MRTT has also won preferred bidder status in the UK future strategic tanker aircraft competition. According to EADS CASA, there is a potential market for up to 100 non-U.S. MRTTs over the next 20 years.

In early April, EADS CASA and U.S. partner Northrop Grumman delivered their proposal to supply up to 179 MRTTs to the U.S. Air Force. A decision on the KC-30 program is expected around the end of October.

Airbus is also offering its A319-based antisubmarine warfare aircraft to various countries, and is short-listed for a decision from India by the end of the year on a potential order for eight aircraft. “We believe we’re looking at a significant market to replace P-3 Orions worldwide,” a company spokesman said.