Farnborough Air Show

A400M program delays likely as concerns mount

 - July 15, 2008, 10:42 AM

Further delay to the Airbus A400M military transport now seems inevitable. “There’s an obvious risk of slippage,” Carlos Suarez, head of EADS Military Transport Aircraft (MTA), said here at Farnborough. The first A400M ceremonially rolled out from the brand-new final assembly line building at Seville, Spain, on June 26. Officially, the program is running only six months late; the first flight will be in “late summer” and first delivery in April 2010. 

The most pressing concern to date has centered on flight certification of the aircraft’s powerful TP400 turboprops–the largest ever to be developed outside Russia. The TP400 fitted to a C-130 test bed by Marshalls at Cambridge, UK, was ground run on the aircraft for the first time on June 10. But AIN has learned that four weeks elapsed before a second ground run took place last week. Previously, program officials said that 30 hours of ground running were required, followed by 50 hours of flight time on the C-130, before the A400M could fly at Seville. Suarez now says that “the test bed program is not a precise number of hours.”

Six aircraft will take part in the test program. But the definitive engines will not fly on the first three of them, due to delays caused by compressor problems in the airplane’s TP-400D6s. The cargo loading system will also be installed on the fourth airplane and those that follow.

Eight European nations have ordered 180 A400Ms. The program is of great strategic importance to the European aerospace industry, with suppliers and subassembly sites scattered throughout the continent. North American suppliers are also onboard, notably Northrop Grumman with the weather/navigation radar. A strong proposal for the powerplants from Pratt & Whitney Canada was rejected in favor of the TP400 solution from Europrop, a consortium comprising ITP (Spain), MTU, Rolls-Royce and Snecma.

Malaysia, with orders for four, and South Africa (eight) are early export customers, and these countries have received small subcontracts for production parts. “I believe we can sell at least 200 more over the next 20 years,” said Peter Scoffham, head of defense capability marketing for EADS MTA. Scoffham said that the A400M is the right size for the market, being roughly halfway between the C-130J and the C-17 in cross-section and volume. The powerful turboprops confer the unique combination of a fast cruising speed at high altitude, and excellent tactical performance into short and unprepared strips. “Once we have flown, many more customers will appear,” said Suarez.

There are many innovations in the A400M airframe, and some are technically challenging. For example, the hull is pressurized to 19,000 feet, higher than any other airlifter. Airdrops can be made from as high as 40,000 feet (for covert insertion of special forces). With one switch, the aircrew can turn off all emitters on the airplane. The six main gear legs are independently-sprung, to permit maneuvering on muddy or sandy airstrips. The swept wing/turboprop combination is also novel.
The good news for Airbus is that, to date, the A400M’s payload/range performance is within the specification. There has been some weight growth, but the aircraft was designed with a 37-metric-ton payload, although the contract only specifies 32 tons.

Ultimately, the A400M program holds much promise. But the current problems leave Airbus and EADS significantly exposed, since the contract involves a fixed price. “We made a mistake, and we’ll never do that again,” Suarez frankly admitted last April.
The company has already made a E1.4 billion ($2.25 billion) provision in its accounts.
Suarez said that it was not wise to launch two challenging projects in parallel–meaning the engine as well as the airframe. “One should ask, was the schedule viable,” he mused.