How Europe’s A400M airlifter failed to take off

Paris Air Show » 2009
June 13, 2009, 6:32 AM

Six years ago, the team from Airbus Military promoting the A400M came to the Paris Air Show full of confidence and good intentions. Germany had just confirmed its order for 60, finally launching the program after years of negotiations. Italy and Portugal dropped out, leaving a total requirement of 180 aircraft for six European countries (seven, if you count Luxembourg taking one aircraft). The combined development and production (D&P) contract was signed at the end of May 2003, and was worth ?20 billion (in 1998 prices). At the stroke of a pen, this doubled the EADS defense order book.

In the preceding years, Airbus had been preaching a mantra that Europe’s new airlifter could be developed and delivered according to commercial principles–just like the airliners that rolled daily from the hangars at Hamburg and Toulouse. In reality, the strategy of a truly commercial development had already foundered.

The six nations nominated Paris-based OCCAR as the procurement agency. But Airbus soon found that dealing with OCCAR was not like dealing with an airline. All the important decisions were referred from Paris to the partner nations. And they had differing requirements. Moreover, the juste retour principle of allocating the work to the partner nations strictly according to their financial stake in the project was not abandoned. For the A400M, it was called “work allocation” but it amounted to the same thing, at least regarding the airframe work. And as it began choosing the equipment suppliers for the A400M, Airbus found itself being further compromised.

Some American companies did secure contracts to supply avionics direct; others via European suppliers. Crucially, though, the engine choice was politically inspired.
In order to combine a high cruise speed with excellent airfield performance, the A400M design required four very large turboprops. Airbus imposed challenging weight and specific fuel consumption requirements on the engine supplier, while ruling out the “traditional” solution to big-turboprop torque–which is contra-rotating propellers–on grounds of cost, maintenance and noise. An initial evaluation of engine proposals was aborted when Airbus upped the power requirements from 9,000 shp to nearly 11,000 shp.

The key European engine companies regrouped to jointly offer an all-new design with three shafts and a new core. But this was more expensive than a rival offer from Pratt & Whitney Canada. During the second engine competition, Airbus learned that if the direction of rotation of one propeller on each wing was reversed, the torque would be reduced, which in turn reduced trim and tail area requirements. But this change required the engine supplier to certify two different propeller/gearbox configurations. Amid behind-the-scenes maneuvering and politicking, the Europrop consortium was selected.

Internal Problems

There was also politicking within EADS and Airbus over roles and responsibilities for the A400M. Final assembly would be at Seville in a massive new facility to be part-financed by European Union regional aid funds. The site was owned by EADS’s Military Transport Aircraft Division (MTAD), the successor to CASA, whose management was headquartered in Madrid. As a nation, Spain saw the A400M program as its entry ticket to the big league of aerospace nations. But program management of the A400M was retained by the small staff assigned to Airbus Military in Toulouse. This was a messy compromise and led to the resignation of the head of MTAD in 2002.

The Airbus Military press briefing here in 2003 summarized all the good reasons for building the new airlifter. The size was right, being partway between the C-130J (too small) and the C-17 (too big). The range was long and the payload sensible. The A400M could also be a tanker, a paratrooper and a medevac aircraft. The D&P contract was fixed-price, leading to a guaranteed unit cost of ?85 million for a “common standard airplane” (an A400M that was fully equipped for the mission would cost perhaps ?25 million more). And the first delivery would be made exactly 51 months after the contract was signed. That meant September 2009.

That was then, and now is now. Problems in development were not admitted until 2007, when EADS made an accounting provision of ?300 million. The first flight due in early 2008 was postponed for six months. The accounting provision increased to ?1.4 billion, and EADS/Airbus began pleading with OCCAR and the partner nations for some relief from the terms of the contract.

When recently appointed head of MTAD Carlos Suarez met journalists in April 2008, he admitted the folly of launching a new airframe and a new engine development in parallel. Still, the formal rollout of the first A400M was celebrated with due ceremony two months later. The first flight would be in late summer, everyone was assured.

Europrop Fell Behind

But Europrop had run into trouble, without keeping EADS/Airbus fully informed. The HP compressor adapted from the Rolls-Royce Trent engine proved inadequate and had to be redesigned. Airbus had considered using an A340 as an engine testbed but eventually chose a C-130 provided by Marshall Aerospace in the UK. Much time was wasted solving integration problems so that the huge engine could be safely flown on the smaller airplane. The C-130 testbed eventually took off last December.

Finally last January, EADS admitted that it could not deliver the first aircraft until three years after the first flight. And it could not predict when the first flight would take place. As well as the engine, there were some other development problems, which EADS CEO Louis Gallois declined to reveal. The aircraft was known to be overweight, but Airbus Military officials had previously boasted that the design payload of 37 metric tons was five metric tons more than the contract required.

EADS also belatedly admitted that the program management structure was wrong. It was now to be “streamlined and integrated” so that MTAD became part of Airbus Military, henceforth to be based in Madrid. Carlos Suarez was shunted aside in favor of Domingo Urena.

Thanks to a devastating report on the project from the French Senate in February this year, some of the other A400M problems soon became apparent. The specifications of the flight management system provided by Thales and the GPS air data inertial reference system provided by Sagem would have to be reduced, leading to a two-year delay. The terrain-reference navigation system and the terrain masking low-level flight system, both the responsibility of EADS Military Air Systems, could not be delivered at all because the sensors were too unreliable.

In May, Europrop made the extraordinary admission that no provision for the civil certification of the engine’s fadec had been made. The engine consortium was having to redo the audit trail. This was despite repeated public assertions by Airbus Military since 2000 that the basic A400M would be certified to JAR 25 standards.

Is There a Way Forward?

According to the A400M contract, the partner nations could have cancelled the entire program on April 1 this year, and forced EADS to hand back the ?5.7 billion already paid by OCCAR toward the development. Negotiations to amend the contract have been under way for three months. Airbus Military wants to charge about 30 percent more for each aircraft, which already costs ?145 million per unit. It wants to deliver aircraft to an interim standard, with the full software functionality to follow a year later. Defense ministers of the partner nations were due to meet at the end of this month to try to agree to “a way forward.”

As the six partner nations in the A400M program ponder their options, there are more than 100 major suppliers that would be affected by its cancellation. They range from leading players such as Honeywell, Intertechnique, Liebherr, Meggitt and Rockwell Collins, to smaller companies supplying single items. When the A400M was launched, Airbus estimated that 33,000 jobs would be created or sustained over a
20-year period at the main subcontractors, plus 7,200 at Airbus itself, the majority of them in Europe. The European airframer told AIN that about ?10 billion worth of equipment on each aircraft, excluding the engines, was being sourced from third-party suppliers. Some of the subcontractors have contracts that do not pay them until the first aircraft is delivered, which will surely now have to be renegotiated.    

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