Paris Air Show

The Year Of The Atlas A400M

 - June 15, 2013, 9:30 AM
MSN7, the first production A400M, had flown five times by the end of May as part of its acceptance process.

“It’s clear for us that this is the year of the A400M. The aircraft is ready, and it will be the reference for the next 30 years.” These were the words of Airbus Military’s Domingo Ureña-Raso, speaking just prior to the Paris Air Show. The company’s irrepressible CEO had good reasons to be ebullient; with engine problems now (he hopes) consigned to history, series aircraft now flowing down the final assembly line, and the first production aircraft on the verge of being handed over to the initial customer, the A400M Atlas has reached an important milestone in what has been a long and, at times, painful journey.

This year has already been a busy one for the A400M program and the pace of developments is increasing. At the end of last year the functionality and reliability tests were finally completed, with 300 flight hours achieved in five weeks. F&R tests had been interrupted by engine problems, but they have been solved and the engines are ready for entry into service (EIS), the company reports. On March 13 the A400M received its EASA type certificate, and on April 30 Airbus Military released the certificate of design.

France’s First Aircraft

Having built and flown five trials aircraft (MSN1 to 4, and MSN6), Airbus Military achieved a major milestone on March 6 with the first flight of the first production machine, MSN7, which is destined for the French Armée de l’Air. Upon the completion of production acceptance tests it was handed over to the delivery center on April 22. Since then the DGA customer acceptance process has been ongoing, with a mass of documentation to be processed. When AIN spoke to Airbus Military earlier this month, it was unsure of when the aircraft would be delivered but was expecting it to be “within a matter of days or weeks.” The target was at least to get the aircraft formally accepted in time for Bastille Day on July 14.

At the same time, the second French aircraft, MSN8, was preparing for its first flight and handover to the delivery center in early July, for an expected delivery to the French air force in August. MSN9, the first A400M for Turkey, is currently in the flight clearance test phase, with an expected first flight around the end of June. The Turkish air force hopes to take over this aircraft in September.

At the beginning of June, MSN10 and 11 (for France) were both in the flight clearance phase, with MSN10 scheduled to be the fourth and last aircraft to be delivered this year. It will be the first machine delivered to SOC1 standard and is expected to fly around the end of September. MSN12 (France) was in the FAL (final assembly line), its fuselage, empennage and wings essentially complete and ready for mate-up. The wing-set for MSN13 (Turkey) was in the FAL building, having various tests applied. A further 14 machines were at various stages of production, and long-lead items were being procured for MSNs 28 to 32.

With France and Turkey scheduled to have received aircraft by the end of 2013, next year should see the UK and Germany receive their first aircraft (respectively MSN16, in September and MSN18, in November), with Malaysia following in January 2015 (MSN22). A year later Spain is scheduled to receive its first aircraft (MSN46), while Luxembourg (MSN133) and Belgium (MSN136) are due to get their first aircraft in 2019.

Production Process

From this summer the Sevilla FAL will be producing one aircraft per month (maximum capacity is three), ramping up to a rate of 2.5 per month by 2015. Apart from the horizontal tailplane, which is trucked in from the nearby Airbus facility at Tablada, all of the major assemblies for the A400M are flown into Sevilla by the Beluga outsize transport. The Airbus Military facility is unique in allowing the Beluga to park with its nose inside the FAL building, where a special dock has been built to take the components straight from the transport into the assembly stations. The wing-groups, made up of a center and two outer sections, are joined using laser alignment, and can then have fuel and other systems tested without being mated to the fuselage.

After final assembly is complete, the aircraft is moved to the flight clearance test building for ground testing of all systems and installation of the powerplants. For certain tests the aircraft are towed out to the apron as a safety precaution–these tests cover potentially risky processes such as engine running, pressurization and radio communications, and tests of the fuel system using real fuel as opposed to inert liquids.

Flight Test Campaign

France’s initial two aircraft are being delivered in the IOC (initial operating capability) standard, which enables them to undertake basic transport missions with a payload of up to 32 metric tons. The final elements of IOC clearance have been completed and ongoing flight testing is now aimed primarily at expanding the operational clearances that add greater functionality to the aircraft. The SOC1 standard is due at the end of 2013, introducing initial aerial delivery and self-defense capabilities, while SOC1.5 is scheduled for the end of 2014. This brings in full aerial delivery and self-defense capabilities, plus the ability to operate as a tanker.

Tanker trials have been ongoing for nearly a year, arranged in three phases. Initial trials have been aimed at flight clearance of the wing pods and fuselage refueling unit, with different hose lengths and the testing of various wing pod strakes. Compatibility with an F/A-18 Hornet has been demonstrated. In the third (ongoing) phase the A400M has begun low-speed refueling trials with a probe-equipped EC225 Cougar helicopter. It has also been trialed as a receiver, with wet contacts behind an A330 MRTT tanker, and is set for similar trials with a Transall C160 tanker in September.

Other current trials include paratroop trials (using dummies) with the side door blast deflectors at varying angles and with different lengths of static line. With the enhanced vision system certified at the end of last year, A400Ms have been undertaking low-level nighttime missions with night vision goggles. Trials of the defensive aids sub-system are ongoing, with more than 500 flares having been ejected to date, while operations from grass and gravel runways have been undertaken. Other tests that are being undertaken include a range of ground loading/unloading exercises of potential cargo, and those that cover the mission management system and radar.

A400M Prospects

Currently Airbus Military has contracted for 174 A400Ms from eight customers, but it hopes to achieve 400 over a 30-year period. Spain, which is currently contracted for 27, has indicated that it may reduce its buy, as has Germany (currently 53). However, Airbus Military notes that the aircraft are contracted and that such discussions do not affect the process of deliveries in the short-to-medium term. On the plus side, there are strong indications that Turkey will increase its total from the current 10, while interest has been reported from additional European air arms.

There is clearly interest in the export market for what Airbus Military describes as the only airlifter that can take large loads right to the unpaved runways in the areas where they are needed. “We are in an area of the market where there is no competition,” said Rafael Tentor, senior v-p programs. “And we don’t see any in the years to come. We have at least a ten-year head-start.” Even the United States is considered a potential customer: “Why not?” asked Tentor. “There is a big gap between the C-130 and the C-17.”