Fatal A400M Crash Disrupts Production Recovery Plan

 - May 11, 2015, 7:50 AM
Delays in delivering additional A400M capabilities, such as the paratroop dropping shown here, may increase as a result of the fatal crash. (Photo: Airbus D&S)

The fatal crash of an A400M on a production test flight last Saturday has set back efforts by Airbus to improve its performance on Europe’s new airlifter program. Four crewmembers were killed and two seriously injured, all Spanish, when they crashed close to the airfield at Seville while attempting an emergency landing. The aircraft was MSN023, the third for Turkey, and on its maiden flight. The flight lasted just 15 minutes.

Airbus said it was “devastated to confirm that we have lost four of our crewmembers in the accident.” The two survivors, neither of them a pilot, managed to escape from the burning aircraft after it hit an electricity pylon northeast of the airfield.  Airbus sent a team of technical advisors to help the official Spanish government committee that is investigating the accident. The voice and data recorders have been recovered from the crash scene. The 12 A400Ms already delivered have been grounded, in France (six); Germany (one); Malaysia (one); Turkey (two) and the UK (two).

Spanish prime minister Mariano Roy said that he hopes the accident will not compromise the seven-nation European project. Earlier this year, the organization and top management of the A400M program was changed after delays in delivering aircraft and capabilities mounted. The biggest problem on the production side appears to have been "travelled work" on the fuselage sections that are built at the Airbus factory in Bremen, Germany. After an inspection visit to Bremen, Airbus Defence and Space operations vice president Pilar Albiac-Murillo recently told the company’s employees that she “walked out with a long to-do list.”

The company is reportedly trying to hire 400 people, mostly engineers, for the final assembly line at Seville. “If you take time to sharpen your saw before you cut wood, you will be so much more efficient,” Albiac-Murillo observed. “This is actually what is happening on the A400M final assembly line as we speak,” she continued. Airbus D&S is implementing the "pulse line" concept of final assembly at Seville and wants a production rate of 2.5 aircraft a month.

This goal might now be in jeopardy, especially since the program of flight-testing additional capabilities will be disrupted. The last four of the 18 aircraft that might have been delivered this year are supposed to include some of these capabilities. They are aerial delivery, full cargo handling system, air-to-air refueling pods and defensive aids subsystem. Airbus D&S now describes these as the Tranche 2 capabilities (Tranche 1 being the "basic" strategic airlift capability with which the early aircraft are being delivered). Two more tranches of capability are scheduled to be delivered from 2017.

According to the website of German magazine Der Spiegel, quoting sources at a meeting of the defense ministers of France, Germany and Spain today, one of the surviving crewmembers has told investigators that the aircraft suffered multiple engine failures. An Airbus spokesman told AIN that flight-testing of the A400M will continue as planned.

UPDATE: On May 19, Airbus Defence and Space sent an alert to the A400M operators, requiring them to perform one-time specific checks of the Electronic Control Units (ECUs) on each engine.