A400M Makes Progress Toward Full Promised Performance

 - December 20, 2016, 7:51 AM
Two A400Ms demonstrated buddy refueling in flight tests last month. (Photo: Airbus Defence and Space)

Airbus Defence and Space has reported progress on various fronts with the A400M airlifter in recent weeks. It has further developed the aircraft’s tactical capabilities; delivered the first aircraft to Spain; signed a new support contract with France, Spain and the UK; and demonstrated the refueling of one A400M from another. But the European group is not yet ready to confirm progress on a key promised capability that has proved problematic: the refueling of helicopters. 

Despite the other wellpublicized problems in 2016 with propeller gearboxes and small cracks in some center fuselage frames, the company’s A400M program manager Kurt Rossner claimed “enormous progress this year.” He continued: “There is no other aircraft in the market with the A400M’s combination of tactical and strategic capabilities.” He was speaking to mark the delivery to the German air force of its sixth aircraft, but its first to be qualified for tactical operations and for flight into threat areas.

The tactical capabilities now include the ability to air-drop loads of up to eight tonnes each, including for example 24 one-metric-ton pallets. Paratroops can be dropped from the ramp or side paratroop doors in sticks of up to 20. Flight testing continues to build the numbers next to 40 and then 58 in a single pass.

The A400M is now certified to operate from grass runways and has successfully completed testing of operations from gravel and sandy soil with certification in process. Low-level flight in mountainous terrain is cleared down to 150 feet above ground by day and 300 feet by night under the pilot’s manual control. Development of automatic low-level flight is well advanced.

The new aircraft is fitted with a defensive aids sub-system (DASS) incorporating a missile warning system, radar warning receiver, and an expendables dispensing system to eject flares and radar-confusing chaff. Although the partner nations have specified some differences in their threat protection systems, the DASS for all A400Ms is integrated by Airbus Defence and Space at Ulm.

The Spanish air force received MSN44 on December 1, three months behind schedule. Spain has joined France and the UK in signing a long-term global support service (GSS) contract. Under the new arrangement, the three nations will benefit from a spares pool, technical and engineering support, maintenance and flight operations services. Airbus Defence and Space head of military aircraft services Stephan Miegel said: “The contracts that were put in place to see the A400M into initial service have worked well, but this next stage will provide a sophisticated and highly integrated support service that will further free operators to focus on their mission, knowing that they can rely on robust support for the years ahead. We would encourage other A400M operators to take advantage of these arrangements, which we are convinced have the potential to let them operate the aircraft to its maximum capability.”

The A400M can now refuel large aircraft as well as fighters. In two flights last month, two development aircraft performed more than 50 contacts on each other in level flight and turns using the centerline hose and drum unit (HDU). The A400M is the only tactical tanker on the market with this third refueling point, in addition to its underwing pods. The standard A400M has full provisions for air-to-air refuelling (AAR) operations already installed and requires only the rapid installation of the optional air-to-air refuelling kit to become a tanker.

An Airbus Defence and Space spokesman told AIN that work to solve the helicopter refueling problem is “ongoing, and we will report on this soon.” In a first series of flight tests, there were unexpected wake turbulence and hose oscillations. The company suggested that the solution would be to extend the hose length from 80 to 120 feet, and embarked on simulation and modeling followed by wind-tunnel tests. These were completed in mid-2016, and the company is hoping to conduct proximity flight testing before year-end. 

But extending the hose would require a smaller diameter so that it could still fit inside the underwing pods, and some stiffening. Moreover, such a hose would have to pass fuel at a lower rate, to keep within the 50 psi limit that is specified in a NATO standard.