At Last, The A400

By Jean-Michel Guhl | March 1, 2010
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It was 10:07 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2009, when Airbus Military’s new A400M MSN 001 aircraft lifted off sprightly from Seville airport in Spain for its maiden flight, its nose headed mightily in the direction of the glowing morning sun. Dozens of newsmen, lined up near the runway to shoot photographs, were dumbstruck by the agility of the large aircraft, its appearance reminiscent of the “Roman nose” C-130A Hercules of the late 1950s.

The long-awaited day — the first flight of the four-engine turboprop — was of particular importance due to the circumstances surrounding and leading up to the event; the billions of dollars in cost overruns and lengthy program delays the A400M program has endured.

At take-off, the prototype aircraft displayed an all out weight of 127 tonnes, including 15 tonnes of flight-test equipment and two tonnes of water ballast. Performance data was monitored in real time by teams of engineers based both in Seville and in distant Toulouse, France, using air-ground telemetry.

Providing airspeed and camera recording of the main phases of the maiden flight was a vintage SN 601 Corvette business jet used as a chase plane.

The A400M test crew used this first flight to explore the aircraft’s basic handling characteristics in the various flap configurations, check the powerplant operation and make initial evaluations of the aircraft’s systems, all the while providing live information on screen to hundreds of journalists gathered in one of the Airbus Military hangars used for A400M series production.

The Europrop International (EPI) TP400D-6 engines of the A400M are the most powerful series turboprop engines fitted to a Western-made aircraft. Before the maiden flight, the engines had been run at full power, the electrical systems and on-board data network exhaustively tested, and numerous taxiing runs at progressively higher speeds performed, culminating in a rejected take-off test at a speed of 123 knots on Dec. 8.

During the maiden flight three days later, the four engines ran smoothly, each producing 11,000 shp (8,200kW).

The first flight lasted some four hours (instead of the planned three hours) and ended with a landing at Seville in front of more than 2,000 media, VIPs and Airbus Military staff united for a standing ovation.

At the controls of the hundred-ton behemoth was British Chief Test Pilot Military, Edward Strongman, 60, with Spanish Experimental Test Pilot Ignacio “Nacho” Lombo, 43, in the right-hand seat.

Four engineers also were on board: French Senior Flight Test Engineer Jean-Philippe Cottet, 43, who has responsibility for the powerplants; French Senior Flight Test Engineer Eric Isorce, 52, with responsibility for systems and performance; French Senior Flight Test Engineer Didier Ronceray, 54, with responsibility for the handling qualities of the aircraft; and former French Air Force Test Flight Engineer Gérard Leskerpit, 50.

“We have had a very successful first flight the take-off performance was impressive. We explored a lot of the operational flight envelope, and it was a delight to operate in such a well-designed cockpit with its easy interface to all the normal and military systems. I’m sure our customer pilots are really going to like it we certainly did,” Strongman said.

The six men in orange flight suits were greeted by the crowd as they disembarked, with King of Spain Juan Carlos Primero and Spanish Minister of Defense Carmen Chacon leading the converging throng of applauding VIPs.

Airbus and Airbus Military have drawn on their decades of technical knowledge in building civil airliners to produce the A400M, which is now considered one of the world’s most modern airlifters. It is an aircraft capable of both strategic and tactical operations that fits a new slot between the smaller C-130J and the larger, jet-powered C-17.

Despite being a true tactical aircraft that can land on soft, rough and short runways to deliver equipment close to the troops, the A400M cruises at the same altitudes as jets and at comparable speeds. It also was designed from the outset as an aerial refueling platform that can offload kerosene to both fighters and helicopters at their preferred speeds and altitudes.

A380 Inspired

The A400M features the same fly-by-wire controls technology and sidestick controllers of Airbus’ civil airliner family and an advanced Thales cockpit evolved from that of the Airbus A380 superjumbo ( Avionics, July 2008, page 10).

Avionic systems are based on an integrated modular avionics (IMA) architecture with networked computing modules the first such application on a military aircraft.

According to Thales, the IMA platform of the A400M has been adapted to meet military requirements for resistance to higher vibration levels, higher electromagnetic compatibility and a critical lightning protection system.

Another first: the aircraft’s Thales Control Display System (CDS) is the first application of interactive, re-configurable screens on a military transport.

The CDS features eight 6-by-8-inch LCD screens that are night-vision goggle (NVG) compatible. There are two keyboard and cursor control units and two glareshield control panels (GCP). An optional third crewmember station has one LCD screen and three additional control panels.

A400M pilots will use head-up displays as primary flight instruments, enhanced by the look-down multifunction displays and, on some models, by an Enhanced Vision System. While HUD computers for the A380 and A400M are identical, the mechanical and optical elements on the A400M HUD are customized for compatibility with NVGs and helmets.

Among other Thales equipment on the A400M are the flight management system computer; dual multi-mode receivers for ILS, GPS, differential GPS and Microwave Landing System (MLS) navigation; and a centralized Crypto Management System that rationalizes the process of loading and erasing cryptographic keys for radios, the IFF, GPS and other equipment. Since the program was launched in 2005, Thales said, an average of 300 employees per year have worked on developing A400M systems.

A total of 184 A400Ms had been ordered by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Malaysia. South Africa cancelled its order for eight aircraft one month before the A400M’s first flight.

Other nations are interested, but all were waiting until Airbus Military comes up with a firm price tag for the airlifter — somewhere around €150 million (about $210.3 million). Sharing of the program’s extra costs was being negotiated by the manufacturer and the European partner nations. At stake was how to split evenly between all, including Airbus, the added €7 billion (about $9.5 billion) coming on top of a program, about a third more than was initially agreed for a 180-aircraft, €20 billion (roughly $28 billion) procurement.

At this writing, Airbus and countries that have ordered the A400M were nearing an arrangement to cover the billions in budget shortfalls ( see page 29).

The first flight marked the beginning of a three-year test campaign that will see some 3,700 hours of flying logged by five aircraft (MSN 001 to 006, with MSN 005 cancelled) between now and the type’s entry-into-service, scheduled for the spring of 2013.

Aircraft MSN 007 will be the first A400M for the French air force. The aircraft was expected to receive both civil certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and military certification and qualification.

Despite being more than three years late, according to the initial program schedule, the A400M has now become a reality — a symbol of what European countries can achieve when they gather around a common aim.

Often maligned or reviled during these past years on account of its tardiness and repeated rescheduling, not to mention ever rising costs, the program appears to be back on track, as all systems monitored during the first test flights worked as expected. By early January, the A400M had completed its first 10 flight-test hours.

The third flight was a two-hour, 25-minute sortie from Seville on Jan. 7, during which the test crew concentrated on exploring flight in different aircraft configurations.

Meanwhile, French test pilot Michel Gagneux became the third pilot to fly the aircraft, supporting Lombo, the acting co-pilot. Airbus Spanish head of flight operations Fernando Alonso also flew on the aircraft for the first time.

Overall, the first prototype aircraft is expected to fly for some 1,200 hours during the test program, which hopefully will lead to first delivery of the type in late 2012.

Airbus Military was about to double its efforts in 2010 by adding two more aircraft to the trial run. Aircraft MSN 002 was due to fly in March with MSN 003, at this writing in final assembly stage, to follow by mid-year, said Domingo Ureña-Raso, Airbus Military CEO.

Civil Certification

The decision to add a civil certification to the A400M at the request of the OCCAR multinational European Common Defence Procurement Agency in 2005 created another hurdle for the program. Of the 3,700-hour flight test campaign, 2,300 hours will be devoted to the civil ticket.

“As the aircraft type certification will be both civil and military, the double certification adds a thick layer of complexity and much red tape to the flight test program,” said Ureña-Raso, addressing the press in Seville. This “explains why three full years shall be necessary at least to reach the delivery target of the first series A400M [MSN 007 for the French air force] at the turn of 2012.”

Initial operating clearance for the A400M is expected to take place at the end of 2011 after 2,800 flight test hours, but air trials will continue until a total of 3,700 hours is logged by the five-prototype fleet.

The final testing target is set for the end of 2012, just about the time of the formal handover of the first true series A400M is made in December 2012 or January 2013.

The flight-test allocation per aircraft is set as follows:

➤ MSN 001 will be dedicated to flight envelope clearance, loads, flight controls, handling qualities, development of the braking system and general aircraft systems development. (Airbus Military said Jan. 20 that the aircraft would spend three to four weeks in the hangar undergoing modifications “in light of the test data and experience so far,” with return to flight in the second half of February.);

➤ MSN 002 will concentrate on the TP400D-6 powerplants and propeller development, defensive aids and military systems development;

➤ MSN 003 will be dedicated to auto-flight and related systems development as well as route proving;

➤ MSN 004 will be used mainly for cargo hold systems development and full military systems testing and development;

➤ MSN 006, finally, will focus on EMI compatibility testing, cargo development, operational demonstrations and environmental trials. This fifth aircraft is thought to be the one due to test and tune the add-on removable air-to-air 900 series Cobham refueling package and wing pods, the same as used on the Airbus A330-200 MRTT.

The current test program is fully shared between the French and the Spanish divisions of Airbus Military. Aircraft MSN 001, 003 and 006 are earmarked for testing in Toulouse, while aircraft MSN 002 and 004 shall remain in Spain.

The French are responsible for 2,400 hours of flight testing and the Spanish 1,970, which constitutes an aggregate of 4,370 hours of air trials considered necessary to complete the A400M.

Responsibility for testing the in-flight refueling system will be vested in the French controlled MSN 001 and 006 prototypes. All aircraft have or were due to have the long, unicorn-like rigid receiver refueling probe fitted over the cockpit, offset to the left.

However, only aircraft MSN 001 and 006 alternatively will be equipped with the Cobham refueling transfer hose and drogue system, with specific removable kerosene tanks in the cargo hold.

Due to its long experience in flight refueling operations using the C-160 Transall and the C-135FR Stratotanker, the French Air Force was judged appropriate to give the Airbus Toulouse test crew full authority over this part of the program.

Britain, France and Malaysia thus far are the only A400M customer nations known to have required the A400M as a tactical tanker aircraft.

Joint Funding Proposal

Seven European nations behind the A400M at this writing had submitted a joint funding proposal to Airbus parent company European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. to help keep the program afloat.

Junior ministers of Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Turkey submitted the proposal Feb. 15, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported, citing a German defense ministry spokesman. “The state secretaries … worked to adopt a joint position on funding the project,” the spokesman stated. The “countries confirm their binding intention to continue to support the project.”

An EADS spokesman said the company had received the offer sent to CEO Louis Gallois and would answer “in due time,” according to press reports.

Facing pressure from auditors and credit rating agencies to close its 2009 financial results, EADS threatened to abandon the A400M unless buyer nations upped their contribution to an estimated €7 billion ($9.5 billion) cost overrun.

EADS had offered to absorb €3.2 billion of the overrun. Press reports describing the joint funding proposal said customer nations offered to cover €2 billion with another €1.5 billion in credit guarantees.

The program to deliver 180 aircraft is more than three years behind schedule. Some 10,000 jobs were at stake.

Defense ministers from the seven nations convened to discuss the program Feb. 4 in Istanbul, according to our correspondent Jean-Michel Guhl.

“In highly diplomatic terms, they unanimously confirmed their will to support the A400M project, seen as the cornerstone of the European Safety and Defense Policy and a key aircraft for providing Europe with an independent strategic airlift capacity,” Guhl reported. “The ministers paid tribute to the prototype’s successful first flight of Dec. 11. They assessed noticeable progress achieved during the discussions with EADS, all the while stressing the overriding efforts made by the partner nations vis-à-vis the prime contractor in agreeing with further delivery delays and shifting calendar planning.

“The ministers also acknowledged the significant work made by EADS, albeit emphasizing that the manufacturer must assume its responsibilities in this program and meet its earlier commitments in view of the latest financial conditions made by the seven partner nations. The ministers also called for a rapid termination of all discussions, hoping that a final settlement would be made soon enough.”

Airbus A400M: Major Avionics, Systems Suppliers

The following is a list of some of the avionics and systems suppliers on the A400M compiled from various Internet sources, including, and supplier company information.

➤ Aerolec (Thales/Goodrich): 400kVA electrical power generation system

➤ AMETEK Aerospace & Defense: Hydraulic system sensor package

➤ Astronautics Corp. of America: Network server system

➤ Astro-Med Inc.: Cockpit printers

➤ Cobham: Passenger address system; communications antennas; refueling hose and drogue system

➤ Diehl Aerospace: Integrated Modular Avionics (with Thales); Doors and control and monitoring system

➤ EADS Defence & Security: Digital map generator system, mission management computer, Multi-color Infrared Alerting Sensors (with

Thales), Directed Infra Red Counter-Measures equipment (with Thales, Sagem, Diehl Aerospace)

➤ Esterline Technologies: Temperature and pressure sensors; fluid and motion control components

➤ GE Aviation: Concentrator/multiplexer video unit; cockpit video displays

➤ Goodrich Corp.: SmartProbe air data computers

➤ Hispano Suiza: Electrical wiring harnesses for TP400-D6 engine

➤ Honeywell: IntuVue weather radar

➤ HR Smith: Communications antennas

➤ Indra Sistemas: Radar Receivers: radar warning receiver.

➤ Labinal: Nose fuselage and cockpit electrical harnesses, engine wiring; avionics racks and relay boxes

➤ Latecoere: Wire harnesses

➤ Latelec: Avionics racks and bays.

➤ Rhode & Schwarz: Radio communications equipment

➤ Rockwell Collins: Avionics Full Duplex Switched Ethernet (AFDX), avionics communications router, direction finder.

➤ Sagem Defense: Aircraft condition monitoring system, Air Data Inertial Reference Unit.

➤ Sirio Panel: Integrated control panel system, lighting management units; aircraft interior lighting systems.

➤ Thales: Flight management system, control and display system, Integrated Modular Avionics (with Diehl Aerospace), Enhanced Vision System, TACAN

➤ Turkish Aerospace Industries: Aircraft interior lighting systems

➤ Weston Aerospace: TP400M sensor suite

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