A400M flies – but costs reportedly balloon 11bn euro

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The Airbus Military A400M Loadmaster strategic transport has made a successful three hour 47 minute (27 minute first flight, just over a year later than scheduled.

The 127 metric ton aircraft took off from Seville airport this morning at 11.15am South African time – 10.15am local time and landed at 2.02pm local time (3.02pm).

The aircraft, the product of a development programme dating to 1982, is now about three years behind schedule and reportedly over 11 billion euro – or more than 50% – over its 20 billion euro budget. The launch customer, France, was meant have received it first production A400M in October. It will now have to wait for that aircraft until December 2012.

First flight

At the controls this morning was Chief Test Pilot Military, Edward Strongman, 60, with Experimental Test Pilot Ignacio “Nacho” Lombo, 43, in the right-hand seat.

Four engineers were also on the aircraft for the flight. They were Senior Flight Test Engineer Jean-Philippe Cottet, 43, who has responsibility for the powerplant; Senior Flight Test Engineer Eric Isorce, 52, responsible for systems and performance; Senior Flight Test Engineer Didier Ronceray, 54, tasked with monitoring the handling qualities of the aircraft; and Test Flight Engineer Gerard Leskerpit, 50.

The crew confirmed that the aircraft, known as MSN 1 and its four Europrop International TP400D turboprop engines performed as expected.
“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,” said Strongman. “I’m sure our customer pilots are really going to like it – we certainly did.”

Lombo added that from “the very beginning of the flight we were impressed by the ease of handling of the aircraft which was in line with what we experienced in the simulator. The aircraft, systems and engine performance were highly satisfactory.

“We sense the great potential of this magnificent machine. It has been an honour for all the crew to fly the A400M on its maiden flight, representing all the people involved in the programme,” Lombo added.

Airbus Military CE Domingo Urena-Raso afterwards congratulated Strongman, Lombo and the flight-test team. “I am also deeply grateful to everyone in the design, manufacturing and early operations of this programme for their enormously hard work and dedication that have made this aircraft a reality. And I want to thank all those people in our industrial partners and suppliers, as well as our customers, who have contributed so much to the definition and creation of an outstanding product.”

EADS CE Louis Gallois, who witnessed the event, said he found the takeoff “more moving than I expected. It’s enormous. We’ve been waiting a long time.” EADS is the sole owner of Airbus Military.

For its first flight the aircraft took off at a weight of 127mt, carrying 15mt of test equipment including two tonnes of water ballast, compared with its maximum take-off weight of 141mt.

“As planned, the six-man crew extensively explored the aircraft’s flight envelope in direct law, including a wide speed-range, and tested lowering and raising of the landing gear and high-lift devices at altitude. After checking the aircraft’s performance in the landing configuration the crew landed back at Seville,” Airbus Military said in a statement to publicise the moment.

Enders told The Associated Press that he enjoyed a breakfast of croissants and “very strong coffee” with the six man crew earlier this morning to wish the two test pilots and four engineers good luck. “They were very confident,” he said.

The flight took off 15 minutes late after a few glitches with the flight instruments, said Fernando Alonso, head of Flight Operations at Airbus. It headed southwest, over the Spanish region of Extremadura.

At a briefing an hour after lift-off, Alonso said that “everything is going fine” and the crew “feel very comfortable with the airplane.”

The crew, dressed in orange jump suits, are equipped with parachutes and helmets just in case.

“It’s only after they land that we will be able to party,” Alonso said.

The aircraft’s performance was monitored throughout in realtime by teams of engineers in Seville and Toulouse using state-of-the-art air-ground telemetry.

“The crew will explore the aircraft’s handling characteristics in the various flap configurations, check the powerplant operation and make initial evaluations of the aircraft’s systems,” during the flight, an Airbus statement issued this morning said.

Its four all-new Europrop International TP400D turboprop powerplants producing 11 000 shp (8200kW) each are the most powerful propeller engines ever fitted to a Western aircraft.

The duration of the flight was at the test team’s discretion and was set to end with a landing back at Seville in front of more than 2000 media, VIPs and Airbus Military staff.

Preparations

The aircraft has been extensively tested on the ground in an increasingly challenging programme leading up to the first flight over the last four weeks.

The engines have been run at full power, the electrical systems and on-board data network exhaustively tested, and numerous taxying runs at progressively higher speeds have been performed culminating in a rejected take-off test at a speed of 123 kts (227 km/hr) on Tuesday.
“Today’s first flight marks the beginning of a test campaign that will see some 3700 hours of flying by an eventual five aircraft conducted between now and entry-into-service at the end of 2012.

“The A400M will receive both civil certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and military certification and qualification,” the statement added.

The A400M was designed as “a true tactical aircraft that can land on soft, rough and short runways to deliver equipment and troops close to where they are urgently needed”, while it cruises at the same altitudes as jets and at comparable speeds to and from destinations.

It was designed from the outset as an aerial refueller and can offload fuel to both fighters and helicopters at their preferred speeds and heights.
 

The A400M features the same proven fly-by-wire controls technology as Airbus’ highly successful airliner family and an advanced cockpit that has evolved from that of the A380. Carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) wings and other large structures bring weight and strength advantages and cut the risk of corrosion.

Road ahead

A total of 184 aircraft are on order for Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

They discussed the cost overruns threatening the project on the sidelines of today’s maiden flight. Rüdiger Wolf, a German state secretary, said buyers had outlined an agreement on the way ahead.

He said EADS has been asked to respond by end-year and a standstill agreement between the parties could be extended until end-January.

An independent audit commissioned by A400M buyer nations has identified almost 11 billion euros of total cost overruns or still at risk in the delayed plane project, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The findings of the audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers include 2.4 billion euros already written off by Airbus parent EADS plus three billion euros in future development risks that it has not yet provisioned for.

The audit also identified 5.3 billion euros of increased production costs which EADS has asked a core
group of seven European NATO buyers to absorb, either through a higher price for the plane or fewer plane deliveries, the sources said. The original budget for the A400M was 20 billion euros.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders said he hoped to have “certainty that we are able to continue the A400M programme. This is expected by those at Airbus, our partners and suppliers worldwide who contributed so strongly to today’s success as well as by the air forces who wait for their plane.”

“We certainly hope that with thousands and thousands of employees all over Europe that we can continue this program, but we need to do that on a financially sound basis,” Enders said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

In the first half of next year MSN 1 will be joined by two sister aircraft, MSN 2 and MSN 3, followed by MSN 4 by the end of the year. A fifth aircraft will join the programme during 2011.

This fleet will be used for some 3700 hours of test-flying between now and first delivery to the French Air Force at the end of 2012. This will be followed by additional military development flying. The type will be certificated by both the civil and military authorities.

A total of 184 aircraft have so far been ordered by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom,

South Africa last month cancelled its order for eight of the airlifters, citing delays in the programme and cost overruns.

Despite the cancellation, three South African companies remain contracted as manufacturing partners and suppliers to the A400M programme:

  • Denel-Saab Aerostructures is to manufacture the outer roof shells, the wing-fuselage fairing and the tail-fin spine (known as the “sword”) and lateral ribs.

  • Centurion-based Aerosud is making all of the cabin linings, cockpit linings, galleys and the specially-designed wing tips which house tactical sensors and vital navigation and collision-avoidance equipment.

  • Omnipless from Westlake near Cape Town, produces communications antennae for the programme.

After this first flight, MSN 1 will spend at least two days undergoing ground inspections, but Airbus Military hopes to build up to an intensity of perhaps two flights a day, five days a week, with maintenance at night and any more major work being done over weekends.

The flight test programme will involve five aircraft – MSN 1 to MSN 4 and MSN 6, the Engineering News reports. MSN 1 will be used for aeroplane handling tests, load tests and flutter tests, and is scheduled to fly 1200 hours over the next three years.

MSN 2, which should fly in March, is programmed to carry out performance, certification and defensive aids tests in a 1100 flying hours programme, while MSN 3 is planned to have its maiden flight in May and accumulate 975 flying hours while doing autopilot, fuel, hydraulics and navigation tests.

MSN 4 is targetted for a first flight in January 2011 and will fly 870 hours in a programme of cargo operations and air-to-air refuelling tests, and MSN 6 – maiden takeofff set for July 2011 – will rack up 225 hours testing system maturity, engine endurance and undertaking route proving.

Test flights will take place in various European countries, as well as in the Americas, North Africa and the Middle East.

The flying truck took off with nine flags on its side — the seven NATO nations, Malaysia as well as South Africa. “Maybe the South Africans will be so impressed by the flight today they … will come back’,” Enders said hopefully.