Airbus A400M makes South African debut


The Airbus A400M Atlas next-generation military transport aircraft has finally arrived in South Africa but its debut in local skies was courtesy of the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The aircraft, serial ZM404 and based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, UK, landed at Cape Town International Airport on Tuesday afternoon to deliver a RHIB safety boat to HMS Clyde, an offshore patrol vessel currently undergoing maintenance at Naval Base Simon’s Town.

This is not the first time a RAF A400M Atlas has deployed to Africa, as the RAF sent an aircraft to the International Marrakech Air Show in Morocco last April. The French Air Force had the distinction of flying the first A400M mission to Africa when an aircraft delivered 22 tons of supplies to French forces in Mali early in 2014.

The ZM404 crew, commanded by Squadron Leader Baz Ervine, comprised two captains from 24 Squadron (the Operational Conversion Unit), two junior pilots from 70 Squadron (the first Atlas operational squadron in the RAF), a Loadmaster and a number of security and technical crew.

Speaking exclusively to defenceWeb, Ervine said crews love the aircraft. “The performance is breath-taking. You can pretty much take-off and land from anywhere.”
“It’s a nice environment to work in,” Ervine explained. Besides the aircraft design and the powerful Europrop International TP400-D6 engines of 11,000 shp (8,200 kW) each, he was complimentary of the positive situational awareness presented by the avionics. The fusion of information and data management, while taking a while to learn, “is a joy.” This makes multi-facetted missions, including airdrops and multiple landing zones, “quite easy, everything is at your fingertips and on the heads-up display.”

Ervine, who previously flew the C-130J Hercules, says there is no point in comparing the two aircraft, they are so different. “We have endurance for about ten hours,” he says, “We cruise 30% faster than a Hercules, 50% higher and with a bigger payload.”

South Africa became a partner in the A400M airlifter programme in 2005 when the country purchased eight (with an option for a further eight) of the transport aircraft. Although the first aircraft was due for delivery to the SAAF in 2010, by 2008 the programme had suffered substantial technical and financial complications, delaying the first flight of the aircraft which was contractually required by October 31, 2009. The contract was terminated in November 2009 because of extensive cost escalation and delays in the contractual delivery time. The first flight of the A400M eventually took place on December 11 that year.

It is doubtful any SAAF members will take the opportunity to view the aircraft the air force so desperately needs. However, Ervine noted, he would be “delighted to show them around.”

Arising from South Africa’s initial order for the aircraft, both Denel Aerostructures and Aerosud manufacture major components for the A400M, including fuselage top shells, the wing-fuselage fairings, various linings, the cockpit rigid bulkhead, wingtips, tail-fin skeleton, satellite communications equipment and other items.

The United Kingdom has ordered 22 Atlas aircraft, with the first aircraft delivered in November 2014. Approximately 12 of the large transport aircraft have been delivered to date.

The order book for the A400M stands at 174, of which 34 have been delivered to the partner nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and United Kingdom) and Malaysia. Reports from Indonesia last month stated that country will purchase five aircraft.

Development of the A400M is continuing, with aircraft going through upgrades after delivery while Airbus, Europrop International and the partner nations continue to improve power plant durability and widen the aircraft’s operational capability.