Technicians have completed crucial engine trials on the Airbus A400M military transport plane, clearing a significant obstacle to its long-delayed maiden flight, sources close to the matter said.
The in-flight tests were carried out by fitting one of the A400M’s newly developed turbo-prop engines to the wing of a converted Lockheed C130 Hercules transport plane at Marshall Aerospace, a specialist firm in Cambridge, England.
Sources familiar with the project said the test aircraft known to engineers as a ‘flying test bed’ had completed 54 hours of test flights with the West’s largest ever turbo prop slung under a wing in place of one of its four ordinary engines.
The last test was carried out earlier this week.
Completion of the trials provides a respite for Europe’s largest military project, whose future had been cast in doubt by two years of technical delays and mounting financial losses.
Airbus parent EADS is in talks to rescue the €20 billion (R225 billion) contract with the seven European nations that ordered the plane: Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey.
The aircraft is designed to provide badly needed capacity to transport troops and heavy equipment to combat zones such as Afghanistan or to carry out the sort of humanitarian relief operations now under way in the South Pacific and Indonesia.
Britain threatened to cancel the A400M over the delays while the largest customer, Germany, placed pressure on Airbus to stick to its contractual obligations despite facing big losses.
The two sides are aiming for a deal by the end of the year with ministers due to hold progress talks later this month.
Belgium said this week everything pointed to a deal by the year-end deadline.
Industry watchers say a compromise could involve reducing the 180 planes on order or lengthening the contract period to ease budget pressures, while EADS may be forced to contribute towards the cost of interim steps such as renting planes.
A senior source familiar with the matter told Reuters discussions had started hesitantly, with most countries sticking to exploratory gestures and unwilling to commit to firm numbers.
But the talks could receive an impetus if and when Airbus can show the A400M is ready to make its first flight, which was originally slated for early 2008, the source said.
The engine trials were seen as one of the key milestones on the path to that flight, along with the documentation of thousands of lines of software code that fell behind schedule.
The chief executive of EADS, Louis Gallois, reiterated on Monday that the planemaker aims to fly the A400M aircraft around the end of the year.
The keenly awaited engine trials were carried out by the company responsible for maintaining Britain’s ageing C130 fleet.
Marshall Aerospace engineers carried out 18 test flights and ran the engine for a total of 110 hours, aiming to flush out any problems before the first actual A400M currently grounded at its factory in Spain goes aloft for the first time.
“The idea was to identify issues that would naturally occur during flight trials by using the test bed as a mirror image of an A400M airplane,” a source familiar with the project said.
He declined to discuss the results of the tests, but said engineers were “delighted” with the testing programme.
The A400M engine was developed by a European consortium including Britain’s Rolls-Royce France’s Safran and MTU Aero Engines of Germany.
Pic: The Marshall K used for the a400m engine test