Airbus sets date for A400M first flight – but not saying when

Airbus Military chairman and MD Domingo Urena-Raso says the company has set a date for the first flight of the much delayed A400M Loadmaster military transport aircraft.

He told an industry briefing in Seville, Spain, this week that a date has been communicated to the aircraft`s nine clients – which included the South African Air Force. He would not, however, publicly state the target date.


“Customers have been advised, but it`s not for publication. By the end of July we should have an idea of when the first flight will take place and also of the new delivery schedule.”


First flight was scheduled for last December but was indefinitely postponed in part because Euro Prop International (EPI), the engine consortium created to build the powerplant for the A400M failed to follow protocol in certifying the Fully Digital Engine Control (FADEC) software for the aircraft`s massive TP400-D6 turboprops.


Even then the €20 billion programme was running well behind schedule: the first production aircraft was meant to enter French air force service this year. South Africa was slated to receive the first of eight aircraft next year.


A total of 192 aircraft are currently on order – 180 for Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Turkey and a further 12 for export to Malaysia and South Africa.


Urena-Raso added Airbus had under-estimated the complexities of the programme and the difference between a nature of a military and civil project.


He noted that this resulted in a complex workshare arrangement, a fixed price contract and the selection – under strong pressure – of the EPI powerplant.


Silver linings


However, in comparison with other military aircraft programmes, slippage was not excessive and the aircraft rolled out on June 26 last year was “already very mature.”


Aircraft MSN 1 was structurally completed in September and ready for first flight bar the FADEC software. While waiting for the powerplant software to be completed, other work was undertaken including ground vibration tests and configuration enhancements with improvements to systems software as well as structural modifications.


Indoor systems testing has also been completed and outdoor tests commenced this week. Engine run and taxi tests are to be conducted over the European summer (SA winter).


All static tests required ahead of first flight have been completed, Urena-Raso added.


Aircraft MSN 2 achieved “power-on” at end-April 2009 and the wing assembly for MSN 3 is currently in progress. Final assembly will commence at month`s end and the front fuselage sub-assembly, wings, tailplane and fin has been delivered to Seville.


During a question-and-answer session Urena-Raso added suppliers – including some I South Africa – will be asked to ramp up production after “the flight test campaign” in order for Airbus Military to validate load information. “When we have this, we will be able to re-start production.”

He also confirmed the aircraft has exceeded its target weight, but said it would not affect performance. “Like all aircraft, we have weight issues. But our priority is to deliver an aircraft that meets the contracted specified payload/range capability. The aircraft is comfortably within this capability target. Any weight reduction of the aircraft would offer further enhancements.”
Urena-Raso further said the “programme is entirely feasible and that it will be the new military transport aircraft of the future.” To demonstrate this faith the company is spending its own money on moving the project forward.


On timelines he noted the company should by year-end be “moving ahead with modifications and updates to the existing contracts.” Airbus CEO Tom Enders has previously said the A400M project could not be completed within the existing contracts.