DSA delivers first production A400 top shells to Airbus

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South Africa’s contribution to the Airbus Military A400M programme has taken another step forward with the delivery of the first set of production top shells for the aircraft’s fuselage to the planemaker this week. Six pre-production sets have previously been delivered.

The components were designed, developed and produced by Denel Saab Aerostructures (DSA) at their Kempton Park facility. DSA is one of only two companies outside Europe that manufactures sections for what is billed as the world’s most advanced transport aircraft, due to be delivered to air forces within the next two years. The massive four-engine turboprop aircraft recently made its public debut at the Farnborough Air Show in England with the locally produced components already on board.

DSA CE Ismail Dockrat says the successful manufacturing of a vital part of the aircraft is proof that the local manufacturing sector can hold its own with the rest of the world in the field of high-end engineering. “Our participation in the Airbus production process is testimony to the ingenuity of our design team and the quality of our workmanship,” says Dockrat.

The company is contracted to produce two top shells for each aircraft – one in front and one behind the wing box that joins the wing to the fuselage. Engineering News’ Keith Campbell has picturesquely called these as being equivalent to “roof panels”. The DSA has said this is one of the largest composite-metallic hybrid structures on the aircraft. “This part’s main function is to provide aerodynamic efficiency over the wind box, as well as protecting critical aircraft systems.”

The top shells will be fitted on all 180 Airbus A400M that will be produced over the 25 year life cycle of the project and will be a profitable project for DSA. A top shells is made up of more than 1100 parts made out of an aluminium alloy. In addition some 900 system brackets are fitted to the shells. The brackets support electric and electronic wiring, hot air and heat exchange piping as well as the aircraft’s life-rafts.

Each shell has the width and length of a small car and weighs about 100kg. The manufactured product is shipped to Germany where it is incorporated into the fuselage that is then transported for final assembly at the Airbus Military production facility in Seville, Spain. The shells that left the production line this week will be fitted on to the first aircraft due to be delivered to an end customer.

Denel Saab Aerostructures also manufactures the wing-to-fuselage fairings (WTFF) made of an aluminium alloy frame and carbon composite panels. Each fairing is 15m long, 7m wide, and nearly 3m high.

Richard van Wyk, Top Shells Project Manager at DSA says the company’s participation in the Airbus project has enabled its engineering division to train and develop high-level skills. Most of the engineers and artisans working on the project received extensive training in Germany and Airbus conducts regular audits of the manufacturing process. The product also exceeds the rigorous standards set by local and European civil aviation authorities. “We have been an integral part of the Airbus project from the design stages right through to production and testing,” says Van Wyk.

The majority of the components are manufactured locally, either at DSA or by sub-contractors in the engineering sector. To produce the top shells DSA has invested in custom tooling and advanced engineering machinery which can later also be utilised in future manufacturing processes on other types of aircraft. This includes large bed machining, laser radar inspection and an enlarged special treatment plants.

Van Wyk says DSA will be able to produce between two and three sets of top shells per month but the production schedule is determined by the requirements of Airbus. Simon Green, Key Account Manager: Airbus at DSA says the local team has received positive feedback from the primary manufacturer.

The A400M was started as a joint project between the Airbus founding countries: Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom and in a strategic partnership with South Africa, to provide heavy airlift capacity that can transport modern military equipment and humanitarian relief supplies into inaccessible global hotspots. The aircraft has a payload capability of more than 30 000 kg and a range of 8710 km and can land and take off on less than 1000 metres of runway.

The first prototype made its maiden flight on December 11 last year 2009 and has since completed over 200 flights, accumulating more than 600 flying hours without any problems reported on either the top shells or the WTFF. Green says DSA participation in the project has confirmed its status as a reliable World-class supplier and innovative design partner in the highly competitive aviation industry.

Finance minister Pravin Gordhan allocated a further R181.296 million to DSA in his Additional Estimates of National Expenditure (AENE) in late October. Treasury notes the amount as an “unforeseeable and unavoidable expenditure” under Vote 10, Public Enterprises. “An additional R181.296 million is allocated to Denel for the fourth (R103.144 million) and fifth claims (R78.152 million) by Denel Saab Aerostructures under the indemnity agreement with the government for the [Airbus Military] A400M contracts,” the AENE reads.

The assistance came two days after the company handed retrenchment notices to 161 staff as part of a head count reduction of some 290 by coming June and follows several years of disasterous financial results. It is the second year running that Gordhan has assisted the troubled company. Treasury last October allocated DSA R192 million to help pay for tooling related to the A400M project.

At the time Kinley also said DSA expected to earn about R13 billion in revenue from its participation in the A400M programme over a period of some 15 years. Kinley added the company had spent some R400 million in a facility upgrade to prepare for the production of its workshare. It is understood Airbus invested a further about R1 billion in the local industry to support the participation of DSA, Aerosud, Cobham and SAAB Grintek. It is further understood the expectation of a refund for this following the South African Air Force’s cancellation of its order to purchase eight of the aircraft, may bedevil South Africa’s wish to be repaid some R2.7 billion in milestone embursements made between 2005 and 2009.

The Department of Public Enterprises last October said the A400M contract was awarded to DSA as part of a business exchange plan, set up with Airbus when the SA government signed “a deal to purchase the military aircraft as part of the South African Air Force’s renewal programme”. The department in a joint statement with the DSA noted the design of the A400M structure “has raised South Africa’s engineering skill base.” They added the “DSA has also developed a composite facility to global standards – with world class accreditation which will allow South Africa to position itself in advanced manufacturing and in obtaining further contracts in the aerostructures industry.”

Dr Ian Phillips, the late Special Advisor to then-Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe in a 2004 press statement noted that this was the fulcrum of SA’s participation in the programme. Phillips then a Denel board member avered that the government, through the Departments of Trade and Industry (DTI), Public Enterprises and Defence, had been since “at least 2000” developing a strategy for the long-term development of South Africa’s high technology aerospace sector.



A four year delay in the programme has cost DSA dearly. It posted a loss of R452.6 million for the year to March 2009, largely because of delays in the A400M programme, and R328 million this year. At the release of the Denel’s financial results later that month, CE Talib Sadik told journalists the group would have posted a R200 million profit if it was not for the loss at DSA.