Feature: A400M highs and lows


With series production resuming, the troubled A400M is getting back on track in some areas, but increased funding for the airlifter still has to be decided amidst shrinking orders. Nevertheless, recent developments are good news for South Africa as local companies line up for another decade of work.

Airbus announced another milestone in the project earlier this month as major fatigue testing on the A400M began on schedule in Dresden, with the test airframe (MSN5001) subjected to a punishing regime of loads, 24 hours per day, for an initial four weeks, eventually simulating 160 flights per day.

The first 1665 simulated flights are required for European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) type certification of the A400M, but over the next 18 months a total of 25 000 simulated flights will be performed – equating to 2.5 times the A400M´s design-life.

Static testing of another A400M test airframe (MSN5000) was completed in Madrid in September last year. That airframe continues to be used for further fatigue tests of composite structures. Testing will continue with the airframe until early 2012.

Meanwhile, four test aircraft have flown over 1000 hours in 300 sorties, and will be joined by a fifth aircraft. Another 2700 hours still need to be flown. Some of the testing has involved dropping paratroopers, operating at night, flying in artificial icing conditions and evaluating overall performance.

A big step in getting the programme back on track was the resumption of series production, which was restarted on January 12 after Airbus Military suspended assembly due to uncertainty about the programme, Defense News reports.

The A400M project has experienced massive delays and cost overruns. The aircraft’s first flight, on December 11, 2009, was three years late and deliveries, scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2013, are over four years late. France, for instance, will in 2013 receive the first of its 50 A400Ms, which are valued at €8.4 billion ($11.1 billion).

Lois Gallois, chief executive of EADS, said the delays were attributed to the engineering challenges and complexity of the project. “The 6.5 year calendar [for development] was unrealistic.”

Cancelling the A400M would have resulted in massive job cuts including 40 000 in Europe. As a result, the contract for the €20 billion ($26.6 billion) A400M programme was renegotiated last March and endorsed in November by the seven partner nations. Part of the renegotiations involved waiving all liquidated damages owing to delays in the programme. Partners will pay €11 million per aircraft and lend Airbus Military $1.5 billion, which the company will pay back once it receives export orders. In addition, another €2 billion will be invested in the programme for a total funding boost of €3.5 billion to pay for further development and production costs.

However, the final hurdle to signing the revised contract remains the January 19 hearing of the German parliamentary budget committee. As the country with the largest order, Germany needs to approve its €500 million ($672 million) share of the loan to Airbus Military in order to unlock the rest of the funding from the other six nations. However, the decision that was expected on the 19th has been delayed by a week, Bloomberg reports.
“This is an emblematic programme which the Europeans could not afford to let go,” then French defence minister Herve Morin said in a press conference in November last year. “If it had failed, Europe would have been under the yoke of the United States in the 21st century” in terms of obtaining military transport aircraft.

The seven partner nations of the A400M are Belgium (which has ordered seven aircraft), France (50), Germany (53), Luxembourg (1), Spain (27), the UK (22) and Turkey (10). 180 aircraft were on order by the partner nations but this has decreased to 170 after Germany cut seven aircraft and the UK cut its order by three. In addition, Malaysia has four on order.

Although Airbus maintains that export orders will amount to between 400 and 500 aircraft around the world, the company will not start an export sales campaign until the aircraft is flying with its seven launch customers, Defense News says. However, in November last year Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) concluded that the export potential of the aircraft would be around 280 aircraft.

At its peak, the A400M’s order book recorded 192 sales but this now stands at 174. South Africa had previously ordered eight A400Ms but cancelled them in November 2009 due to “extensive cost escalation and the supplier’s failure to deliver the aircraft within the stipulated timeframes”, according to a government statement.

As a result of joining the A400M programme in April 2005, South Africa was given large workshares and remains heavily involved in the programme.

Denel-Saab Aerostructures (DSA) manufactures wing-to-fuselage fairings for the A400M as well as the centre fuselage top shells that fit in front of and behind the wing box, which joins the wing to the fuselage. DSA had previously manufactured spars and ribs for the vertical fin, but these work packages were taken away in May 2010 as Airbus shifted A400M workshare to European countries hungry for work after putting in additional funding for the aircraft.

Centurion-based Aerosud manufactures wingtips, fuselage and cockpit linings as well as the galleys for the airlifter. The companies will ramp up their A400M-related activity in line with the restart of series production of the aircraft.

South African companies do not merely manufacture parts designed in Europe. In fact, they have designed and engineered the components and prerequisite tooling for the A400M themselves.

There were fears that South Africa would be left out of the A400M industrial partnership after the government’s cancellation order, but this has not been so. In September last year Airbus announced it was committing over R4 billion to industrial and related activity in South Africa over the next 10 years. Of that, R500 million was for work related to the upcoming A350 airliner. Aerosud, Cobham-Omnipless (which manufactures antennas) and Denel-Saab Aerostructures (DSA) are the main beneficiaries.

According to Linden Birns, Airbus Sub-Sahara Africa spokesman, the A400M partnership with South Africa has many positive benefits up and down various supply chains. “In fact, the benefit ripple spread extends to jobs, skills, technology, additional export revenues from local manufacturing and a positive impact on South Africa’s GDP,” he added.

South Africa is Airbus’s biggest joint venture partner in Africa, with Tunisia and Morocco coming in behind. Denel-Saab Aerostructures (DSA) and Aerosud are the only companies outside of Europe that manufacture sections for the A400M.

The continued Airbus-related manufacturing activity supports the South African government’s Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP2), which identifies Aerospace as a strategic industry for development.