France takes delivery of first Airbus A400M


France took delivery of the first Airbus A400M on Thursday, ending a four-year wait for Europe’s military transporter whose development has been plagued by technical problems and soaring costs.

The delivery, authorized by the French procurement agency DGA, enables the aircraft, MSN7, to join the French airbase of Orleans-Bricy where it will be based with the French Air Force, Airbus said.

Its deployment — four years behind schedule and three decades after Europe’s planners first began discussing building an independent military airlift capacity — is expected to kickstart a campaign to find new export markets.

Domingo Urena Raso, head of Airbus Military, said that, “Today is a truly historic day for the European aerospace industry – marking the moment at which it becomes the new global leader in the military transport sector with an entirely new aircraft. I would like to express my sincere thanks to everyone at Airbus Military, Airbus and our suppliers whose unflagging efforts have made this enormous achievement possible, as well as our customers and OCCAR [Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation] whose inputs over the years have been crucial to the success of the programme.”

This first aircraft delivered to France will initially be used for the continuing training of aircrew before becoming part of the French Air Force operational transport fleet, Airbus said.

The A400M was developed for seven European NATO nations at a cost of more than 20 billion euros ($26.47 billion). More than 5 000 flight test hours have gone into the programme, which has been worked on by some 40 000 people.

It boasts the largest turbo-prop engines built in the West (EuroProp TP400s each developing 11 000 shaft horsepower) and can accommodate up to 37 tonnes of cargo such as helicopters, armoured vehicles and troops.

But problems in developing the huge engines led to delays and a 3.5 billion euro bailout from seven partner nations — Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey — in 2010, to help protect 10 000 European defence jobs, Reuters reports.

Airbus hopes to find buyers for hundreds of the aircraft, which competes with the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules turboprop and the larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet.

If it succeeds in exporting the A400M, Airbus must hand back some of the 2010 bailout money, which includes 1.5 billion euros of cash effectively loaned against royalties from exports.

Formal delivery took place a day after Airbus parent EADS announced plans to combine the A400M and other transporter activities with other defence and space business as Europe’s largest aerospace group also adopts the Airbus brand.

As a result of its order for eight A400Ms (and in spite of the subsequent cancellation), South Africa is a full industrial partner on the A400M programme with Denel Aerostructures and Aerosud responsible for the design, engineering and manufacturing of key wing and fuselage components, including the Wing-Fuselage Fairing, (the biggest single aero-structure ever produced (by Denel Aerostructures) in South Africa.

Other parts manufactured in South Africa include the wingtips, the fuselage and cockpit lining and the fuselage top-shells (roof panels). In June, Airbus Military announced it had also placed additional work packages with Denel Aerostructures for the design and production of the swords (comparable to the spine) and ribs which provide the structural integrity to the vertical tail fins of all future A400Ms.

Airbus still hopes to sell the A400M to South Africa at some stage, as the South African Air Force will have to replace its ageing C-130s in 2020. The Air Force currently uses C-130s and leased aircraft – mostly Il-76s – to transport equipment to places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where South African troops participate in peacekeeping missions.