The Airbus Military A400M Loadmaster strategic transport took off from Seville airport this morning at 11.15am South African time – 10.15am local time) on its first flight, just over a year later than scheduled.
The aircraft, the product of a development programme dating to the 1980s, is now about three years behind schedule and five billion euro over its 20 billion euro budget. The launch customer, France, was meant have received it first production A400M in October. It will now have to wait for that aircraft until December 2012.
At the controls this morning was Chief Test Pilot Military, Edward Strongman, 60, with Experimental Test Pilot Ignacio “Nacho” Lombo, 43, in the right-hand seat.
Four engineers were also on the aircraft for the flight. They were Senior Flight Test Engineer Jean-Philippe Cottet, 43, who has responsibility for the powerplant; Senior Flight Test Engineer Eric Isorce, 52, responsible for systems and performance; Senior Flight Test Engineer Didier Ronceray, 54, tasked with monitoring the handling qualities of the aircraft; and Test Flight Engineer Gerard Leskerpit, 50.
EADS CE Louis Gallois, who witnessed the event, said he found the takeoff “more moving than I expected. It’s enormous. We’ve been waiting a long time.” EADS is the sole owner of Airbus Military.
Airbus CEO Tom Enders told The Associated Press that he enjoyed a breakfast of croissants and “very strong coffee” with the six man crew Friday morning to wish the two test pilots and four engineers good luck. “They were very confident,” he said.
Friday’s flight is testing basic functions such as the landing gear and the flaps. It marks the beginning of a three-year flight test program.
The flight took off 15 minutes late after a few glitches with the flight instruments, said Fernando Alonso, head of Flight Operations at Airbus. It headed southwest, over the Spanish region of Extremadura.
At a briefing an hour after lift-off, Alonso said that “everything is going fine” and the crew “feel very comfortable with the airplane.”
The crew, dressed in orange jump suits, are equipped with parachutes and helmets just in case. “It’s only after they land that we will be able to party,” Alonso said.
The aircraft, MSN-001with a take-off weight of 127mt, is equipped with 15 tonnes of flight-test equipment including two tonnes of water ballast and its performance is being monitored in realtime by teams of engineers in Seville and Toulouse using state-of-the-art air-ground telemetry.
“The crew will explore the aircraft’s handling characteristics in the various flap configurations, check the powerplant operation and make initial evaluations of the aircraft’s systems,” during the flight, an Airbus statement issued this morning said.
Its four all-new Europrop International TP400D turboprop powerplants producing 11 000 shp (8200kW) each are the most powerful propeller engines ever fitted to a Western aircraft.
The duration of the flight was to be at the test team’s discretion and was set to end with a landing back at Seville in front of more than 2000 media, VIPs and Airbus Military staff.
The aircraft has been extensively tested on the ground in an increasingly challenging programme leading up to the first flight over the last four weeks.
The engines have been run at full power, the electrical systems and on-board data network exhaustively tested, and numerous taxying runs at progressively higher speeds have been performed culminating in a rejected take-off test at a speed of 123 kts (227 km/hr) on Tuesday.
“Today’s first flight marks the beginning of a test campaign that will see some 3700 hours of flying by an eventual five aircraft conducted between now and entry-into-service at the end of 2012.
“The A400M will receive both civil certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and military certification and qualification,” the statement added.
The A400M was designed as “a true tactical aircraft that can land on soft, rough and short runways to deliver equipment and troops close to where they are urgently needed”, while it cruises at the same altitudes as jets and at comparable speeds to and from destinations.
It was designed from the outset as an aerial refueller and can offload fuel to both fighters and helicopters at their preferred speeds and heights.
The A400M features the same proven fly-by-wire controls technology as Airbus’ highly successful airliner family and an advanced cockpit that has evolved from that of the A380. Carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) wings and other large structures bring weight and strength advantages and cut the risk of corrosion.
A total of 184 aircraft are on order for Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. South Africa last month cancelled its order for eight of the airlifters, citing delays in the programme and cost overruns.
Despite the cancellation, three South African companies remain contracted as manufacturing partners and suppliers to the A400M programme:
Denel-Saab Aerostructures is to manufacture the outer roof shells, the wing-fuselage fairing and the tail-fin spine (known as the “sword”) and lateral ribs.
Centurion-based Aerosud is making all of the cabin linings, cockpit linings, galleys and the specially-designed wing tips which house tactical sensors and vital navigation and collision-avoidance equipment.
Omnipless from Westlake near Cape Town, produces communications antennae for the programme.
After this first flight, MSN-001 will spend at least two days undergoing ground inspections, but Airbus Military hopes to build up to an intensity of perhaps two flights a day, five days a week, with maintenance at night and any more major work being done over weekends.
The flight test programme will involve five aircraft – the MSN-001 to MSN-004 and MSN-006. MSN-001 will be used for aeroplane handling tests, load tests and flutter tests, and is scheduled to fly 1200 hours over the next three years.
MSN-002, which should fly in March, is programmed to carry out performance, certification and defensive aids tests in a 1100 flying hours programme, while MSN-003 is planned to have its maiden flight in May and accumulate 975 flying hours while doing autopilot, fuel, hydraulics and navigation tests.
MSN-004 is targetted for a first flight in January 2011 and will fly 870 hours in a programme of cargo operations and air-to-air refuelling tests, and MSN006 – maiden takeofff set for July 2011 – will rack up 225 hours testing system maturity, engine endurance and undertaking route proving.
Test flights will take place in various European countries, as well as in the Americas, North Africa and the Middle East.
The flying truck took off with nine flags on its side — the seven NATO nations, Malaysia as well as South Africa. “Maybe the South Africans will be so impressed by the flight today they … will come back’,” Enders said hopefully.