SA a step closer to receiving Airbus A400M Loadmaster

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South Africa is a step closer to receiving its eight Airbus A400M Loadmaster medium transports on order for R7.4 billion under Air Force Project Continent after the aircraft’s massive Europrop International (EPI) TP400-D6 powerplant made its first flight on a testbed aircraft on 17 December.

Delays in the engine`s development and testing have put back the delivery of the aircraft to the SA Air Force by at least a year, a matter Chief of the Air Force Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano has raised with the company.

The company says the Marshall Aerospace-owned Lockheed Martin C130K test bed took off at 10.44 am local time from Cambridge airfield in the United Kingdom and touched down at 11.59am. The flight lasted one hour and 15 minutes.

A400M programme head Rafael Tentor says the “successful completion of this first flight of the TP400 engine is a significant step” in getting the Loadmaster airborne. “This and the subsequent flights will comfort us in the performance of the new engine itself, as well as its reliability, in a real flying environment. This objective also applies to the global propulsion system,” he added.

Tentor adds that the TP400-D6 has been installed on the inner left engine mount of the C-130K which is otherwise powered by three of the usually four Allison T56 turboprops.

During the flight, various flight characteristics such as aircraft basic handling and TP400 response at a thrust equivalent to the maximum power generated by each of the other T56 engines were “tested to satisfaction” in several aircraft configurations up to a speed of 165 knots and an altitude of 8000 feet.

An EPI press release says the flight was “a first step in the aircraft envelope opening. It will allow progress towards the completion of the approximately 50 flight test hours planned to reach sufficient maturity for the engine itself.

“Once this is achieved and sufficient maturity and satisfactory integration is also reached for the global propulsion system, it will be able to subsequently fly on the A400M”.

EPI, a joint venture involving Britain`s Rolls Royce, SNECMA of France, Germany`s MTU and Spain`s ITP aero-engine concern, started testing the TP400 in October 2005.

“More than 2100 hours of ground testing have been performed with three engines on the ground test bench.”

The company says Airbus Military contracted Marshall Aerospace to complete the trials. A C-130K was then “specifically modified to accept the new engine which develops about twice the power of the C-130K’s standard T56 engine”.

The TP400-D6 engine is a three shaft “free turbine turboprop” that drives an eight bladed five-meter-diameter Ratier-Figeac propeller.

Developing 11 000 shaft horsepower at takeoff, “it is the most powerful turboprop ever built in the western world.”

“It allows for the wide range of speeds and flight levels required, while reducing fuel burn and weight,” the EPI release adds.

“Powered by four of these, the A400M can cruise at altitudes as high as 37 000 feet at speeds between Mach 0.68 and 0.72 while retaining the capability of flying at speeds as low as 110 knots at 5000 feet. “The arrangement of the propellers, which turn in opposite directions inboard and outboard on each wing, allows a structural weight reduction, and improves, among other things, the lift at low speed.”

More than 800 engines will be required for the 192 Loadmaster aircraft ordered to date by nine countries – including SA.

Reuters and Flight Global report the Loadmaster itself is not expected to fly before the second half of the year. Reuters adds industry analysts are saying the programme is now running 18 to 24 months late. “The delays have caused €1.7 billion in EADS provisions so far and have also drawn away engineering resources from Airbus as it embarks on its next plane project, the A350 jetliner”.

Flight Global said flight tests would continue in the second half of January following post-flight checks including a boroscope inspection.

Restructuring

Reuters also reports Airbus owner EADS has announced plans to merge Airbus Military into the larger Airbus business.

The world’s second-largest aerospace group after Boeing also said it would also bring its satellite and defence divisions, which respectively handle top strategic projects for France and Germany, closer together, but without merging them.

The building of the A400M has previously been managed by EADS’s Spanish-based military transport division, and the head of Toulouse-based Airbus, Tom Enders, has not, until now, had direct control of the delayed project. 

EADS said the organisational changes will see its Military Transport Aircraft Division (MTAD) be integrated into Airbus, to become its military wing under the name of Airbus Military.

It will operate the A400M final assembly line in Spain and be in charge of all Airbus military derivatives, including efforts to win a potential deal worth $35 billion to sell air refuelling tankers to the United States.

The contract was awarded to EADS and US partner Northrop Grumman earlier this year, but was subsequently cancelled following an appeal by rival Boeing.

Current MTAD chief Carlos Suarez will head Airbus Military and report to Enders, but will remain a member of the EADS executive committee, the company said in a statement.

Frustration

Aviation Week in November reported Enders as apparently frustrated over the continuing development problems with the loadmaster airlifter. Speaking at a dinner hosted by the French Association of Professional Air and Space Journalists he said: “Right now we are asking when can we fly the damn thing! If it had reliable engines we could have flown it in September.”

In response to persistent questioning about whether or not the A400M had an engine, he said that once the engine was qualified then the A400M would be considered as having one. “We are no longer daredevils as they were in the early days of aviation and we need some proof that this engine can fly,” Enders said, noting that software for the full authority digital engine control (FADEC) unit of the TP400-D6 was the problem.

The A400M, he maintained, is a complex airplane – “more complex than the Eurofighter or the Rafale” – and he refused to put any date at all on a possible first flight.



The Airbus CEO said he was “rather confident” that the European aircraft manufacturer can win the U.S. military’s KC-X aerial tanker competition, again. “We won the tanker competition once, we’re looking to win it a second time,” he told reporters at the Paris dinner.