It is not quite off the ground, but the A400M is very close to 'first flight' status. Originally scheduled for July 2008, it is highly likely that we won't see the 'bird in the air' until 2009.
A sneak preview of the first complete A400M military transport aircraft was had when it was rolled out for viewing on 26 June 2008 at the EADS military transport aircraft division (MTAD) facility in Seville, Spain, sparking interest from many quarters.
Although the first moves towards what was to become the A400M began back in the 1980s it wasn't until 2003 that the partner nations for the project, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK signed an agreement to build 212 A400M military transport aircraft.
As is often the case though, one makes a plan and then plans to change it. Italy dropped out of the project and later Malaysia and South Africa joined. The build was then revised for 180 aircraft and now the order stands at 192. All the orders to date are from the launch nation consortium, with Germany, France, Spain and the UK accounting for over 80% of them.
The €20bn A400M contract, given to a consortium led by EADS, got under way in 2003. So, in reality although the initial wish for what was to become the A400M was expressed in the 1980s, the actual aircraft has been developed and rolled out in around five years. "From a manufacturer's point of view, intensive design and development work didn't start until after 2003," says Peter Scoffham, head of customer marketing, EADS military aircraft transport division. So what we have achieved in the last five years, actually, has been magnificent."
It is not unusual for delays to crop up for any new aircraft, and the A400M is no exception. The first flight was pencilled in for July 2008 but in reality that could now slip to 2009 due to a test-bed programme for the airlifter's engines.
"We have contracted Marshalls of Cambridge to fly the A400M engine on the wing of a C130 Hercules. And while that programme is going on we cannot get first flight clearance for the A400M itself," says Scoffham.
There are also weather conditions to consider. "Of course we're now beginning to get into potentially bad weather in England so the whole thing could be delayed because of that," he adds.
Orders for the A400M haven't exactly been flooding in, and EADS have been having difficulties with the euro-dollar exchange rate for some time. In the current global economic turmoil, a tightening of economic belts is almost inevitable. Nonetheless, Airbus has gone on record as expecting sales of the A400M to be in the high 380s and Scoffham indicated that the economics of the A400M is attracting interest.
"As the capability of this aircraft is becoming clearer and clearer to the launch nations, at least three of them have been making enquires about follow-on orders. That doesn't mean that they're going to rush to further contracts. But they're getting more and more interested as they see the airplane," he says. While the identity of the nations isn't known, it wouldn't be unreasonable to guess that one or more the top four launch nations (in terms of orders) are looking at increasing their request.
The A400M is fundamentally different from other airlifters in that each aircraft can be a transport or a tanker with, as defined in EADS's contract, up to a two-hour conversion time to switch roles. "One of our lessons learned in the first Iraq conflict, was that in theatre we either had too many airlifters and not enough aerial refuelling tankers, or too many aerial refuelling tankers and not enough airlifters at any one given time. The A400M can not only do logistics, long range, large load, it can also do tactical operations. In addition, every single A400M could undertake aerial refuelling missions as well," says Scoffham.
Furthermore, the A400M can also land on soft airfields, also known as austere, and so get military supplies and especially, in our natural disaster ridden times, humanitarian aid, closer to the point where they're needed. "One thing that I have been getting more and more from the launch nations and potential new partners is the fact that they are getting more and more aware of the humanitarian disaster relief capabilities of this aircraft," Scoffham adds.
Until the A400M has physically proven itself in operations there will be those who doubt its ability to do what EADS say it can despite military personnel having been heavily involved in the aircraft's design process.
Furthermore, Scoffham says that the A400M is going to achieve 97% reliability. "We can now show that this aircraft will need only 80 days on the ground for scheduled maintenance in 12 years. That's absolutely unheard of for most military operators."
He is also confident that the aircraft's engine difficulties will be resolved satisfactorily. "We really do believe that we can go away and for two weeks nothing will ever go wrong," he adds.
To calculate the availability of an aircraft and the amount of time a commander can actually use the plane, its reliability as well as scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, must be taken into account. Scoffham says that EADS is very pleased with the 92% availability that they are calculating for the A400M throughout its life.
For governments, the benefits of having the craft will be measured in terms of its usefulness but a commercial entity such as EADS has profit in mind. Scoffham estimates that there are around 2,500 aging military transport aircraft around the world, which must be replaced eventually to maintain capability. The A400M's ability for nations to own smaller fleets but have the same or better overall capability for its users is its unique selling point. And, in Scoffham's opinion this aircraft has a potential market of up to another 500 aeroplanes.