Taking to the skies

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Seville

The undoubted highlight of a media tour to Airbus Military in Seville in late May was the opportunity to fly in an A400M, with the author being part of a small group of journalists selected for the first mission of the day. Demonstrating complete confidence in his aircraft – which is Europe’s future strategic airlifter – the company’s CEO Domingo Urena-Raso was also on board.

The aircraft used for our flight is the fourth in the series – designated MSN 4 – and having already flown close to 600 hours has played an integral role in the extensive flight test program, which is really developing momentum. First impressions are the roominess of the cargo bay, which is designed to carry 32 tonnes of payload and able to manage up to 37 tonnes, combined with a low level of internal noise, even with all four engines at full power for takeoff. The removable military seating was surprisingly comfortable and supportive – a kind of suspended deep plastic chair – designed by actual customers in the form of paratroopers and built by a German subcontractor specializing in shock resistant solutions.

The takeoff was remarkably quick and smooth, even for our lightly loaded aircraft, and it started to rotate after what only seemed like three or four seconds and climbed very rapidly. A number of us had the same impression that with a very low level of internal noise, almost no vibration and a lot of engine power, the experience was more like being in a jet aircraft rather than a turboprop. The external view is limited to a small number of windows, though they provide a reasonable amount of light and a glimpse of the external world.

After climbing to our demonstration height of 6,000ft, were we able to undo our four-point safety harnesses and walk around the cargo bay without the need for earplugs – a level of comfort in military transports unique to the A400M. It was even possible to carry on reasonable conversations without the need to shout at the top of one’s lungs. We also had the opportunity to visit the flight deck and enjoy the spectacular panoramic view, as well as noting the large fully glass cockpit with big multifunction colour displays very much in evidence.

The flight test program is going well and at the time of writing a total of seven aircraft have clocked up more than 5,000 hours aloft, accumulated during 1,700 separate sorties. Missions have taken place in a considerable number of locations, including Kiruna, Sweden (cold weather testing); Cottbus, Germany (grass runway testing); Cayenne, Guyane (hot & humid); La Paz, Bolovia (hot & high); Keflavic, Iceland (crosswind); Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (hot & humid); and Iqaluit, Canada (really cold weather – down to -38 C). The aircraft have met or exceeded all expectations and have proven themselves to be extremely reliable.

The A400M has impressive performance parameters and a number of range / payload combinations are possible. It can transport 20 tonnes of cargo for more than 6,400kms at Mach 0.72 and reach an altitude of 40,000ft. Or it can land a payload of 25 tonnes onto a 750 metre grass or unpaved airstrip – something that jet powered aircraft such as the C-17 cannot manage. In addition, it comes with a defensive-aides suite and night vision systems

Now that production aircraft are beginning to reach customers and enter into service, Airbus Military are starting to look for new A400M customers beyond the original group of eight, comprising Belgium (7 ordered), France (50), Germany (53), Luxemburg (1), Spain (27), Turkey (10), the UK (22) and Malaysia (4). The company is predicting sales of around 400 additional aircraft during the next 30 years. This projection is based on the flexible performance and multi-role capabilities of the platform – including as an aerial tanker – and the fact that there appears to be no other logical replacement for a large number of C-130s in service with a variety of users.

To date, it seems in Australia that the RAAF has shown little interest in the A400M, sticking to the slightly complacent view that the C-130J fleet can remain in service until 2030. This seems to overlook the fact that these aircraft have experienced a lot of wear and tear during the last decade supporting forces in the Middle East Area of Operations. Because of a virtually identical situation, the Royal Air Force has brought forward the retirement date of their C-130Js from 2030 to 2021, but this new thinking does not seem to have spread to the RAAF.

The situation in New Zealand looks to be a little different and the RNZAF seems to be genuinely open-minded about future transport needs. Given the A400M’s combination of strategic and tactical capabilities, it should appeal to users looking for an adaptable highly capable multi-role platform. Another potential major nearby customer is Indonesia – a country with whom Airbus Military has close links through decades of co-operation.

(APDR would like to thank Maggie Bergsma and all her team, as well as CEO Domingo Urena-Raso, who is always generous with his time)


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