During its last visit to Le Bourget, Airbus Military was a company in crisis. Its most important and ambitious programme - to deliver the A400M transport to seven European militaries - was facing the threat of possible cancellation, and it had fallen behind schedule with delivering a fleet of A330-based multi-role tanker transports (MRTT) to Australia.
Two years on, and the situation has changed almost beyond recognition. A400M development aircraft "Grizzly 3" will be making the type's proud Paris debut, with the French air force now due to take delivery of the first production example by March 2013.
With an amended contract having been signed with the customer nations via the OCCAR procurement agency in April, previous doubts over the project's long-term viability have largely been forgotten.
Although the first delivery event will occur more than three years behind the schedule agreed in May 2003, its achievement will be broadly in line with the target set by EADS after the first flight of development aircraft MSN1 in December 2009.
"We have achieved all of the milestones for almost two years," says A400M programme head Cédric Gautier. The company's current main aim is to secure civil certification for the type before the end of this year, and more than 120h have already been flown with European Aviation Safety Agency officials aboard.
The programme's first series production aircraft, MSN7, will enter final assembly at Airbus Military's San Pablo site near Seville, Spain, late this year, following the arrival of its major assemblies from suppliers around Europe. Expected to conduct its first flight in the third quarter of 2012, it will be delivered within the first three months of the following year in an initial operating capability (IOC)/entry into service standard. It should be one of at least four A400Ms delivered to the French and Turkish air forces during 2013.
"From a production point of view we are absolutely on the plan," says Gautier. "The schedule and the technical achievements are on track, and this aircraft will be certificated and delivered on time."
Four development aircraft had flown around 500 sorties and roughly 1,600h by mid-May. A further 1,000 flight hours must be recorded before the declaration of the IOC standard next year, but with production-representative aircraft MSN6 to join the fleet in use from October, the rate is ramping up dramatically. Now being completed on the San Pablo line, the aircraft incorporates minor changes identified through flight testing involving its earlier stablemates. Its assembly was completed during May, and following systems testing its engines will be installed next month.
In all, the five-strong test fleet will log a combined 3,700h for the core programme, before going on to conduct additional work to meet the requirements of individual nations. On-display Grizzly 3 had by mid-May been flown almost 150 times and logged roughly 450 flight hours since its debut sortie last July. This compares with the more than 600h logged by the programme's first development aircraft by the same point.
The TP400 engine is civil-certificated
This good progress in flight-test terms means that Airbus Military managing director Domingo Ureña has lost none of the optimism that he displayed on assuming his post in early 2009. Despite the loss of one of the programme's two export customers - South Africa scrapped an order for eight aircraft shortly before the first flight event - and a reduction to previously planned purchases by two of its launch customers, he believes the A400M could yet prove to be a massive success on the international stage. "I hope that at one point in time the A400M becomes the most popular aircraft in its segment," he says.
While the company's own market analysis suggests that it could sell a further 400 of the aircraft to additional users beyond launch customers Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey, the UK and export buyer Malaysia by 2040, Ureña says it is still in the process of creating a new sales strategy.
"I would prefer to have a certified aircraft with proven capability before we go to export," he says.
The first priority will be to find buyers for 10 aircraft now listed as cancellation options by Germany (seven) and the UK (three), but still to be produced. "As soon as we finalise the export strategy we will try to sell those 10 aircraft as soon as possible."
Despite the defeat earlier this year of an A330-based proposal to meet the US Air Force's KC-X tanker requirement, Ureña believes that one of the potential future buyers for the 37t payload capacity A400M could be found across the Atlantic.
"I believe that sooner or later we could have a chance to compete in the US market," he says, pointing to the type's placement directly between the Lockheed Martin C-130J and Boeing C-17. Similarly, he says the USAF could have a long-term requirement to acquire another tanker with greater capacity than the Boeing 767-based KC-46A that will satisfy its initially 179-aircraft KC-X requirement. However, he notes: "Airbus Military has never based its future on the US market."
Confidence over the company's ability to deliver on its amended A400M contract terms has been strengthened significantly by the progress made in flight-testing the Grizzly fleet, and by the acceptance of a stepped approach to reaching full operating capability: a milestone now due to be achieved by 2019.
To reach this point, Airbus Military will have passed through a total of six operating standards, with each introducing progressive capability enhancements.
"This philosophy allows us to de-risk the programme and deliver at the right time to meet the customers' requirements," says Gautier, who describes the new arrangement as "a good compromise with the nations". All production aircraft will later be brought up to the final contractual specification.
Agreeing the amended deal with its launch nations has not been the only success in restoring harmony, with peace also having been made with key equipment suppliers, including the Europrop International (EPI) consortium responsible for the aircraft's TP400-D6 turboprop engines, and cockpit and flight management system provider Thales. All issues over financial liabilities linked to the late-running nature of the programme have now been resolved, although Airbus Military declines to go into more detail. But referring to the resolution of a dispute with Thales, Ureña says: "We put some blood on the table from both companies."
Following on from the IOC configuration, which equates to an aircraft suitable for basic logistic transport tasks, comes SOC1. To be declared in late 2013, this will add basic aerial delivery to the A400M's performance range. Each following after roughly one-year gaps, the subsequent 1.5 and 2 standards will respectively add full aerial delivery and tanker capability and enhanced tactical mission management and new functions such as polar navigation and time-on-arrival management, says Airbus Military.
Arriving in late 2017, SOC2.5 will deliver "enhanced tanker capabilities and search-and-rescue patterns". The final, SOC3 standard will bring in advanced capabilities including low-level flight functionality.
The company plans to start proving the aircraft fully to its customers next year. "Our objective for just after SOC1 is that we'll have demonstrated all the capabilities," says Airbus chief test pilot military Ed Strongman. "All the functionality on the aircraft will be there, but the full FMS and human/machine interface will come later." Ureña says this will give the air forces "the confidence that when they take the aircraft they can operate it".
With regard to the MRTT programme, the company has also resolved contractual issues with its Australian customer, which on 1 June accepted the first of its five A330-based KC-30As. Its air force should receive three more this year, with the final example to be handed over by local conversion partner Qantas Defence Services during 2012.
Airbus Military will exhibit Saudi Arabia's first A330 tanker from a six-aircraft acquisition at the show, while contracts to also supply the type to the United Arab Emirates (three) and the UK (14) are running on time. Although it has yet to fund an acquisition, the company says France wants its own fleet of the type to enter service from January 2017. Paris would need to sign a production contract by around mid-2013 to enable it to meet this schedule, says vice-president derivative programmes Antonio Caramazana.
But making a financial success of the A400M and MRTT developments will take time. "We are not going to finish completely rich on these two projects," says Ureña. However, in a sign of perhaps better times ahead, Airbus Military in the first quarter of 2011 recorded revenues of €165 million ($241 million) based on A400M milestone payments.
Securing international sales will be key to bringing the A400M to the right side of the balance sheet. "We bet on the exports," he says. "We believe we have a good product."
Evidence of the transport's potential can be found in the test campaign conducted so far by a test team operating out of San Pablo and Toulouse in France.
Initial tanker tests were flown from Toulouse earlier this year along with a Royal Air Force Vickers VC10 tanker, with the A400M having made 15 dry contacts to assess its handling performance behind four Rolls-Royce Conway engines. Strongman says the work underlined his earlier impression that the type is "a really easy, pleasant aircraft to fly in formation".
The work was performed at an altitude of 15,000ft (4,500m) and at 270kt (500km/h): the area in which the new aircraft will be used by some nations to deliver fuel to fast jet receivers. An A400M will fly for the first time with under-wing hose and drogue refuelling pods installed during 2012.
The aircraft, its powerplants and systems were also subjected to extended "cold soak" tests during a deployment to Kiruna in Sweden early this year. These included a 24h period exposed to temperatures as low as -38°C (-36.4°F). Separate flights with artificial ice shapes fitted to the aircraft exposed some buffeting, but revealed that less of the wing required de-icing equipment installed than had been projected. This work will be expanded soon, under natural icing conditions using MSN1. Later on, more environmental tests will be performed at lower temperatures, probably during a deployment to Canada.
The TP400 engine's power has been demonstrated recently in minimum control speed tests, while test aircraft have operated in crosswinds of up to 22kt. EPI secured delayed civil type certification for the up to 11,000shp (8,200kW)-output design from the EASA in early May, and expects to receive military clearance from the agency next year.
Work was also conducted in April on minimum control speed on the ground tests, in which a fuel restriction was introduced to one engine to simulate a failure during the take-off run. If one of the aircraft's outboard engines loses power at this point an automatic take-off compensation system will reduce its opposite number's output by 25%.
Test pilots will soon perform a so-called "ultimate flight", during which the aircraft will be tricked into thinking that it has lost all onboard power by switching off one of its engines after isolating power generators to the other three, which will be run as normal throughout. June should also see water ingestion trials conducted at the French military's Istres test centre, plus maximum brake energy rejected take-offs.
© Airbus Military
Cold comfort: test activities performed this year have included exposing the aircraft to temperatures as low as -38°
While the programme's main emphasis is on supporting civil certification activities involving the EASA, Strongman says the test team is already supporting development work on paratroop delivery, the use of night vision goggles and an enhanced vision system, plus its military radar.
By mid-May, 55 pilots had flown the A400M, with 12 of them drawn from a core team from Airbus and Airbus Military.
Recent additions have included operational air force personnel from partner nations France, Germany, Turkey and the UK, with others from Spain and Malaysia to follow soon. "All of them are coming back with a smile on their face," says Strongman.
Airbus Military is in the process of discussing in-service support and training arrangements with its customers. The first A400M simulator will be installed in the company's training facility at San Pablo next year, while the first device scheduled to be delivered to an operator's base will be in place during 2013.
In terms of performance, Gautier says Airbus Military is comfortable with the A400M's lift potential. "Right now we have a configuration which meets the requirements. Regarding the weight of the aircraft, we meet the expectations. We have no worry of an issue." And when it comes to the aircraft's flying qualities, Strongman says that overall, "the model is very much as we expected".
If the programme continues to track the revised schedule laid down following MSN1's flight debut, the 50th Paris air show in 2013 should again see the A400M on display, but by then with its first customer delivery having at last been made and perhaps fresh export deals a step closer to becoming a reality.
Keep up to date with the latest developments in the Grizzly's test campaign
NEW ROLES FOR LIGHT AND MEDIUM FAMILY
Whil it has been concentrating largely on the A400M airlifter and A330 multi-role tanker transport projects for the past few years, Airbus Military has also been pursuing new opportunities for its established range of light and medium aircraft.
With the CN-235 and C-295 facing competition from Alenia Aeronautica's C-27J Spartan in the tactical transport sector, the European company has also adapted its designs for niche applications. It has recently built anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol variants of the latter for Chile and Portugal, respectively, and plans further derivatives.
One of the company's two C-295 prototypes in mid-May had a roughly 6m (19.7ft)-diameter rotodome installed above its rear fuselage to support an assessment of the type for airborne early warning tasks. The aircraft will undergo a roughly three-month flight test campaign from June.
Airbus Military currently aims to deliver a combined 20-25 CN-235s, C-295s and smaller C-212s each year from its San Pablo assembly site near Seville, Spain.
Chief executive Domingo Ureña says the company is not standing still when it comes to looking at eventual replacements. "A company like us always has studies," he says. "We look at how the market could move, and at what our competitors are doing."
However, he notes: "I do not see any replacement of the CN-235 and C-295 in the next 10 years. We do not see a need from the market."