Photo credit © Airbus Defence and Space
Last year after attending the Airbus Military Trade Media briefing, I looked at what the promise the A400M provided to users and the marketplace.
Journalists who attended were given the opportunity to fly the aircraft for more than an hour. Francis Tusa, the well-known British journalist and hardly a Euro hugger, underscored what we all felt:
The lack of noise within the aircraft was noticeable compared to the C-17, C-130 or other aircraft. The seats are more comfortable as well. I did not hear the engines start up, and so was surprised when the aircraft took off. And then the incredibly rapid takeoff demonstrated its capability to lift from very, very short fields. The plane had a very stable performance in flight. And all of this is happening inside a very large cargo aircraft.
The A400M features C-130-like ability to use a wide variety of airfields with the capability to carry oversized loads of the sort that the C-17 currently carries. The aircraft will be able to deliver equipment and personnel closer to the point of attack than the C-17 with C-17 type loads.
Another look at the promise of the aircraft for operators has been provided by General Mercier, the Chief of Staff of the French Air Force.
According to Mercier, the A400M is a key logistical asset which itself would be more maintainable than current airlifters in the French fleet. And the ability of the A400M to combine strategic with tactical missions was of core significance to the French forces.
In Mali, strategic lift transported equipment and support from France to Bamako.
This was done by allies and by charter aircraft. We then offloaded the equipment and transported it by land, which significantly reduced our tempo of operations.
With the A400M, we could bring those same loads directly into the north of Mali which would have completely changed our operational life.
He also emphasized the key role the plane will play in not having to stockpile equipment and troops in key locations, but rather deliver capability much closer to the point of attack. The complete interview can be found here.
At this year’s Airbus Defence and Space Trade Media Briefing held in Spain in early June 2014, the head of the A400M Program within the company, Rafael Tentor-Aunon, emphasized that “by 2014 several of the promises of the program are now realities.”
Clearly, a key highlight for the program has been the entry into service of the aircraft in both France and Turkey, with two in service in France and one in Turkey. The French aircraft has already seen operational use. The first operational use of the aircraft was the delivery of 22 tons of equipment for the French forces engaged in Operation Serval. The flight occurred on December 29, 2013 and took 6 hours and 40 minutes to deliver to the point of use. Another flight of note was moving helicopters from France to French Guyana and back.
According to an Airbus Defence and Space press release from 27 March 2014:
After recent deployments to Djibouti and to Mali , the second French Air Force A400M “Atlas” MSN8 known as “Ville de Toulouse” made its inaugural deployment to French Guiana and the French West Indies resulting in the aircraft’s first transatlantic flight.
On 10 March 2014, a FAF AS.555AN Fennec light helicopter, with associated freight and support personnel were loaded on board A400M “Ville de Toulouse” to be airlifted to Cayenne in French Guiana via Espargos-Sal International Airport (Cape Verde).
The Airbus Helicopters AS.555AN Fennec light helicopters based in the French Guiana are used to observe and monitor the launch area prior to every Airbus Defence and Space Ariane 5 rocket launch. It is worth noting that the French Air Force has three Airbus CN235 transport aircraft, 4 Airbus Helicopters AS.555AN Fennec helicopters and five SA.330 Puma based at Cayenne AFB.
After the successful compatibility testing of the air force base infrastructure for A400M operations, a Fennec was loaded in the A400M to be shipped back to France for deep maintenance. The A400M then headed to Fort-de-France airport in Martinique (French West Indies) to successfully test the compatibility of its base infrastructure.
From there, A400M “Ville de Toulouse” performed the longest operational non stop flight of more than 10 hours between Fort-de-France in Martinique and Istres in France, covering the strategic distance of over 3800 nm (7000 km) and thus achieving the very first transatlantic flight of the aircraft type. Over such a range the A400M can transport up to 15 tons of payload (33 000 lb).
The aircraft was first delivered in September and operational by December 2013. This short turn around was facilitated by the fidelity of the training systems used by Airbus Defence and Space.
Murielle Delaporte recently visited the French squadron at Orléans-Bricy Air Base in France and interviewed several members of the French Air Force A400M team.
What she found was that the airlifter is part of reworking the entire approach to how the French Air Force will do airlifting in supporting operations.
The workflow is changing to take advantage of the rapidly reconfigurable airlifter, and the ability to shape load to mission in a rapid turn around scenario. The ability to carry troops and equipment, which can exit the aircraft from the side and back, respectively, provides an interesting operational capability as well.
According to the warfighters she interviewed, the training provided by Airbus Military on their facilities in Spain was very accurate and very high fidelity which allowed them to stand up and operate the training center in France virtually from the start.
And indeed, the training system set up by Airbus Defence and Space is an important part of the learning and upgrade curve, whereby the lessons learned at Orléans can be fed back into the overall training system and distributed to fleet users.
According to Rafael Tentor-Aunon, the plane is being produced through a global supply chain which requires focus and attention from the prime contractor and as Rafael noted the production system is only as strong as its weakest link.
It is not just what one sees in the final assembly area, which represents the flow of production; in 21st century aerospace production, including military aircraft, the flow of planes through a global supply chain is key to what leaves the factory and enters an operational fleet.
And this is integral to effective sustainment strategies as well; for the parts suppliers for building the plane and sustaining the planes are really the core providers.
The capabilities of the plane are being rolled out with the delivery of aircraft, but by 2015 it is anticipated that a “complete A400m with full up tactical capabilities” will be delivered. And the head of the program noted in his presentation that many of the key features of the promise of the aircraft are already delivered with others in flight test for delivery by 2015. The head of the program noted that 90% of the flight-testing is now done with 6343 flight hours and 2278 flights conducted.
And in a separate briefing by Eric Isorce at the Trade Media event, the status of A400M flight status through early June 2014 was provided. The 10% of flight-testing that remains really focuses on enhancements of what the aircraft can further provide for a combat force.
A key one is clearly air-to-air refueling as both tanker and receiver. An additional aspect is the testing night vision operations which are an important element of 21st century combat capability. And finally, finishing the testing of defensive aids for the modern airlifter needs to be able to the point of attack to provide support for 21st century operations.
In short, the A400M is now in service, and its in service experience will now inform the further development of the aircraft as a key enabler of operations.
It will be less about developmental flight testing, and moving to support of the aircraft and evolving its capabilities through real world experience.
Also see, Murielle Delaporte, “Assaut Vertical Depuis l’A400M Atlas” in the Science section of the French weekly, Valeurs actuelles (26 June 2014), p. 54 : Click Here to see.