Military airlifter takes off

Airbus Military’s A400M airlifter made its maiden flight today from Seville Airport, Spain, following an extensive programme of ground tests including recent taxiing runs.

According to Airbus, the aircraft’s take-off weight was 127 tonnes, including 15 tonnes of flight-test equipment including two tonnes of water ballast. Its performance was monitored in real time by teams of engineers in Seville and Toulouse using air-ground telemetry.

The A400M’s four Europrop International (EPI) TP400D turboprop power plants are capable of producing 11,000shp (8,200kW) each and are said to be the most powerful propeller engines ever fitted to a Western aircraft.

Over the last four weeks the aircraft has been extensively tested on the ground in a programme leading up to the first flight.

The engines have been run at full power, whilst the electrical systems and on-board data network have also been tested. Taxiing runs at progressively higher speeds have been performed culminating in a rejected take-off test at a speed of 123kt (227km/hr) on 8 December.

Today’s first flight, captained by Edward Strongman, chief test pilot military, marks the beginning of a test campaign that will see some 3,700 hours of flying by an eventual five aircraft conducted between now and entry-into-service at the end of 2012.

The A400M features the same fly-by-wire controls technology as Airbus’ airliner family and an advanced cockpit that has evolved from that of the A380. Carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) wings and other large structures bring weight and strength advantages.

A total of 184 aircraft have so far been ordered by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Spain, Turkey and the UK.

UK involvement with the A400M programme

UK Composites

A400M features the first-ever composite (CFRP) wingbox for an Airbus-built aircraft and is the largest composite wing ever made (to date).

UK manufacturing and employment

The Airbus Wing & Pylon Centre of Excellence at Filton (near Bristol) is responsible for the overall design, management and assembly of the A400M wing.

The fuel team at Filton is responsible for the overall definition of the complete fuel system including air-to-air refuelling and fuel tank inert gas protection, technical recommendation for supplier selection, supplier management, and fuel system test and integration.

More than 700 workers at Airbus in Bristol, from design engineers to fitters, have been involved in the development and manufacturing of A400M wings to this point.

At full production, the engineering, design and manufacture of the wings for the A400M will grow to offer employment to around 950 people at Airbus in the UK (450 in design engineering and around 500 in manufacturing). Many of these jobs will involve training to acquire the new skills needed to design and assemble wings built both in metal and composites.

As well as operating in a transport role the A400M could be converted for an air-air refuelling role in two hours. Key to this capability is the technology installed in the wings manufactured in the UK.

Rolls Royce (based in Bristol) is part of the conglomerate that make the TP400-D6 engines that power the A400M.

UK timeline

25 July 2006: Start of first A400M wing assembly

21 September 2006: Opening €100m (£90m), 8,000m2 A400m wing assembly centre by then defence procurement minister Lord Drayson (the Wing Assembly Facility is equipped with new, jigs and tools, including automated drilling and laser tracking).

11 April 2007: Delivery of first wingset to the aircraft final assembly in Seville, Spain.

Wing assembly process

Wing construction consists of pre-assembled leading and trailing edges made of composite spars, metallic ribs and 20m-long composite wing skins that incorporate integrated stringers (longitudinal stiffeners).

After assembly, wings are fully equipped with hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel and electrical systems and fitted with flying control surfaces.

They are then fully tested before delivery from Filton to the A400M aircraft final assembly line in Seville, Spain, using the Airbus A300-600ST ‘Beluga’ aircraft.