June 10, 2013
Credit: Airbus/S. Ramadier
Three decades in the making, the multinational Airbus Military A400M Atlas is the first new military airlifter to be developed in Europe since the Transall C-160 twin-turboprop in the early 1960s. The completion of basic development and impending first delivery means Europe has its own heavy-lift transport and customers have an alternative to U.S. and Russian aircraft.
With more than $30 billion invested in development and production, the partner nations have high expectations for the aircraft. Aviation Week was given the opportunity to fly the A400M and assess whether it delivers on the promises made by Airbus Military or is the overpriced political compromise some of its critics allege.
The A400M is sized between the smaller Lockheed Martin C-130J and considerably larger Boeing C-17. It is the most advanced and powerful turboprop ever built in the West, with full, three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) flight controls and the ability to operate from short, soft runways.
The international military airlifter has been a long time coming. The concept was first proposed in 1982, and European requirements were established in 1996. In 1999, Airbus Military was formed to manage the A400M program, signing a fixed-price contract for development and production. First delivery was planned for 2009, but development delays forced renegotiation of the contract and the first A400M will now be delivered to the French air force by July.
The A400M received European type certification in March and will enter service with an initial operational capability for logistic missions. Airbus Military is continuing development of military-specific capabilities. The first of these “standard operational capability” releases is planned for year-end, and by the close of 2014 the Atlas is planned to have full aerial-delivery and self-defense as well as aerial-refueling tanker capability.
Airbus Military says A400M can carry a 33-ton payload 2,450 nm and its maximum 40-ton payload 1,780 nm. Normal cruise speed is Mach 0.68, equivalent to 390-kt. true airspeed (KTAS) in ISA conditions at 37,000 ft., the maximum normal cruising altitude for military operations. At average mission weights, the aircraft also will cruise at its maximum operating Mach 0.72 at 31,000 ft., equivalent to 422 KTAS. A typical payload might be 116 paratroops or 66 medevac patients. The A400M also can carry up to nine 463L cargo pallets, two Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopters or three armored personnel carriers.
An optional inflight-refueling package allows the Atlas to refuel helicopters at 105 kt. indicated airspace (KIAS) and fighters at up to 300 kt. Two wing stations can be fitted with 2,650-lb./min. hose-and-drogue pods. A pallet-mounted 4,000-lb./min. hose-drum unit also can be attached to the rear cargo ramp to refuel a third aircraft. With two optional cargo-bay tanks increasing capacity by more than 25,000 lb., total fuel transfer capability is 99,000 lb. at 250 nm. and almost 51,000 lb at 1,250 nm.