July 30, 2012
Credit: Credit: Airbus Military
Guy Norris Los Angeles and Leithen Francis Singapore
The A400M airlifter has been through more than its fair share of development and cost issues on the road to service entry, but with its operational debut on the horizon, Airbus Military is gearing up for a hectic final phase of military-specific testing.
At the same time, the aircraft maker is reassuring initial customers that first deliveries remain on track for 2013 despite additional issues with the A400M's turboprop engines, the latest of which prompted a precautionary withdrawal from the flying display at the recent Farnborough air show.
Three of the airlifters, now officially named the Atlas, will be delivered to France next year and one to Turkey, according to head of market development, Didier Vernet. In 2014 the company aims to deliver 10 aircraft, including first deliveries to the U.K. and Germany. Overall since first flight in December 2009, the A400M's civil certification program had achieved around 1,150 flights and 3,500 flying test hours. The company's near-term goal is to reach 3,700 flying hours to achieve civil certification, but once that milestone is achieved, it will log an additional 700 flight-test hours, Vernet says. Civil certification will come by year-end, he adds.
Major flight-test milestones remaining include air-to-air refueling. The aircraft is primarily a troop and cargo transporter, but pods can be attached under the wings to turn the A400M into an aerial refueler. “We've been doing work with the receiver but [have] not done it with fuel yet,” Vernet says. He says tests must be carried out to see that the A400M can refuel helicopters and fighters. Malaysia's air force, which has ordered four A400Ms, has committed to buying the pods and kits so it can use its A400Ms as aerial tankers.
Four sessions of air-to-air refueling testing, in which contact was made but no fuel passed, have been conducted with VC10, C-160 and A330 tankers, says A400M chief test pilot Ed Strongman. “This year is all about military testing, whereas last year was getting civil certification. Now we're getting into the real meat of military flight testing,” says Strongman. Handling behind the VC10 was “the hardest” because of that aircraft's high set T-tail and the resulting wake, he adds. The work with the VC10 included low-speed handling and contacts with various flap settings. Tests with the C-160 were conducted in June.
“The next stage is where we bring in the customers to get their input and for certification,” says Strongman. These groups cover various disciplines of the test and certification process and, in the case of the 'flight' panel for instance, include air force representatives from Belgium, France, Germany, U.K. and Spain. “We next need to fuel with an MRTT [A330 multi-role tanker transport] and slot that into our test program” he adds. The “wet” contact work will be flown by MSN4, which has a suitably configured fuel system installed. Earlier generic testing was undertaken by MSN1 and 2.
Recent ground tests included loading trials in Germany with an NHIndustries NH90 helicopter, and in France with a French air force Eurocopter EC725 Super Puma. The latter trials, which were conducted in Toulouse, saw the Puma loaded and secured in 6 min. The more complex loading procedure for the NH90, which took 14 min., also involved the first time the internal cargo bay winch on the A400M had been used “in anger” for real military payloads, says Airbus Military test load master Pete Jones.