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  • Dealing With The Bad News
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 11:01 PM on May 07, 2009

    "You can see it and you can touch it, but unfortunately you can't fly it." Domingo Urena, the Mr Fixit brought in by EADS Airbus to cure the late and over-budget A400M program, headlined a media day on Monday in Seville to explain a lot of what had gone wrong with the program, to outline what the company's doing to put things right and - possibly - defuse any pressure for dramatic announcements at the Paris air show.

    blog post photo

    What went wrong? Urena, Airbus Military chairman and managing director, pointed out that the schedule set at contract signature in May 2003 was unrealistic, but given what's happened that was pretty obvious.

    However, he went on to identify a number of factors: Airbus wasn't used to military customers; the whole company, like the whole industry, was short of experienced engineers, and the program competed with the A380 for resources; and the seven-nation project drew in new partners who had not previously worked with Airbus.

    Finally, the organization within Airbus was not well designed, splitting responsibility and resources between the core Airbus engineering team, on the main campus in Toulouse, and Airbus Military, in an industrial development a few kilometers away. 

    And over-confidence was not too surprising in Airbus in 2003:  the A380 was moving to supplant the 747, the A320/A330/340 families had pretty much killed the 767 and 757, and Boeing's best response was the imbecilic Sonic Cruiser. 

    The immediate fix has been to build a new Airbus Military division, based in Spain and with its own engineering resources. Like the rest of Airbus, it calls on the company's centers of excellence, such as the UK-based wing division, the fuselage operation in Hamburg and so on. 

    Although the A400M program has generally been running late, the pacing item since last year has been the engine - and the principal problem was a failure by Europrop International (EPI), the consortium behind the TP400-D6 engine, to recognize, until little more than a year ago, that the software in the full authority digital engine control (Fadec) did not meet European civil aviation standards. 

    EPI was basically working to military standards, in which Fadec software is considered to be validated by testing. Civil authorities additionally require a tightly disciplined software development process, in which every change, from the first line of the first version, is documented and traceable. Once the problem surfaced, there was nothing to be done but to go back and start again.

    That's what has now happened. MSN 1, the first A400M, is sitting in the hangar without engines. The first flight-test engines are in an adjacent workshop, being instrumented in preparation for re-installation and ground runs on the airplane, due in May. Hardware clearance for first flight is expected in the summer, and full engine certification is due by the end of 2009. Sometime between now and then, the engine is expected to be cleared for flight with compliant software. 

    That's as long as nothing else goes wrong. So far, program officials say, flight tests on a C-130K have not thrown up any major problems.

    How anyone could have made such an error, nobody is quite sure. All the participants in the EPI group have civil-engine experience - although it's based in the military-engine teams within each company - but it seems that they either never sought advice from their colleagues about commercial certification, or failed to listen to it. 

    Airbus Military is now working out the details of a recovery program to be presented to the sponsoring governments. Urena expects talks to start in June, working towards a definitive proposal around the end of the year, with concrete and credible delivery dates, better communications and a new contract value. 

    At the same time, Airbus Military is driving home the fact that the A400M is unique - twice the size of the C-130J and half the size of a C-17 - and that even if it would run several years late (first flight was originally due in early 2008) it would still be the fastest major military aircraft program in decades. "I cannot imagine that we face cancellation," Urena said, "based on the product and the capabilities that we provide".

    Another message is that EADS and its suppliers are investing their own cash in the program because they believe that it will ultimately be successful: "The aircraft, possibly the one aircraft, for humanitarian and tactical missions," Urena says. 

    The two-year delay so far may not be the end of the story; there were indications on Monday that some difficult technologies could be deferred until after service entry, to get the aircraft operational as soon as possible.

    But it's also worth noting that a two-year slip is not exactly unusual in military programs. In the case of the A400M, there are two factors which have turned the delays into a crisis.

    First: The UK, to begin with, had left the replacement of its C-130Ks until the last minute, and when it signed the contract nobody realized how combat in Afghanistan and Iraq was going to grind down the fleet. The late arrival of the A400M is another turn of the screw. The second problem is the fixed-price contract, which meant that delays and consequent overruns made the contract into a huge cash drain for EADS. On a conventional military program, that's never a problem.

    Tags: ar99, a400m

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