Starting life as the Future International Military Airlifter (FIMA), the Airbus Military A400M took to the air for the first time on 11 December 2009. Now, nearly 5 years on, the Royal Air Force has taken delivery of the first of their 22 planned airframes. Jamie Ewan was at RAF Brize Norton for the arrival of ZM400.


Arriving over head at its new home of RAF Brize Norton, flying as ASCOT4523’ direct from Seville, ZM400 appeared out of the low lying cloud heading for Runway 08. Showing off the sheer power of the machine the crew broke into the circuit with a momentary flash of ‘fluff’ over the wing. Flying the circuit the aircraft touched down at 1403L streaming ribbons of vapour from the flaps as it did – a new era of Royal Air Force Transport operations has started!

Where it all began

In 1982, Aerospatiale (France), BAe (United Kingdom), Lockheed (USA) and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (Germany) joined collaboratively together to start studies into the FIMA to look at meeting the needs of a European Staff Requirement. With studies underway to look into a replacement for both the C-130 Hercules and the C160 Transall, both of 1950s origin and were (and in some cases to this day!) the mainstay of many Air Arms Transport fleets at the time. Sadly slow progress plagued the programme from the onset due to various political and requirement complications and seven years after the proposed look into the FIMA, Lockheed walked away with the intention of developing their hugely successful C-130 Hercules – the resulting product being the C-130J Super Hercules which has surpassed over 1 Million Flight hours since its introduction in 1996. With the arrival of two further aviation industry giants, Spanish giant CASA and Italian giant Alenia, the consortium soon changed from the FIMA Group to EUROFLAG – EUROpean Future Large Aircraft Group. Upon its creation, EUROFLAG gave  a projected entry for the type into service of the year 2000.

Beginning in the early nineties a number of feasibility studies took place with the task of looking at and testing proposed engine types for the yet undesignated design. After looking into both a turbofan and turboprop arrangement, the study found the turboprop arrangement to be the more suited for the task in hand.

Enter the A400M

Just after the engine feasibility studies in the latter half of 1994, another change came with Airbus Industrie taking over from the EUROFLAG group as the lead company in the programme and the still unnamed concept was given the designation ‘A400M’.

During the early days of the programme, original requirements called for 297 of the aircraft. Broken down, this gave 75 for Germany, 50 for France, 45 for the United Kingdom, 44 for Italy, 36 for Spain, 26 for Turkey, 12 for Belgium, and 9 for Portugal. For the production run to be given a go ahead a 155 minimum programme viability threshold had been set. During the 2000 edition of the Farnborough International Airshow, a Joint Declaration of intent was signed by the interested countries for an initial (intended) 225 airframes – down from the original requirements but more than enough to meet the minimum viability threshold. Less than a year later and following discussions between the participating nations the A400M program contract was signed on December 18 2001 by the Conjointe de Coopération en Matière d’Armement (OCCAR) on behalf of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. However, unlike the planned 225 airframes the number had dropped by 29 to just 196 due to budget constraints across the board.

With the introduction of Turkey, Belgium and Luxembourg to the EUROFLAG Group an initial procurement order was signed for some 212 A400Ms in May 2003. The new projected first flight and first delivery dates were updated to 2008 and 2009 respectively. However, the order number was again reduced to 180 when two of the nations involved (Italy and South Africa – the latter having joined in April 2005 with an order of 8 aircraft), left the project, both citing increasing development costs as the reason. In 2005 it was announced that the aircraft would also aim for civil certification, on top of its military one, adding to the already complex planned test flight phase.

Originally destined to be powered by the SNECMA M138 Turboprop, Airbus later issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) in April for a possible new powerplant for the type. Originally passed as the candidate engine, the M138 was jointly developed as well as manufactured by Snecma of France, MTU München of Germany, FiatAvio of Italy and ITP of Spain and has an identical engine core to the M88 produced by Snecma for Dassault’s Rafale fighter. Both Pratt and Whitney of Canada and Europrop International answered the RFP with the PW180 and the Europrop TP-400-D6 respectively. Airbus went on to choose the TP-400-D6 over the PW180 due to issues of apparent political interference.

With the first metal cut in January 2005, first assembly started on aircraft MSN001 at EADS Seville plant in Spain in early 2007 with an initial goal of some 30 aircraft rolling off the production line a year and the major assemblies being transported Airbuses fleet of Airbus A300-600ST better known as Belugas. Scheduled to take to the air for the first time in the first quarter of 2008 the date soon slipped due to various issues, including delays in the programme itself leading to schedule adjustments, financial complications and issues with the chosen powerplant – the TP400-D6 – the first four flight test engines having been delivered in late February 2008 with structural testing with Europrops powerplant started.

Filling the Capability Gap

Delays with the programme led to the United Kingdom looking at a lease for 4 (3+1 reserve aircraft) Boeing C-17 III Globemasters to fill the capability gap that had appeared. Signing a 7 year ‘lease and support’ agreement with Boeing and the United States for the 4 aircraft for a period between 2001 and 2007 (with a possible extension to 2009 if needed) the C-17A made its RAF operational debut in Afghanistan. With the UK’s transport fleet in high demand and stretched with ongoing operations and commitments, the rapid aging of the C-130K Hercules fleet and more delays to the A400M, the UK MoD bought the 4 C17s outright from Boeing in 2006. Further more the fleet was extended by another example of the type in use with 99 Squadron based at RAF Brize Norton.

Now some 8 years on, the C-17A fleet is made up of 8 of the tactical airlifters – which surpassed 50,000 flight hours in December 2009 (incidentally the same month the A400M finally took to the air!). With the last of the aircraft delivered in 2012, the fleet has now racked up some 74,000 flight hours – a rate 15 percent above the planned use!  During the delays for the A400M the UK also looked at further C-130Js to compliment its fleet and solve the issues. France in a similar situation to the UK opted to buy a further eight CN-235 tactical transports to try and partially compensate for the delayed Airbus Military A400Ms with a €225 million follow-on deal boosted the air force’s type fleet to 27 aircraft.

Yet More Issues

The prototype A400M was rolled out from the Seville plant on 26 June 2008, whilst the programme was again under fire due to further delays – with the first delivery being postponed until at least 2012. EADS also indicated that it wanted to renegotiate “certain technical characteristics” of the aircraft. It is of note that EADS had stipulated that the type’s first deliveries would be made 3 years after the first flight. Other problems encountered included issues with the aircrafts weight, which cropped up when it was announced that the aircraft was overweight by a huge figure of 12 tonnes. With that issue it was pointed out that the A400M may not be able to achieve a 32 tonne airlift, which was deemed a critical performance requirement.

Budgetary issues caused further headaches with the programme, not only for the prospective customers but for the manufacturer as well. Airbus announced in 2009 that the entire program was expected to lose some €2.4 billion as well as not being able to break even without sales from any outside NATO countries. With a projected run over in the budget of some €11.2 billion, corrective measures were implemented and the figure dropped to around €7.6 billion. Airbus announced the week before the maiden flight that without an additional €5 billion subsidy to the project they would be unable to complete it, and would be forced to look at scrapping the entire concept. This alone would cost the company €5.7 billion unless the €5 billion was added to the project by the partner governments. Even after the first flight of the aircraft Tom Enders the Airbus Chief Executive said he was in a position to pull the plug from the operation if the extra funding wasn’t provided by January 2010. The partner nations agreed to lend Airbus some of the funding needed even though the type was already three years behind schedule. However, lending Airbus the needed funds led to some of the partner nations cutting their orders down – the UK for example cut 3 aircraft from 25 to 22 and Germany followed suit cutting from 60 to 53. The biggest cut of all came from the French who dropped 20 from its order, with further cuts down to 30 possible depending on the countries 2015-19 budget. With no firm price tag at the time, interest in the type fluctuated with the times and troubles during the concepts programme.

Success at last

With MSN001 handed over to flight test in mid November 2009, all four of the type Europrop International TP400-D6s ran together for the first time on 18 November and the aircraft moved under its own on November 23rd during a series of slow taxi tests at Seville. The aircraft was accelerated to 20 Knots while testing the various brake systems (normal, alternate, emergency and anti-skid). During the test the aircraft also made 180° turns testing the type nose wheel steering and was taxied in reverse using the engine reverse power option. Completing various medium and high speed tests (between 80-110 Knots) the aircraft trials culminated with a full rejected take-off run to 120 knots on December 8. To get the aircraft prepared for the first flight and the beginning of the flight trials, the teams involved worked 24 hours a day in three shifts, rectifying any issues that cropped up including a faulty tachometer caused by loose connectors limiting the aircraft’s braking, and causing poor anti-skid performance.

Finally, after years of delays and financial overruns, the first A400M (MSN001 flying as ‘Grizzly One’) took to the skies on 11 December 2009 at 1007 local from San Pablo airport. Airbus Military Programmes chief test pilot Ed Strogman, accompanied by Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Lombo, Jean-Philippe Cottet, Eric Isorce, Didier Ronceray and Gerard Leskeript took the aircraft was airborne for 3 hours 47 minutes, and explored some of the operational flight envelope. The aircraft was pushed to 300 knots and climbed to a height of 18,000ft for pressurisation checks. Originally planned for a 3 hour flight, the crew opted to extend the flight due the team getting through test activities quicker than expected, including the use of both normal and direct control laws. Maybe keeping in fashion with the programme the scheduled first flight was delayed by 15 minutes due to issues with some of the test equipment. With the aircraft taking off at an all up weight of 127 tonnes (15 of those being accounted for by test equipment on board that included two tons of water ballast) the aircraft was almost at its maximum take off weight for its first foray into the sky. During the maiden flight, which took the four TP400-D6s up to 11,000 horse power, performance data was collected and monitored in real time by teams back in Seville and also in France.

The Test Fleet

With MSN001, later given the serial F-WWMT, getting airborne to make the types first flight the pace of the A400M program increased ten fold. Destined for a 3 year test campaign, comprising some 3,700 flight hours (2,300 of which were used to gain the types civilian certification which was received from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on 14 March 2013), 001 opened the Test Flight phase and was soon joined by the second of 5 airframes allocated for the flight test phase. Taking to the air on April 8 2010, MSN002 (allocated the serial EC-402) was to be used for a 1100 hours test schedule looking at the aircrafts military performance, defensive suite work and the aircrafts power-plant and propeller systems. Three other aircraft, MSN003, MSN004 and MSN006 (given the serials F-WWMS, EC-404 and F-WWMZ) were all added to the test campaign, 003 being allocated a 975 test flight hour block with 004 and 006 given 870 and 255 hours respectively. It is of note that MSN005, which had been planned to join the test fleet, was cancelled due to the amount of time the airframe would have spent on the test flight phase – expected to be just six months! It was also decided that the last aircraft to enter the campaign would be built and fitted out to the same standard as the aircraft that would come off the production line.

MSN001 was used primarily to look into the aircrafts handling qualities in flight in various configurations as well as the braking system, flight envelope clearance and basic load testing. During the testing phase the types autopilot, fuel and hydraulic systems, general system maturity, engine endurance, air to air refuelling system and procedures were all scrutinised. Navigation tests, route proving and cargo tests were all undertaken from both sites at Toulouse and Seville with each of the aircraft given various test tasks. With the test programme shared between both the French and Spanish contingents of Airbus Military, MSN001, 003 and 006 operated out of France while MSN002 and 004 remained in Spain for their respective roles. During the testing both France and Spain split the hours so to speak with the French taking charge of 2,400 hours and the Spanish 1,970 hours. By late December 2011 more than 2500 hours had been flown of the required 3700 hours needed for the core flight test programme.

Although the entire test fleet was equipped with an air to air refuelling probe offset to the left side of the aircraft just above the cockpit, nicknamed the ‘Unicorn Horn’ by some of the test personnel, only F-WWMT and F-WWMZ were fitted with Cobham 908E Wing Dispense Equipment and 808E Hose Drum Unit. The aircraft also have the capacity for removable fuel tanks in the cargo hold to hold the fuel. With the French having more experience in the field of air to air refuelling it was decided that they, along with company aircraft 001 and 006, would carry out that phase of the test campaign. It is of note that of all the customers with the type on order only the Royal Air Force, Armée de l’Air and the Tentera Udara DiRaja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Air Force) have expressed interest in using the type in the Tactical Tanker/Transport role.

Less that a year into the test flight phase of the programme the aircraft was officially christened the ‘Grizzly’ during the the 2010 Farnborough airshow, adopting the nickname given to the aircraft by the flight test and engineering teams , because it was said to resemble the muscular stature of a Grizzly Bear. As well as the A400Ms appearance, it was said that Grizzly was also adopted due to the aircrafts speed, rugged qualities and strength, all qualities of the Grizzly. During the types first flight Ed Strongman and his crew were joined by a number of grizzly teddy bears to help raise money for EADS chosen charity – Aviation without Borders.

After a very arduous, albeit short life span, MSN001 was retired on November 4 2013 after a final sortie in the hands of the very same crew which had taken the aircraft aloft for the types very  first flight in 2009. Having flown some 1450 hours across 435 flights, 001 or F-WWMT took to the air from Toulouse for a 1 hour sortie with the intention to validate procedures for the types landing with the ramp door having failed in the open position.

MSN001 – F-WWMT – 11/12/09 – Aircraft Handling, Flight Configurations, Braking, Envelope Clearance, Load Testing –  1450 Hours
MSN002 – EC-402 – 08/04/10 – Performance, Certification, Defensive Aids Testing – 1100 Hours 
MSN003 – F-WWMS – 09/07/10 – Autopilot, Fuel systems, Hydraulic Systems, Navigation tests – 975 Hours
MSN004 – EC-404 – 20/10/10 – Cargo Operations, Air-to-Air Refuelling Tests – 870 Hours
MSN006 – F-WWMZ – 20/12/11 – System Maturity, Engine Endurance, Route Proving – 255 Hours

ZM400 – Lead Atlas

Entering service as the 2nd Tranche replacement for the C-130K (which was retired from service just over a year ago) to provide the UK a tactical airlift and strategic oversize lift capability, the aircraft was officially been named Atlas in British and French service at the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2012.

Rolling off the production line at Seville in August of 2014, ZM400 (MSN15) performed its first slow taxi on 10th August. Painted up in full Royal Air Force Markings after a number of ground handling tests, the aircraft took to the air for the first time on August 30th in the hands of Ed Strongman. Although no formal explanation has been given so far, the aircraft arrived back at Seville after its first foray in the skies for a 5 hour 5 minute maiden flight with the Number 4 TP-400-D6 shutdown and feathered. Originally set to be delivered to RAF Brize Norton in September of 2014, the date continued to slip through until mid November.

Slated to house the two Squadrons assigned to the type at present – 70 Squadron (LXX Squadron) and 47 Squadron, the prior reforming on October 1 2014 in an administrative and engineering support capacity – RAF Brize Norton has seen the transfer of all RAF Atlas training from the purpose-built International Training Centre (ITC) in Seville, which has been in use since 2013 in the training of future A400M flight crews, maintenance and support personnel. Development of Brize Norton to support the introduction of the type has seen the introduction of new buildings and facilities – including a 3-bay maintenance hangar being built to support the type, as well as buildingsbeing redeveloped to house the joint industry and RAF servicing team personnel.

LXX Squadron are the Fixed Wing Air Mobility Operational Conversion Unit, and will be responsible for conducting all of the training across the Atlas Force for both the aircrew and engineering personnel. 206(R) Squadron – the Heavy Aircraft Test & Evaluation Squadron, based at Boscombe Down, will test and evaluate the Atlas as part of the aircraft’s capability development process.

With the delivery of the first aircraft to the United Kingdom now complete, the country becomes the 3rd of the 7 European partner nations to introduce the A400M, following on from the French and Turkish who received the first of their examples in August 2013 and April 2014 respectively. Germany, whose first example (EC-408/52+01 MSN18) took to the air on October 14, are due to receive the aircraft in November of 2014 – making them the 4th partner nation to receive the type.

Less than 6 months after receiving the type, the Armée de l’Air made history for the type with its first operational mission on December 29 2013 in support of ‘Operation Serval’ in Mali. Departing from Orléans/BA123 F-RBAB ‘Ville de Toulouse’ (MSN008) operated by ET01.061 ‘Touraine’ was used to deliver some 22 tonnes of supplies to the African state during the sortie lasting almost 7 hours. During the types short deployment to the region some 70 plus tonnes of cargo were delivered primarily in the Bamako and Gao regions of the country.

Even with a number of aircraft now in service with their respective operators ( 3x France, 1 x Turkey, 1x UK) problems are still occurring and recently Airbus announced that they had missed a significant milestone needed to introduce military capabilities to the type, triggering a contract cancellation clause. Despite ongoing issues the company expect to deliver some 10 airframes before the end of the year with both France and the United Kingdom due to receive a further two aircraft before year-end. The Germans first example is due for delivery imminently.