Airbus military transporter cleared for testing

AP News
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Posted: Nov 13, 2009 8:10 AM

The long-delayed prototype of Airbus' first military transport plane has been moved from the factory for final ground tests before its maiden flight next month, a spokeswoman said Friday.

Barbara Kracht said the testing in Seville, Spain, will involve running up problem-plagued turboprop engines to full power, low- and high-speed taxiing, and aborted takeoffs designed to check all aircraft systems before the first flight.

"All this paves the way for the first flight before the end of the year," Kracht said in a telephone interview.

The four-engine A400M, launched in 2003 with an order for a fleet of 180 planes from seven governments, is Europe's most ambitious collaborative defense project ever. But the euro20 billion ($29 billion) program has been hit by cost overruns and teething problems with the new Europrop International TP400 engines, and the plane's maiden flight has been postponed repeatedly.

Earlier this year defense ministers from the seven nations _ Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey _ agreed to re-negotiate the contract on the multinational project.

Airbus' A400M is smaller and less capable than the U.S. Boeing C-17 Globemaster II, but it may eventually have greater export potential because it is much cheaper than the U.S. transport plane.

Although Airbus' main production facility is in Toulouse, France, the A400M's final assembly line is in Seville.

It is designed to replace hundreds of smaller Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Franco-German Transall C-160 transports that have served in the inventories of European air forces since the 1960s.

In the meantime, European nations have chartered Antonov An-124 transport aircraft from a Russian-Ukrainian joint-venture to serve as their strategic reserve in supplying troops in Afghanistan.

The new airlifter program was launched in the 1990s in the wake of the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia, when European countries couldn't dispatch peacekeepers to a region right on their own doorstep without American assistance.

The A400M is specifically designed to operate from austere, unpaved and short airstrips. The plane's maximum cargo capacity of 37 tons is nearly double that of its predecessors, and its range of over 6,000 kilometers (3,200 miles) would allow it to fly unrefueled from Europe to forward airstrips in far-flung theaters of operations such as Afghanistan or Africa.

But problems with the engines and the prototype's weight have pushed first deliveries _ originally scheduled for 2012 _ to slip to 2014.

Although it will be one of the largest turboprop-powered aircraft ever built, the A400M is still dwarfed by the Soviet Antonov An-24 Antei first flown in the 1960s. Several dozen remain in Russian air force service.