Airbus' much-delayed A400M military transport plane has passed a critical milestone on its way to certification and full-scale production, the company said Thursday.
The airframe has successfully completed the simulated flights as part of the requirement for certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), spokeswoman Barbara Kracht said.
Civil certification is vital for the program, because it serves as the common standard for the seven air forces who are the customers for the four-turboprop military freighters.
"There is nothing to prevent us from getting civil certification by EASA before the end of the year," she said.
The testing program, which involves four pre-production aircraft, "is now absolutely on target and moving ahead as planned," Kracht said. The first aircraft is on track to be delivered to the French air force in 2013.
A total of 174 aircraft have been ordered by the seven launch customers _ Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey _ and export customer Malaysia. Airbus expects to sell about 400 A400M freighters over the next 20-30 years, as air forces around the world _ and particularly in the Middle East _ start replacing their transport aircraft.
The program nearly collapsed over cost overruns, and a struggle between the plane's manufacturer and its military customers over technical and financial problems came to a head last year after EADS threatened to pull the plug on the project.
The euro20 billion ($27 billion) project was about euro5 billion ($6.8 billion) over budget and three years behind schedule.
The seven customer nations then agreed to increase the price of the project by euro2 billion ($2.8 billion) and also said they would provide an additional euro1.5 billion ($2.1 billion) in exchange for a share of future export sales.
European nations have long been hampered by the shortfall in strategic military airlift capabilities. In the 1990s, they struggled to deploy forces to nearby troublespots in Bosnia and Kosovo without using U.S. Air Force transports such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.
A newly launched European Air Transport Command is supposed to enable European nations to pool their military transport fleets at a time of sharp cuts in defense spending.
All Belgian, French, Dutch, and German A400Ms will be placed at the disposal of the joint coordinating body based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and other operators of the type are expected to join the program in the future.
Airbus says the A400M, which uses the largest turboprop engines ever fitted to a Western aircraft, will be able to carry twice the load of another competitor, the Lockheed Hercules, and that its fuel-efficient power plants will make it cheaper to operate than the jet-powered Boeing C-17.
The A400M's turboprops, mounted high on the wing, also will allow it to fly in and out of unprepared airstrips where jet-powered transports with engines slung low beneath the wings face the danger of ingesting runway debris, Airbus says.