Airbus Military's all-new A400M four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft has taken to the air for the first time. The aircraft’s first test flight in the skies above Seville, Spain, comes after many delays – it was originally scheduled for Q1 2008 – but was successfully completed when the A400 landed safely at 14.02, December 11, after a flight lasting three hours and forty-seven minutes.

When it goes into service the A400M will be able to carry payloads up to 37 tonnes and boast a maximum take-off weight of 141 tonnes. The aircraft’s maiden flight saw it equipped with 15 tonnes of flight-test equipment including two tones of water ballast, which contributed to its take-off weight of 127 tonnes.

The crew confirmed that the aircraft, known as MSN 1, and its four Europrop International TP400D turboprop engines performed as expected. The all-new TP400D turboprop powerplants produce 11,000shp (8,200kW) each and are the most powerful propeller engines ever fitted to a Western aircraft.

As planned, the six-man crew extensively explored the aircraft’s flight envelope, including a wide speed-range, and tested lowering and raising of the landing gear and high-lift devices at altitude.

In the four weeks leading up to the flight the aircraft was extensively tested on the ground. The engines were run at full power, the electrical systems and on-board data network were exhaustively tested, and numerous taxiing runs at progressively higher speeds were performed culminating in a rejected take-off test at a speed of 123kt (227km/hr) on 8th December.

The first flight marks the beginning of a test campaign that will see some 3,700 hours of flying by an eventual five aircraft conducted between now and entry-into-service at the end of 2012. In the first half of 2010 MSN 1 will be joined by two sister aircraft, MSN 2 and MSN 3, followed by MSN 4 by the end of the year. A fifth aircraft will join the program during 2011.

This fleet will be used for some 3,700 hours of test-flying between now and first delivery to the French Air Force at the end of 2012. This will be followed by additional military development flying. The A400M will receive both civil certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and military certification and qualification.

The A400M will increase the airlift capacity and range of the aircraft it was designed to replace - the C-130 Hercules and Transall C-160. With a typical payload of 20 tonnes it boasts an operating range of 3,450nm (6,390km). Like its predecessors it will operate in many configurations including cargo transport, troop transport, medical evacuation, and electronic surveillance. Boasting high-level cruise speeds of between 0.68 and 0.72 Mach and low-level airspeeds of up to 300 knots for tactical operation, it was designed from the outset as an aerial refueller and can offload fuel to both fighters and helicopters at their preferred speeds and heights.

The A400M features the same fly-by-wire controls technology found in Airbus’ airliner family and an advanced cockpit that has evolved from that of the A380. Carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) wings and other large structures bring weight and strength advantages and cut the risk of corrosion, while the eight-bladed Scimitar propeller is also made from a woven composite material.

A total of 184 aircraft have so far been ordered by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. However, Airbus has acknowledged that the program is expected to lose at least 2.4 billion euros and cannot break even without sales outside NATO countries. It’s unlikely that the four ordered by Malaysia will fill this shortfall so Airbus Military will be keen to make sales to other non-NATO countries.

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