SEVILLE, Spain (Reuters) - Europe unveiled the A400M military aircraft on Thursday, giving the public a first glimpse of a powerful turboprop plane which will give seven NATO customers urgently needed strategic airlift capacity.
The plane was developed by a unit of aerospace firm EADS at a cost of 20 billion euros (15.6 billion pounds), making it Europe’s biggest military cooperation project, but has been dogged by problems in producing the West’s most powerful turboprop engines.
The first plane assembled was rolled out of a purpose-built hangar in southern Spain into blinding sunlight at a lavish ceremony attended by King Juan Carlos.
Its maiden flight has been pushed back to September this year from January as a consortium led by Rolls Royce and Snecma
wrestles with the engine problems.
EADS Chief Executive Louis Gallois told journalists the first flight could be in “September or October”.
The A400M was designed as Europe’s answer to the ageing Lockheed C-130 Hercules, a powerful workhorse made to ship troops and equipment into the world’s most rugged hotspots.
The sale of 180 A400M’s to a block of seven European nations — Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Turkey — in 2003 was the continent’s biggest ever single arms order. Exports to South Africa and Malaysia brought the total of aircraft sold to 192, but a sale of the plane to Chile was cancelled.
“Our transport fleet is becoming obsolete and we need to increase our transport capacity in order to meet the requirements of the new missions all over the world, especially humanitarian but also troop support missions,” said Major Fabrice Balayn from the French Air Force’s logistics division.
France will take delivery of the first plane in 2010, six to 12 months behind the original schedule.
EADS took 1.4 billion euros in provisions last year to compensate for contract losses triggered by the delays.
The aircraft is the first four-engine plane in which the inside and outside propellers on each wing rotate in opposite directions. That means that if one engine is shot out or fails, the plane remains stable and does not lose balance, its designers say.
The A400M, which costs 100 million euros a piece, had been kept hidden from view for months despite a sneak preview given to financial analysts earlier in the year. EADS shares have been under pressure partly due to a wider series of production delays on the Airbus A380 superjumbo and the NH90 military helicopter as well as the A400M.
Aircraft rollouts have become a standard feature of the publicity machine which roars into action with the production of a new plane, but have no significance in industrial terms.
The ceremony for the A400M military plane was opened by a child holding a balloon.
Accompanied by deafening techno music, aerial gymnasts leapt across a stage before a giant screen slowly rose to reveal 600 workers holding balloons at the foot of the hulking A400M. A light display bounced off the planes’ vast, bulbous frame as the music crescendoed, while the audience of 2,700 dignitaries and military brass rose to give a standing ovation.
Speaking inside the plane’s 4 metre high cargo bay, Airbus Vice President Peter Scoffham said the A400M was unique in its ability to carry items like armoured vehicles and helicopters but still able to land on short grass and sand airstrips, thus filling a gap between Boeing’s massive C17 Globemaster and the smaller Lockeed C-130 Hercules.
“We think there is quite a reasonable market for between 400 and 600 aircraft over the next 15 to 20 years,” he told Reuters, adding that Airbus was currently talking to 30-40 potential customer nations.
The next major industrial milestone will be the successful testing of the engines on a converted C-130 at British firm Marshall Aerospace followed by the maiden flight for the A400M.
Industry sources say an even more crucial test will be how smoothly Airbus Military can move from making prototypes to full-scale production.
It was this transition which scuppered hopes of delivering the A380 on time, with deliveries of the world’s largest jetliner now running two years late due to problems in wiring.