Conceived 31 years ago, the A-400M project finally took to the air at the end of last month when Airbus Military delivered the first of the new-generation transport aircraft to France. Now rolling off the production line in Seville, the A-400M is capable of carrying up to 30 tons of materiel, a mobile hospital with 66 beds or 166 personnel from Madrid to distant locations such as Nigeria or Greenland without refueling.
There are 173 more aircraft to assemble for delivery to countries within the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), which comprises Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Turkey, the UK and Malaysia.
Airbus Military employs 2,700 people between Seville's San Pablo aerodrome and a plant in Tablada, a city suburb. Thousands of components arrive at San Pablo from around the world, fruits of the labor of 10,000 people in several, mostly European, countries. Work at San Pablo is guaranteed for the next two decades. "We are working at full speed and will achieve the maximum rate of 2.5 aircraft a month in 2015," says Juan Silva, the chief manager of the final production line (FAL). "There are currently eight planes in different phases."
We're going at full speed to hit the top rate of 2.5 planes a month in 2015"
Although the A-400M project was initiated in 1982 to compete with the ubiquitous Hercules C-130 transport aircraft, it was not finally signed off until 2003. The assembly line was completed in 2007 and the first part to arrive through the giant doors, emblazoned with the nose of the plane — known as "the whale" because of its shape — was a wing, for testing.
Since then, five prototypes have been finished that have readied the assembly line to meet Airbus's order book. "At the beginning we were more about engineering than production, with many people from European factories," says Silva, who prefers to talk about "challenges" instead of problems or setbacks. "There have been many, but that's normal because of the complexity of the project. One example was finding a design that satisfied the requirements of seven different countries."
The result is an extremely versatile aircraft that can reach 555.6km/h and has great range and capacity. Another significant achievement was gaining the A-400M a civil as well as a military license, which allows it to land at any airport in the world. Turkey will be the next OCCAR member to receive an A-400M, followed by Germany and the UK next year. The cost of the program is estimated at 31 billion euros, 21.5 billion of which has been put up by OCCAR states. It is hoped that 400 will be sold overall.
According to the Spanish Association of Defense, Aeronautic and Airspace Technology Companies, the sector will generate 53,000 jobs, 6.9 billion euros on annual revenues, and account for one percent of national GDP.