By Vladimir Dobrunin
Last year, on May 9, 2015 the Airbus A400M Atlas military transport aircraft crashed near Seville. This aircraft was Airbus Consortium’s pride and glory, the result of an ambitious development program that was meant to show everyone which company was able to develop the best aircraft in the world.
The crashed aircraft was empty and was scheduled to perform a test flight. The A400M aircraft crashed, practically failing to take off: when the distance between its landing gear and the runway surface reached a few meters only, the crew suddenly made a decision to land. When the airport control tower asked for situation report, the pilot-in-command’s answer was brief: “We’re falling down”, and then the 4-engine aircraft crashed. Two crew members of the six-member crew survived by good fortune.
The crashed aircraft was the 23rd aircraft belonged to this family produced at European Consortium Airbus Military’s plant in Seville. On completing a number of test flights, this €165 million aircraft was supposed to be handed over to its customer – Turkey’s Ministry of Defence.
Of course, the crash resulted in post-accident checks, inspections, technical expert examinations, etc. The А400М aircraft development program was not completely terminated, but suspended. The developers had initially estimated the project costs to reach €12 billion. Actually, €20 billion had been spent by that time and the program expenses were likely to grow while future incomes were unclear.
Airbus A400M Atlas, called “Grizzly” for its size.
Length – 45.1 m, height – 14.7 m, wingspan – 42.4 m, weight-lift ability – 37 tons, empty weight – 76.5 tons, maximum take-off weight – 141 tons, cruise speed – 780 km/h, maximum speed – 825 km/h. Equipped with four Europrop International TP400-D6 turboprop eight-bladed engines, power output – 11,000 horsepower per each. Maximum flight attitude – 12,200 m, maximum payload range – 3,300 km, maximum range without carrying any payload – 8,700 km. Fuel tank capacity – 50,500 kg. Minimum runway distance – 900 m (ground).
A year later, experts announced the examination findings: “Some parts of the aircraft fuselage (the list of the parts exists but has not become available for Spanish media – Author’s note) were broken due to material fatigue and improper selected material combinations and alloys”. According to Spanish newspaper El Confidencial, “specialists know what to do”.
Besides, they have known about it since 2011, when microcracks were detected on some aircraft fuselages, but this bad news was never announced, and, actually, there were no reasons for information leaks, as no A400M aircraft has crashed because of a broken body.
By the way, it’s unlikely that the aircraft crash in Seville is associated with detected microcracks and material fatigue - a few meters above the ground is not the attitude at which the difference between the outside and inside air pressure is substantial or even critical. The facts proving the presence of microcracks were revealed incidentally and even (it’s much more likely) in order to distract attention of existing and future customers from other issues, which may terminate the development program immediately.
Some sources from military trade unions leaked information that the last year’s accident was caused by a failure in the electrical system of three (!) out of four aircraft engines. A month ago some British aviators suddenly found out that the engines the Grizzly modification is equipped with (the ТР400 engines manufactured by Avio Aero (Italy)) might have an undesirable tendency to stop in flight. These British aviators were lucky, because only one of four engines stopped in flight. If three engines had stopped simultaneously, the above-mentioned crash would have been inevitable.
The first mass produced models of this aircraft were put in service four years ago, and now customers from different countries often criticize its engines, because the engine power output is not sufficient to ensure the required thrust performance for this aircraft with maximum payload. There are no other options to substitute these engines: Pratt & Whitney that manufactures the PW2040 engines for the C-17 Globemaster III, (an American aircraft produced by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing that belongs to the same class) has no intention to sell its engines to competitors despite the close business relationship with Airbus via NATO.
Insufficient thrust performance and unreliable electronics do not complete the list of defective features of the Italian engine. It has been found that its parts also feature “improperly selected alloys”. In spring 2016, some engine overheat incidents were reported, along with reports on metal chips detected in engine gearboxes (no less than 14 reports). Airbus announced that “this fault cannot be identified as the critical one”, but any reasonable person knows that a sufficient amount of metal chips may easily jam the gearbox. Of course, this will happen in flight, not as chance would have it, but because gearboxes will not have enough time to shape the required amount of metal chips during engine warm-up or take-off.
Another critical disadvantage of the Grizzly modification is that it does not have an option for aerial refueling. There are some concepts to implement such a service, but any terms and the possibility of implementation are questionable. The aircraft development program overrun has already exceeded 2/3 of the initial budget; besides, as Italy has left the project, the amount of financing has been reduced. Also, the volume of orders has been reduced due to first demonstration flights delayed for more than a year (actually, demonstration flights were performed in 2009, not in 2008 as scheduled). Initially, the estimated demand for the А400М model was 230 aircraft (according to the most optimistic predictions, this number reached 400 aircraft). Now, the actual guaranteed demand totals 180 aircraft.
This set of problems jeopardizes the project as a whole. It is not the question of project termination: the price for the American equivalent mentioned above is 2 times higher; that is why the market players prefer Airbus. But, there is no doubt, customers may explore the market to find a more reliable solution. i.e. a solution that would be free of fatigued materials and alloys and would be equipped with electronics that cannot ensure fault-free functioning, but at least can feature guaranteed safety functions for any “what if” scenarios.
In a situation like this, Russia should revive the Antonov An-70 aircraft assembly project co-developed by Russia and Ukraine, which has already been suspended twice (the latest suspension was in 2014 for obvious reasons). In 2015, there were some statements that Russia could start the An-70 assembly project at a plant in Kazan, even without Ukrainian partners. Besides, with the An-70 development program started as far back as 1994, experts from the Western countries agree that this aircraft is now about 10 years ahead of the A400M project. However, there are two reasons why the Europeans prefer products made in their own countries: 1) lest to support the development of a competitor (in addition, a competitor being under sanctions), and 2) to avoid the dependence on competitor's components intended for military applications.
According to defenseindustrydaily.com analysts, “the А400 aircraft project, in particular, in case it is finished off as required, will be able to compete against such Russian aircraft as the Аntonov An-70, Ilyushin Il-76 and Аntonov An-124 on the military transport aircraft market”.
Antonov An-70 specifications:
Length – 40.73 m, height – 16.38 m, wingspan – 44.06 m, empty weight – 73 tons, maximum payload – 47 tons, maximum take-off weight – 135 tons, cruise speed – 700–750 km/h, maximum speed – 780 km/h. Maximum flight attitude – 12,000 m. Required runway – ground surface, minimum 600 m or longer. Engines: 4 × D-27, power output – 14,004 horsepower per each. Maximum range (depending on payload) – 1,200–8,000 km. Aircraft cost – $70 million.
The experience shows that sooner or later capitalists’ moral principles yield to financial incentives. Despite the anti-Russian suctions, the Americans continue to buy Russian RD-180 rocket engines. What prevents Europe from buying Russian military transport aircraft that show performance practically identical to the А400М aircraft (sometimes, Russian aircraft show better performance) at a price that is 2 times lower than the cost of aircraft assembled at a plant near Seville? We can explain it only in such a way – no supply is now available.
Airbus’ promising project – Airbus A400M Atlas (a.k.a. Grizzly), a heavy military transport aircraft: 1.5 times budget overrun, fatigued structures, no actual flight operations, plus a real chance for the Russian aircraft of the same class to knock the A400M aircraft out of the market.