On 24th May 2021, Airbus delivered the 100th Atlas A400M to the Spanish Air Force. In the 12 years since its introduction, the aircraft has demonstrated its power and flexibility in a wide range of tactical scenarios.
This significant milestone is an ideal opportunity to look back at how much this aircraft has achieved during its operational time in various national air forces.
Airbus announced the delivery of its 100th operational A400M to the Spanish Air Force. It marks the tenth aircraft of the Air Force’s order of 27. The same week, the A400M reached another major milestone: the global fleet recorded 100,000 flight hours between the eight nations using it.
As Airbus stated, these milestones demonstrate the maturity of the project and, while it has faced the same teething problems found in any aircraft, it shows the flexibility and tactical importance of this heavy airlifter.
But what does this flexibility look like in practical terms?
The A400M is a versatile aircraft capable of carrying out cargo and passenger transport, aerial refuelling, and medical evacuation missions. Airbus Defence and Space designed it to replace older aircraft that fulfilled the same purpose, such as the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. We have written a more detailed comparison of the two in a previous post.
Currently, eight countries operate A400M fleets of varying sizes. These are Germany, France, Spain, the UK, Turkey, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Malaysia. Germany has the biggest fleet: 35 in operation as of November 2020, with 18 more in construction.
During its operational period, the A400M fleet has taken part in various significant missions. In 2020, the French Air Force used an A400M to deliver food, water, and supplies to the Sahel region of Africa. France, Germany, and the UK used their A400Ms for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean in 2017. More recently, Europe used A400Ms as part of its Covid relief efforts.
In 2018, the German Air Force was the first to use an A400M to transport troops into an active warzone. It transported 75 soldiers from Germany to Afghanistan; the mission was considered a milestone because it demonstrated the aircraft’s armour capabilities. Similarly, Germany operated its A400Ms in Jordan as part of the Counter Daesh operation in 2019.
Along with its clear operational capabilities, European operators are constantly looking for ways to push the A400M to new levels. The aircraft can already drop paratroopers, either using automatic parachute opening or free fall, but Spain and the UK recently tested the A400M’s limits. They expanded the limit to 7,600 metres and 11,500 metres respectively.
The A400M’s aerial refuelling capabilities are nothing new. It is one of its primary purposes, and in 2016 the aircraft was used to demonstrate Cobham’s Centreline Aerial Refuelling System.
Recently, though, an A400M completed a successful helicopter air-to-air refuelling mission. The aircraft was fitted with the Cobham 908E Wing Pod and 808E Hose Drum Unit. As the latest stage in a two-year project, this mission marks a major milestone towards full helicopter air-to-air refuelling certification.
Airbus conducted the first test in 2019 using dry contact between the A400M and a H225M Caracal helicopter. Several more wet and dry contacts took place over 2020 before the aircraft refuelled two helicopters simultaneously during tests this year.
Various other tests are underway to investigate the limit of the A400M’s cargo drop capabilities. It is being tested in adverse conditions, including increasing the weight limit of its airdrop missions and testing the use of unpaved airstrips for cargo deliveries.
What these milestones demonstrate - more than anything - is that the Airbus A400M plans to be around for many years to come. Its flexibility in military and aid missions shows its ability to adapt to any mission.
Similarly, its role in major refuelling tests, along with Cobham, demonstrates the A400M’s position in the future of military air forces. If it achieves certification later this year as planned, it will be one of the few aircraft in the world with such capabilities. In short, the Airbus A400M is an important contribution to the aerospace industry, and we will likely see many more milestones for it in the coming years.