PARIS — France has restricted flights following the deadly crash of the Airbus A400M in Spain, but operational needs in Africa and Iraq make the French Air Force the sole service flying the military transport plane.
On May 10, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the A400M would fly for "essential operations" only, pending the outcome of the Spanish inquiry into the loss the of the MSN 023 unit. Four Airbus staff were killed and two were severely injured in the crash of the aircraft, which was built for Turkey.
France has six A400Ms, which have accumulated 1,700 flying hours, Le Drian said. "This is a very high quality aircraft," he added.
Much of the flying will have been for evaluation and test by the Air Force, needed to reach an initial operating capability (IOC), said an Air Force officer who declined to be identified. IOC requires a full spectrum of mission capability, and the service needs to train crews to fly a full squadron of 10 to 12 transports.
French special forces are keen to receive the fully tested and equipped aircraft. One of the key training aspects is for pilots to fly the transport and tanker as a fighter aircraft, including fast and low. The Air Force is also moving to train fighter pilots to fly transport aircraft.
An important French requirement is installing a radar warning receiver among the defensive aids suite offered, the officer said.
The six A400Ms are in the Touraine squadron at the Orleans air base, south of the capital. The first aircraft was delivered in 2013.
The French Air Force often flies the A400M, dubbed Atlas, to support the Barkhane and Chammal operations, the Defense Ministry said in its note on the weekly press briefing. The service flew an A400M around the world from Feb. 19 to March 6.
"There is an operational necessity," said Jean-Claude Brisset, senior fellow at think tank Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.
Some 3,000 French troops are deployed across five countries in the Barkhane operation, a fight against Islamist insurgents in sub-Saharan Africa, and 700 soldiers are active in Iraq under the Chammal operation. The fleet of Transall C-160s is worn out and each flight to resupply the overseas troops requires two or three stopovers.
"There is an absolute necessity for the A400M," Brisset said. An A400M can fly to Mali with a heavier load than a C-160 and can land in a shorter and rougher airstrip than the C-17 and C-5.
The Spanish military air crash authorities have sent the two black box flight recorders to the French Bureau Enquêtes Accidents Défense Air (BEAD), the defense accident inquiry office, Reuters reported May 13. There are hopes the French technicians can deliver readings of the cockpit voice and instrument recorders in 48 hours.
Fernando Alonso, head of the A400M program, was one of the eight company staff onboard the MSN 4 on May 12, the first test flight since the crash. The company-owned prototype plane took off at 2:45 p.m. from Toulouse, southern France, and landed at 4:35 p.m. at Seville.
The flight restrictions, which exclude the company-owned aircraft, now depends on the eagerly awaited results of a Spanish accident inquiry, which may lead to guidance notes on flying the aircraft. Airbus will continue with the flight test program, needed to test more capable versions.
A restricted use of the A400M led to cancellation of a flight to carry international journalists on a planned press trip ahead of the Paris Air Show. Another operational factor, namely high operational demand for the Rafale fighter jet, led to the service canceling the media trip.
The military cockpit draws heavily on civil technology developed for the Airbus A380 superjumbo. The four high-powered turboprop TP400 engines are built by Europrop International, a consortium comprising Rolls Royce of Britain, Safran's Snecma of France, MTU of Germany and ITP of Spain.
Airbus built the MSN 023 for Turkey, with delivery due next month. Turkey has ordered 10 of the aircraft.
The aircraft builder, due to production delays, agreed to a revised delivery timetable with the eight client countries — Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Spain and Turkey.
Airbus Group, the parent company, announced in February a charge of €550 million (US $626 million) to cover production and delivery delays on the A400M.