Staff Writer (Updated: 7/15/2016):
The A400M Atlas (formerly known as the "Grizzly") is designed to meet the aerial transport needs of the modern military. It incorporates the latest in aviation technologies and construction practices to produce a robust and reliable performer tasked with heavy duty hauling of men and machine across vast distances. Performance capabilities are such that the Atlas can operate from soft or rough airfields while at low speeds and can fulfill the dual roles of military service and humanitarian efforts (including MEDEVAC) thanks to its oversized cargo hold.
Origins of the A400M can be traced back to a December 1982 project begun by Aerospatiale, British Aerospace, Lockheed and MBB. The consortium effort came together to seek a suitable next generation replacement for the venerable C-130 Hercules and Transall C-160 series of transport aircraft under the project designation of "Future International Military Airlifter" - or FIMA. By this time, the Hercules had gone on to become one of the most successful military transport aircraft of all time and the Transall C-160 mimicked some of its stellar qualities though mostly for interested European parties. However, the C-130 was born in the 1950s with the C-160 following in the 1960s - as such, both designs were becoming "long in the tooth" so to speak. As with most previous joint American-Euro efforts, the new project fell to naught as conflicting requirements and government finagling slowed development to a snail's pace. For whatever reason, Lockheed was forced out of the FIMA group and went on to pursue its own modernized C-130 in the C-130J "Super Hercules" to compete with the Euro product. FIMA continued in their efforts and eventually added Alenia of Italy and CASA of Spain to make for a truly European design endeavor. FIMA was then renamed to "EUROFLAG" for "EUROpean Future Large Aircraft Group" with the target aircraft expected to become operational sometime in 2000.
Around this time, design studies were undertaken to test out the feasibility of various proposed engine types. Initially, a turbofan engine was entertained over that of a turboprop arrangement though the decision was made in 1994 to head down the turboprop route with a complete feasibility study being finalized in 1995. That same year, Airbus Military officially took over the reins of the program from EUROFLAG and the aircraft design was formally handed the designation of "A400M". Final assembly direction was served to EADS out of Seville, Spain. In 2000, a group formed from Rolls-Royce, SNECMA, MTU, FiatAvio, ITP and Techspace (as the Aero Propulsion Alliance) was charged with developing the aircraft's all-new TP400 turoprop engines. The EUROFLAG group was now formally made up of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. A procurement agreement for 212 aircraft was signed in May 2003. South Africa joined on April 28th, 2005 but went on to drop out of contention due to growing concerns about development costs. Italy also eventually withdrew from the A400M program.
The loss of those two nations dropped total initial procurement to 180 aircraft. Production of the first A400M began in early 2007 out of EADS Spain in Seville with flight stress testing beginning in 2008. While first flight of the A400M was scheduled to be completed in 2008, delays in the program forced the event to take place on December 11th, 2009 - the year production deliveries were suppose to begin. Currently (2012), the A400M is still undergoing active flight testing and only four evaluation airframes have been completed. The nickname of "Grizzly" was formally assigned to the aircraft to symbolize its rugged qualities and, as of 2010, some 174 airframes were on order to eight interested nations made up of (with respective order totals) Germany (60, since reduced to 53), France (50), Spain (27), the United Kingdom (25, since reduced to 22), Turkey (10), Belgium (7), Malaysia (4) and Luxembourg (1). South Africa was originally slated to buy 8 examples but since cancelled their order. Canada was propositioned by Airbus to fulfill a new requirement but elected to purchase the American C-130Js and C-17s instead. Australia remains a potential buyer of the European A400M system. Interestingly, the United States Air Force Air Mobility Command also received a proposal from Airbus for 118 A400Ms purchases (should the deal succeed). Chile ordered three A400Ms but these were cancelled after national elections. The United Kingdom and France even went as far as to consider the American C-130J to replace their delayed A400M needs ay one point.
Formal serial production of the military-quality A400M began on January 12th, 2011.
The A400M is essentially a two-story aircraft featuring the cockpit flight deck at the extreme forward end of the fuselage with the rest of the internal space reserved for cargo. The cockpit sits atop and behind a short, stubby nose cone that provides for unparallel views to the front and sides of the aircraft. There is a rectangular exit-entry door at the forward fuselage sides for the flight crew. Wings are set at amidships and are high-mounted assemblies sporting anhedral and housing the four engines in underwing nacelles. Engines are held well-off the ground to provide for unfettered ground activity for loading crews. The empennage is also raised off of the ground to allow easy entry-exit of loads into and out of the rear loading ramp. The tail section is dominated by a T-style wing arrangement that sports a large-area vertical tail fin capped by a pair of swept horizontal tail planes. The undercarriage is fully retractable and made up of a nose landing gear leg and a collection of heavy duty main landing gear legs (with a total of 12 wheels arranged in two six-leg pairings) located in a central bulge at the center of the lower fuselage to contend with extreme weights of different cargoes. The aircraft is said to have the capability to land on runways as short as 2,500 feet. The A400M would be crewed by three standard personnel to include up to two pilots and a loadmaster. MEDEVAC would undoubtedly add medical staff as needed.