, PARIS, December 6 – The Airbus A400M military plane is scheduled to take to the skies on its first test flight late next week after a long delay that has caused headaches for European defence group EADS and the loss of a client.
The A400M was to replace ageing military cargo carriers in several European air forces but its development has been dogged by a series of serious technical problems.
Some governments have begun to tire of waiting for Airbus to resolve the issues, and French and German officials have given the firm until the end of the year to prove that the project remains viable.
The delays have cost millions and forced Airbus to renegotiate its contracts with several customers. South Africa has dropped its order entirely and Britain has mulled switching its business to US manufacturers.
When the 20-billion-euro (28-billion-dollar) A400M project began it was hoped that a first test flight would be held in 2008 and that air forces would have had the airframe in service by the end of this year.
But the first test flight was delayed and NATO countries will not received their orders before the end of 2012.
Airbus, which is owned by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, intends to conduct the first test flight on Friday.
The plane is undergoing ground tests at the Airbus site in the southern Spanish city of Sevilla. The A400M has begun to roll at higher speeds close to optimum speed for take off, Airbus Military said.
The aircraft is scheduled to take off on Friday if ground tests go smoothly and weather conditions are optimal.
"An unexpected circumstance can always delay take-off by a few hours, even a few days, at the last moment," Airbus Military director Domingo Urena said.
Two pilots from Britain and Spain and four French engineers will take part in the maiden flight.
A successful first flight will bring much-needed dose of good news for the programme.
"This first flight, even if it does not solve all the problems weighing on this program, will nevertheless be a major step forward," said an analysis by CM-CIC investment group.
The plane has faced technical problems owing to its complexity and engine system.
The A400M boasts the most powerful turbo propeller in the Western world, which is being developped by a European consortium that includes France\’s Snecma and Britain\’s Rolls Royce company.
Last month, South Africa cancelled a contract to buy eight of the aircraft, citing delays and a huge cost rise from 830 million euros (1.2 billion dollars) to 4.1 billion euros.
Airbus launched the A400M programme in 2003 with a 20-billion-euro contract with seven countries — Germany, Spain, France, Britian, Turkey, Belgium and Luxembourg.
The seven countries have ordered 180 planes between them, in most cases to replace ageing Transall and C130 Hercules transports.
These clients and EADS are now negotiating a new agreement on a delivery date, the characteristics of the aircraft and its price. The two sides last met in Berlin on December 2.
The talks are crucial for EADS, which already has already put aside 2.4 billion euros in provisions against losses on the A400M project and has not excluded new charges.
EADS and its clients had given themselves until the end of the year to find common ground, but the negotiations were slowed down by elections in Germany — the top client with 60 aircraft orders — and could drag into next year.