Challenges of Aerospace Innovation

THE CASE OF THE A400M. The tragic May 9th crash of an A400M (MSN 23), near the Airbus final assembly plant near Seville, Spain, reminds us of how risky the introduction of new systems can be. Due to be delivered to the Turkish Air Force in June, the plane crashed during a test flight, killing four flight test crew members.

(Photo: Robbin Laird 2015)

When I grew up in the 1950s, ongoing design and evolution of new aircraft unfortunately saw many injuries and fatalities during the development and test processes that remain an integral part of any aerospace innovation effort. Injuries and fatalities have rocked many unique aviation technologies over the years. Fortunately, new techniques and technologies have dramatically reduced the numbers of accidents and casualties in the test process – but have not completely eliminated the risk inherent to introducing new systems.

Innovation in the aviation sector sometimes comes with deadly cost. Can we suppress mankind’s primal drive to invent and improve? No, but we can investigate, make changes, and ultimately move forward, always with safety as a priority.

We crave the new capabilities that innovation delivers, and always have. In the case of the A400M, the innovation it is delivering is clearly significant to the Air Forces that are already operating the plane.

In April 2015, I had a chance to visit the first operational base of the A400M, which is operated by the French Air Force near the city of Orleans, France, at the Bricy Air Base. I spoke at length with Lieutenant-Colonel Benoît Paillard, Commander of Transport Squadron 1/61, Touraine, and I also toured the training facility.

There are six A400Ms at the base, with a seventh coming this Fall. The base currently operates both C-130Hs and A400Ms, but eventually will only operate A400Ms and will probably be the largest base of A400Ms in the world by the time the French Air Force (FAF) receives its full compliment of aircraft.

Although the plane has been in operation only for a short period of time, and is undergoing further development, it has already had an important impact. It directly connects France to operations in Africa and the Middle East without the need for refueling during the mission. It is flying two missions a month to Africa and two to the Middle East.

“One of the key advantages of the A400M will be that we can fly helicopters directly from France to the troops, which we can not do right now. We cannot ship the helos directly back to France, currently, with our own assets. With the A400M we will be able to do so,” notes LCol Paillard.

“A test and evaluation team is working the processes of how best to put helos into the plane and how to take them out. We will save significant amounts of time, and time is a key element of combat success.”

The impact will be strategic for France, whereby interventions can occur directly from France without having to preposition forces in the area of interest. With this capability, the French forces will need less access to bases throughout Africa to deliver assets to the area of interest. And with fewer bases, there is less need for forces to secure those bases. This is not only about significant cost savings, but a huge gain in terms of less need for security and diplomatic efforts dispersed throughout the area of interest.

According to Paillard, the next steps for the squadron will be to begin operational night insertion training this Fall, and will receive defensive aides early next year.

A technical fault was reported during the test flight, and the pilot initiated an emergency landing. The accident is still under investigation, but local media reported that the aircraft hit an electricity pylon when attempting to land. (A400M Test flight crash Site: Tyler Rogoway)

He speaks highly of the stability of the aircraft in flight as well as the core flexibility and strength of the wings to support a variety of operational situations. He argued that over time, the plane could take on a variety of new missions as C2, ISR and weaponization continue to evolve.

Basic procedures for operating the aircraft are provided by Airbus and are common to the multi-national fleet, however, the plane is software enabled and as such will evolve over time. The squadron is feeding its experience to the software development team as they modify their tactics. “The A400M is a whole new platform built from the bottom up on a digital software foundation and will grow from that foundation over time,” contends Paillard.

Commonality is important, but the objective is to have familiarity with each A400M user’s aircraft so that a common controller can operate a fleet of aircraft to support missions. This is not mix ‘n’ match crews; it’s about common understanding and dovetailing of capabilities for A400M users.

LCol Paillard believes that challenge will be met in part by common learning within the European Air Transport Command, of which France is a key member. “We operate the A400M through the EATC and not the FAF. We have an A400M user group at EATC, which will play an important role going forward as well. We need to train as we go to war and the EATC plays a key role as well.”

Paillard also mentioned the value of centrality of common maintenance techniques, procedures, and training as a key aspect of the way ahead. In fact, sharing parts is also a goal of the effort; the RAF and FAF have an agreement with Airbus for common support and, as Paillard put it, “as we work through the approach we will open it to other nations as well.”

He clearly felt that the interoperability provided by a common aircraft is something to be reinforced by training and operations, and will be a key target goal to be preserved over time.

“We do not want to end up like the Transall which [began as] a common French and German aircraft but became [a] completely different aircraft.”

The intersection between training at Seville and the national centers is designed to also shape the kind of commonality called for by LCol Paillard going forward.

Touring the training center at Seville to discuss operation of the center with the leaders involved with training at Airbus, I found that shaping commonality is one of the core tasks of the home training center in Seville (which is also connected with national training centers in France, Britain and Germany).

Simulators at the Airbus training centre. (Photo: Robbin Laird 2015)

According to Ian Burrett, Head of Airbus Defence and Space Military Aircraft Training & Aircrew Operations, there is a close working relationship between the training center in Seville with those at the national centers. “We’ve set the national training centers up with national people running the training center and as instructors. They have direct military experience in that air force. But they first are fully integrated into the training center in Seville, into the reference-training center. We want to make sure that what they’ve taken from Seville is fully transported and used in the national training center, so we’ve got that commonality as far as possible across the platform,” he said.

“Each customer [has] differences in the way it operates its aircraft or in the history of its training approaches, so there will be differences among the national training centers but we have teams going from the reference center to the national training centers to shape as common a solution as possible. We’re fully connected among the training centers.”

The importance of commonality, training, and shaping a core user group was also highlighted by Head of Integrated Training and Ops Support for the A400M program, Juan Ignacio Castro Rodríguez. “Another aspect that is important here,” he said, “are the user groups. We have growing experience with user groups with regard to the tanker and their input on the evolution of that program, and we see the same thing happening in the A400M program. As users explore ways to evolve the aircraft going forward, we sort out what is common across the program or what is nationally specific, and that will guide the future development approach as well.”

This combination of training plus user groups will provide an important channel for the evolution of the A400M program. “There are important cost savings going forward – from leveraging commonality in training and operational experience – especially as we look at modernization and software upgrades,” confirmed Rodríguez.

There is clearly a major difference between the training at the base and at Seville. At Seville, the focus is on the basics and general training across various national air forces. However, at Bricy, the training is on operations, tactics and integration with the French Air Force. The challenge is to keep those aspects of commonality, which enhance interoperability across a multi-national fleet of A400Ms, and to integrate those aircraft within the national doctrines, tactics and approaches of the individual national forces. “We add an operational layer to our training here at Bricy compared to learning the basic flying and related skills which are learned at Seville,” confirms LCol Christophe Piubeni, Commander Transport Crew Training Center.

Simulators can also help in shaping a risk management approach to flying the aircraft, and that works best with the linking several simulators together and operating as a de facto missionized air group.

Although not yet achieved, the plan is that, by 2018, cross-linked simulators can assist with mission training and planning. This will be an important step ahead, and is another difference from how past introduction of systems is different in a 21st century approach. As Piubeni suggests, “We need to link to the NATO network for training as well.”

Inside a simulator at the Airbus facility. (Photo: Robbin Laird 2015)

The entire effort with the FAF is to shape a more effective and coalition-enabled national force and one that LCol Paillard agrees with. “We need to link the training with how we operate together to get the greatest effect we can from our coalition assets.”

Users are working to leverage each other’s investments to shape common training. For instance, FAF and German Air Force pilots and maintainers will train at each other’s training facilities to leverage different investments in the simulators and maximize cost effectiveness. “The German Air Force will train French maintainers and crews for basic training and we will train the German Air Force in tactics and operations,” explains Paillard.

In short, as planes get added to the FAF, capability will grow not only in terms of experience but with software upgrades of systems as well.

With the retirement of the Transall, the A400M will be the workhorse that the FAF will rely on to deliver capabilities to the forward edge of operations.

The FAF is also looking to expand its capabilities through the coalition enablement of a common operational fleet of A400Ms with other users of the aircraft. As LCol Paillard puts it: “Our pilots have on average 200-300 hours of flying time with the plane; that is just the beginning. As we gain experience and the planes grow with us, we will be able to provide a significant capability, both for the French forces and our allies.”
Robbin Laird is an international defence analyst based in Virginia, USA, and a regular FrontLine Defence contributor.
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