SA aviation company admits to challenges with A400M

19th September 2008 By: Keith Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

South African aircraft components manu- facturing and aircraft assembly company Denel Saab Aerostructures (DSA) has had to redesign some of the components it is producing for the multinational Airbus Military A400M transport aircraft project, owing to a number of critical factors affecting the basic design. DSA is also considering joining the Embraer C390 military transport aircraft project, based on the design and manu- facturing expertise established through its participation in the A400M programme.

“DSA is currently in the process of preparing a formal quote to Embraer for participation in the C390 programme,” reports Denel group executive: technical major general (Retd) Otto Schür. “This participation would involve the manufacture of large composite structures, similar to those being produced for the A400M.” (DSA is 80%-owned by the Denel group and 20% by Sweden’s Saab.) The C390 programme is expected to be officially launched before the end of this year, with the Brazilian government almost certain to commit itself to buying some 20 aircraft to replace the Brazilian Air Force’s current and ageing fleet of Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports.

The C390 will be a medium-sized transport aircraft, capable of transporting up to 19 t of cargo. Powered by two turbofan engines, it will fulfil the roles of troop and cargo transport, medical evacuation, and the refuelling of other aircraft, both in flight and on the ground. It will have what Embraer describes as an “ample” cabin, a rear loading ramp, and the most modern loading and unloading systems. Unofficial reports in Brazil state that the C390 will be able to carry 84 troops or 64 paratroopers and have a maximum range, with full payload, of 2 400 km; top speed would be 850 km/h. Reportedly, Embraer believes that there is a global market for 700 new aircraft in the C390 category in the medium term, thus making a sound business case for the new design.

“With regard to the A400M, our participation has not been without problems,” admits Schür. “But the delays with the aircraft’s engines have reduced the pressures on us, as well as on all other contributors to the programme.” The fundamental difficulty is that the weight of the A400M has increased by a significant margin. “So, where the wing-fuselage fairings, which are designed and made by DSA as tier 1 suppliers to Airbus, were originally meant to be just fairings, they now have to be load-bearing structures, thus necessitating significant redesign,” he explains. “And, as a risk-bearing partner, DSA has had to bear the cost of this redesign.

But, in interacting with Saab Aerostructures, DSA has benefited from this relationship that has added significant advantage in terms of enhanced competence in new materials, design and manufacturing expertise. It will certainly stand them in good stead for possible participation in the C390 programme.” The wing-fuselage fairings are manufactured mainly from composite materials but include aluminium parts. Each fairing is 15 m long, 7 m wide, and nearly 2 m high.

In addition, DSA is responsible for the top shells for the centre fuselage section – these can be thought of as equivalent to roof panels. The company is producing two top shells for each aircraft – one each in front of and behind the wing box, which joins the wing to the fuselage. DSA is also contributing the ribs and spars for the tail fin, and centre wing box structural components.

The A400M is a large transport aircraft; its cargo hold has a length of 17,71 m, excluding the rear ramp; the rear ramp is itself 5,4 m long; and the cargo hold is 4 m wide and 3,85 m high (aft of the wing, the hold is 4 m high). It will have a maximum payload of 37 t.

“Airbus Military has very stringent contracts on all its suppliers, including penalties for late delivery or nonperformance,” says Schür. “And weight is a supercritical issue. But the fact that Airbus Military has itself grown the empty weight of the aircraft opens room for renegotiation. Both sides want to make the A400M succeed in the international marketplace.”