Last year saw the Royal Air Force’s Airbus Defence A400M swoop in to provide hope and much needed humanitarian aid in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean – its first operational tasking. TIM ROBINSON reports from RAF Brize Norton as the Atlas flexes its muscles and takes over more of heavy lifting from the iconic Hercules.
Operation Ruman was the operational debut of the RAF A400M Atlas in a major humanitarian airlift. (MoD)
“Working side-by-side on the hurricane relief was the first time I've heard a C-130 special forces support pilot turn around and say: "It's actually quite good at this, isn't it?" That was a mark of respect.” This, the words of Wg Cdr Gareth Burdett, OC XXIV Sqn (who was also in charge of the air mobility wing deployed for Operation Ruman, the UK’s Caribbean assistance mission), is a tribute to the RAF A400M’s operational debut in a major international humanitarian mission in September of last year. The UK humanitarian relief effort, in the wake of the damage and destruction left by Hurricane Irma as it swept through the Caribbean, saw Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines and RAF personnel scrambled a short notice to deliver urgent aid and assistance. As well as HMS Ocean and RFA Mounts Bay, the relief effort also included RAF Puma helicopters, C-17s, a C-130 and two A400Ms to deliver much needed food, water and essential aid to UK Dependencies and other islands in the Caribbean that had been affected by one of the worst storms in history.
Ruman saw A400Ms deliver much needed aid to the hurricane-hit Caribbean. (MoD)
Though the first Airbus A400M for the RAF was delivered in November 2014, Operation Ruman was the first operational debut for the UK A400M fleet and a significant milestone for a force that is still growing with a mix of 24/70 Sqn aircrew swinging into action.
The RAF now has 18 A400Ms in service, pooled between the OCU XXIV Sqn (24 Sqn), LXX Sqn (70 Sqn) and, 206(R) (responsible for trials and evaluation testing). Four more aircraft are set to be delivered between now and 2019 to take the whole force to 22 aircraft and another ex-C-130 squadron, 30 Sqn, is set to reform in 2018 as the second front-line A400M unit.
The OC of the RAF A400M’s front-line operational unit, 70 (LXX) Sqn, Wg Cdr Ed Horne said: “It's worth stressing that the Atlas force of 70 Sqn and 24 Sqn, and our engineering colleagues, are still in growth and still a relatively immature organisation. It's not something that we held a standby commitment for, or anything like that. So to get two aircraft out the door in such a short timeframe, for over 4,000 miles away, really playing to the aircraft's strengths in terms of its reach and its range, was a fantastic achievement.”
Echoing this view, was 24Sqn’s OC, Wg Cdr Burdett: “The A400M was remarkable in what it could do, It could take three times as much as a C-130 into a tight, small strip without taking any military risk in its performance. Whereas C-130 was taking in five tonnes, the A400 would be taking in 15.”
A400Ms were able to deliver heavy loads into tight airstrips. (Gary Deakin/Airbus)
During the airlift, two A400Ms deployed to Barbados via a refuelling stop in the Azores (the C-130 taking a longer route via Iceland, Canada and the US) before all three began 'hub and spoke' type transport missions to deliver much-needed supplies to the stricken islands of the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Antigua and US Virgin Islands. In around a month of operations, the two A400Ms and C-130J delivered approximately 1,5,00 tonnes of aid, the vast majority of that delivered by the Atlas – thanks to its increased airlift capacity over the Hercules. Mixed loads were common, said Wg Cdr Horne: “We had food, water, building materials, shelter kits, DFID aid type-stuff, in among JCBs playing to the volume sizes of the aircraft as well as its lift capacity, and then 54 passengers as well in the side seats.”
Though the A400M is big (37 tonnes total cargo capacity) it is also remarkably 'light on its feet' thanks to 12 main wheels in two six-tyre pairs. This and its capability to operate into smaller airfields, while still carrying a huge load meant that the Atlas made its mark in Operation Ruman. Notes Wg Cdr Horne: “If I talk about Beef Island Airport in the British Virgin Islands, the runway length, it's concrete of course, but about 4,000ft long, and we were able to transport in the order of 20 tonnes, compared to the C-130’s seven or eight tonnes. We love the C-130, but you can't help but draw comparisons.” He added: “I would stress there is that we didn't have to employ any sort of special take-off or landing techniques. Everything was done to the standard that all the crews are trained to, using the same sort of tactics and techniques that we would use here at Brize Norton.”
In Ruman, we didn't miss a heartbeat on the A400 for serviceability, and its performance was absolutely superb"
The range of the A400M also proved its worth in Operation Ruman, allowing the aircraft to deliver aid without needing to find somewhere to refuel at the delivery end. Says Horne: “if you could imagine that most of these places have been smashed up by a hurricane and therefore not only were there limited communications available, but there were also limited services available like the ability to refuel aircraft. If I take the Turks and Caicos Islands as an example, that's about 1,000 miles from Barbados. So to go 1,000 miles there and 1,000 miles back might be beyond the fuel range of other transport aircraft. The A400M wouldn't have any issue in going there and back without having to refuel.”
Horne also is enthusiastic about the aircraft from a pilot’s perspective, especially the HUD, situational awareness, powerful brakes and crisp, precise FBW system: ”From an operational point of view, from a testing, environmental scenario where it's windy, gusty, you're trying to accurately land on a short strip, the fly-by-wire capability coupled to all that situational awareness really makes it a step above.”
The aircraft is also receiving praise from the RAF’s loadmaster community – for its next gen qualities and design features. Rear ramp steadying struts and the ability of the aircraft to 'kneel' and reduce the angle of the ramp allowing vehicles and loads to be more easily loaded. This and an integral winch, means forgetting two pieces of essential equipment for the C-130J (an 'elephant's foot' support for the ramp and a winch) is now a thing of the past.
The cavernous A400M cargo hold. The RAF worked with Airbus to introduce a flexible curtain at the back after feedback from passengers that the rear of cargo bay can become colder than the front.
Sgt Andrea Harrison, a Loadmaster on 70 Sqn at Brize, highlighted the automatic load-locking system, which can be used either from a side panel or the loadmasters station as a step-up from the 'charismatic' C-130J she had previously flown. The A400M's wider cargo hold, too, said Sgt Harrison, also allowed for easier checking of loads and pallets, with Loadmasters able to walk around the sides, rather than clamber over the loads.
Another advance over the C-130, she said, was that weight and balance calculations (for say additional cargo along a route), can be added on the fly while in flight, an improvement over the C-130J where the computer would only allow the Loadmaster to make changes while on the ground.
A400M Full Flight Simulator device at the ASTL facility at RAF Brize Norton.
Training for the A400M for the RAF is conducted by 24 (XXIV) Sqn, based at Brize Norton, which is the Air Mobility Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for A400M, C-17 and C-130. The squadron has 12 pilot instructors, eight loadmaster instructors and ten engineer instructors, with the unit to add a further six pilot instructors in the future when at full strength. The squadron’s strength, says Burdett, is its mix of highly experienced instructors. “The calibre of the instructors I have is phenomenal. They are all experts from the aircraft types they've flown before, and we've deliberately gone for a blend.” He added: “We've got people who are experts on the Herc, which is the obvious angle, but people who are experts on the C-17. We're bringing together the blend so we don't end up in groupthink and just using it in the same way that we've always used a Herc, because that would be a massive waste of this aircraft that can take three times as much into a small strip.”
For the A400M training and conversion, it works closely with ATSL (A400M Training Service Ltd) a joint venture between Airbus and Thales. Civilian instructors from ATSL (two pilots, three LMs and four engineers) provide initial conversion training, before handing over to the RAF instructors for the more operational and tactically focused part of the course.
A new A400M training facility features two full-motion flight simulators (FFS) from Thales which theoretically allow zero-flight time qualifications. However, the current type conversion course features 33 simulator flights, followed by four flights in the aircraft, with line training after that. All told, the OCU is aimed at lasting four months. As might be expected, a fair few of these new A400M pilots are from the shrinking C-130J force, but there are others from Shadow R1s as well as ab initio pilots direct from the King Airs at 45 Sqn. While 24Sqn is currently in ‘surge mode’ at a steady state, the OCU will be training ten A400M crews a year.
As well as type conversion, 24Sqn’s role also includes refresher training, with front-line crews returning to the sims four times a year, to brush up on operating procedures and maintain standardisation. This refresher also includes annual checks and instrument ratings.
ATSL provides four sim flights a day per sim to the RAF, each lasting around three hours. The two simulators, with the latest visuals, can be linked to each other, to allow for formation flying, and instructor stations can also 'fly' additional AI A400Ms, allowing up to four aircraft to be flown simultaneously. However, notes Wg Cdr Burdett, despite the ramp-up in crews there is still spare capacity, and talks are ongoing with other A400M operators about potentially using this facility to train their pilots. While the simulators are currently used for type conversion, Wg Cdr Burdett also foresees that the A400M force will expand their use to include mission rehearsal. Networking to other simulators (its pace though, dependent on funding) is seen as part of the future of collective training for RAF.
A Cargo Hold Trainer allows loadmasters and other personnel to get familiar and train on loading and unloading the Atlas.
The facility also features classrooms for training engineers with the latest in 3D 'virtual reality' which allows students to open, inspect and crawl all over a detailed 3D model on a desktop computer, before moving on to line training. At some point, 24 Sqn hope to add VR goggles to the training, to immerse students even further. As well as the FFS, computer-based training classrooms, the new 24 Sqn training facility also includes a Loadmaster Procedural Trainer.
Just outside of the building, 24 Sqn can make use of a 1:1 scale rear fuselage mock-up, the Cargo Hold Trainer-Enhanced (CHT-E). Though the outside looks like bare metal, inside the rear cargo bay and all its equipment (including working winch and ramp) is replicated to allow Loadmasters and movers to train in loading and unloading the real aircraft. One of three CHTs in existence, the RAF's version is enhanced with additional features, including smoke that can be introduced into the cargo bay to train for smoke and fire emergencies. As well as training the squadron's own personnel in loading and unloading the Atlas, the CHT-E also fulfils another function in allowing 'third party' user groups from Britain's armed forces such as medics, logisticians, or 16 Air Assault Brigade to familiarise themselves with the cabin dimensions.
Taking up the strain
Round the clock - the A400M is now picking up more C-130 missions. (Brent Maartens/Airbus)
While Operation Ruman saw the A400M and the Lockheed Martin C-130J working together, the new airlifter is now beginning to shoulder more and more of the Hercules’s traditional missions (although the C-130J is set to remain in service until 2035 – in the niche role as special forces support).
For instance, as well as a regular transport flight to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus supporting Operation Shader, last November it was announced that a A400M is now detached to the Middle East to support UK forces around the Arabian Gulf– taking over from the duty C-130 that has been based there since 2003.
The RAF A400M has also been used recently on support flights to Ascension Island, where its ‘high flotation undercarriage’ has made it invaluable in not damaging the runway further after concerns over the runway.
Expanding the capability
Beach landings are just one example of how the A400M is rounding out its full capabilities. (Airbus)
As well as growing the force with the OCU and replacing the C-130J on ‘concrete to concrete’ transport tasks, another priority is for the RAF to expand the Atlas with a programme of capability development, that includes low-level tactical flying, fielding the DAS (defensive aid systems), NVGs, parachute and cargo airdrops, austere airfields and AAR (air to air refuelling).
In 2018, notes Wg Cdr Burdett, “We'll be looking to develop low-level flight further. We'll be looking to develop air drop, because that's one of the core skills for tactical air transport, and one of the most useful when it comes to some of the tasks we don't get much choice over, such as humanitarian aid or evacuation operations.”
Following airdropped container work, the next phase will see the RAF develop the A400M’s parachutist role, with an initial goal of delivering 30 paratroops. Although this is smaller than the 108 paratroops that could be eventually carried, this will allow the RAF and air delivery specialists to gain experience and knowledge and work up gradually to this final target.
While some test and evaluation work (like beach landings, trialled last year) falls to Airbus test pilots (with RAF pilots onboard too), 24 Sqn also has its own small capability development section of instructors, working up techniques such as low-level flying, for example using the famous Mach Loop. 70 Sqn too, is also expanding the range of Atlas capabilities – with crews going through a NVG training package. (Indeed, NVGs and austere airfield operations were also demonstrated when the RAF deployed the A400M to the major air mobility exercise, Exercise Mobility Guardian in the US last year – which also included the Atlas loading a US Army Stryker vehicle.)
Another upcoming string to its bow will be outfitting the A400M for the medical evacuation role. This will sit somewhere between the CH-47 MERT (Medical Emergency Response Team) and the C-17 'flying hospital' used for more deliberate, planned evacuations. Though any A400M medical evacuation mission would undoubtedly be towards the more deliberate end, the ability of such a large airlifter (able to carry the C-17’s equipment) to get into smaller and more austere airstrips will provide a leap in MEDVAC capability for UK forces.
Whole Force at Brize Norton
Though the aircraft has experienced teething issues, the RAF has benefited from a close support partnership on site at Brize Norton with Airbus, FlyBe and DE&S civilians.
Like many new aircraft before (and no-doubt after) the Airbus Defence A400M has suffered its share of teething troubles – the discovery of engine gearbox issues in 2016 and the crash of a pre-delivery A400M with the loss of four of the six Airbus flight crew onboard in 2015 saw the RAF temporarily ‘pause’ A400M operations in each case while it assessed the risk and instituted fixes.
However, by working proactively with OEM Airbus, the RAF has managed to mitigate many of the issues that has blighted it. For example, the RAF, said Wg Cdr Horne, working closely with Airbus partners on site, reduced gearbox inspection and replacement process time (that involved taking the EPI turboprop off the wing) by half through the collaborative development of an on-wing process. Said Horne, that “made a huge difference when you're trying to generate aircraft.”
Operation Ruman, too, had seen the aircraft perform well in terms of serviceability. Said Wg Cdr Burdett: “There have been challenges with reliability. But in Ruman, we didn't miss a heartbeat on the A400 for serviceability, and its performance was absolutely superb.”
One major reason that may account for the difference between the RAF experience with the A400M and other operators, is the extremely close relationship at RAF Brize Norton between service personnel, manufacturer and civilians in supporting the A400M in the Single Engineering Organisation (SEO). A new state-of the art 24,000m(sq) hangar and MRO facility at Brize Norton, Government-owned but maintained by Airbus, was opened in May 2017 to provide integrated support for both line and depth maintenance. This facility features two large deep maintenance bays, underfloor power systems, as well as automated parts dispensing and tool-tracking. It also includes another bay for line maintenance. The new facility, which features 350 RAF, Airbus, FlyBe (which is contracted to provide depth maintenance) and DE&S civilians working together under one roof, in a three-storey facility with Google-like ‘coffee spaces’ also has been built with an eye on the future. The depth maintenance bays, for example, are big enough not only for the A400M, but also for the Voyager MRTT and C-17.
This, another example of 'Whole Force' in action means that: “Our RAF technicians are interchangeable with their Airbus colleagues. It's something that works very well, because it means we can flex manpower here and there as we would require it.” says Wg Cdr Horne.
Wg Cdr Horne, OC 70 Sqn, RAF.
In conclusion, the A400M has been a long time coming, from UK plans to replace the Short Belfast, to the Future Large Aircraft (FLA) and twists and turns of a much-delayed European defence procurement programme – the first developed under civil certification rules. While other snags could still emerge, the evidence from the Royal Air Force, one of the most experienced and skilled air arms in the tactical air transport business, is that it is proving to be a worthy successor to the much-loved Hercules. Enthuses Wg Cdr Burdett: “A400 came into its own as an air mobility asset on Op Ruman.”
However, perhaps more instrumental in its success so far in RAF service, is in the men and women who fly, load, maintain and support it: (whether in uniform or not) and who are Atlas’ real strength, according to Wg Cdr Horne. “I think that's really the main strength at Brize Norton, is that when the call comes, the capacity is there, but crucially, so is the willingness of the people. Our people dig in and go the extra mile.”
Airbus A400 photo competition winners
At the Paris Air Show in June 2017, Airbus Defence launched a new annual aviation photography contest(3) for amateurs, young photographers and enthusiasts to capture the A400M airlifter in service, at air displays or on operations around the globe. The ‘In Plane Sight’ competition, supported by AEROSPACE, was divided into three categories:
Military Photographer Award for military entrants
Young Photographer (18-21 year olds)
General Public Photographer Award open to all photographers
The competition attracted over 960 submissions and the three winning entries were judged by a panel consisting of Colin Paynter and Ioannis Papachristofi lou from Airbus, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, RAF, Tim Robinson, Editor-in-Chief of AEROSPACE and aviation photographer Claire Hartley. The winners will receive a VIP tour of the A400M factory and final assembly in Seville plus an opportunity to get hands-on in the full flight simulator itself at Airbus’ training facilities. In addition, the winning photograph also appears on the front cover of the January issue of AEROSPACE.
The winners were:
Winner of the Young Photographer category and Overall Winner − James Roberts, UK
Winner of the Military category − Marina Muñoz Fernandez, Spain
Winner of the General Public category − Alvin Russell, UK
Images of the winning entries and runners up can be viewed on https://www.a400m-photocompetition.com/ and the competition will return in 2018.