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Three years late, 'the Grizzly' military transport plane finally takes to the skies

Heading into the blue three years late, Airbus's troubled A400M 'flying truck' military transport plane lifts off for its maiden flight. 

The plane took off from Seville, in Spain, yesterday, with the flags of nine countries emblazoned on its side - the seven Nato nations plus Malaysia, which has ordered several planes, and South Africa, which recently pulled out of its order. 

Britain has ordered up to 20 of the planes but the project has been dogged by delays and cost-overuns. 

The A400 Airbus
We have lift-off: The A400 Airbus finally gets into the sky, and the design specifications that make it so special

Defence officials are due to meet in the next few days to discuss the next step for the beleaguered project, which is running three years behind schedule. 

Nicknamed the 'Grizzly' for its hulking design, the original price agreed by eight Nato nations with Airbus maker EADS for 180 planes was £20billion. But auditors believe the cost could rise by £5billion - raising fears the UK cannot afford it at a time of budget cuts. 

Negotiators between the nations are looking for ways to close the cash gap without asking taxpayers for any more money. But Britain has made it clear there is no new cash available during the recession. 

An Airbus A400M military transport plane
It can hold 116 soldiers or fully-equipped paratroopers. Specially moulded wheel bays, shaped like canoes fixed along the side of the plane, allow paratroopers to jump two at a time without colliding by making the airflow smoother 

An Airbus A400M military transport plane
The aircraft prepares for take-off in Seville, Spain. The project was launched six years ago but is running at least three years behind schedule

One way being considered to square the circle would be to deliver about 25 per cent fewer planes under the same budget. 

But Germany is so far reluctant to make concessions on price that would involve a reduction in guaranteed deliveries. 

An MoD spokesman said: 'The UK remains committed to A400M, but not at any cost. 

'We regard the ongoing negotiations as the best means by which to determine a more deliverable programme.' 

An RAF C-130J Hercules
The A400M is designed to replace Lockheed Martin Corp.'s aging C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft (pictured) used by the US Air Force as well as the retired C-160 Transall transport aircraft developed by a French and German consortium

Some details on the pan-European airlifter

DESIGN: It is the first high-wing aircraft with a T-shaped tail ever built by Airbus, known for its classic low-wing airliners. Some 30 per cent of the wide-body plane is made of weight-saving carbon-fibre composites including most of the wings. As on many modern airliners, pilots control the plane using electronics or 'fly-by-wire' systems rather than activating mechanical pulleys.
ENGINES: The plane's four 11,000-shaft-horsepower engines are the biggest turbo-props ever developed in the West. The TP400-D6 engines were developed by a European team including Rolls-Royce, Safran and MTU Aero Engines. A local solution was chosen after governments blocked Airbus's preference for an imported engine made by Pratt & Whitney of Canada, sparking a row over political interference. Airbus blames engine problems for much of the three to four year delay.
PROPELLERS: Each engine has eight Ratier-Figeac propeller blades measuring 5m tip-to-tip. The blades on each wing pair rotate inwards in a clockwise/anti-clockwise pattern pioneered by the legendary Russian Tupolev Tu-95 'Bear' strategic bomber.
SOFTWARE: Much attention has been given to crucial engine software, known as FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control). Writing and documenting the software to civil certification standards proved a daunting task and contributed to delays. The code was twice as long as that on the world's largest civil jet engine.
PAYLOAD VS RANGE: With a typical 20-ton payload, the A400M can fly 4,000 miles. It can haul 30 ton over a distance of 2,800 miles. Its maximum payload is 37 tons.
WHAT IT CAN CARRY: The 340 cubic metre hold can carry an NH-90 transport helicopter or CH-47 Chinook or a container truck or two infantry vehicles. For emergencies it has room for 125 stretchers plus an intensive care unit. It can hold 116 soldiers or fully-equipped paratroopers. Specially moulded wheel bays, shaped like canoes fixed along the side of the plane, allow paratroopers to jump two at a time without colliding by making the airflow smoother.
WHERE IT CAN LAND: Airbus says the 12-wheel landing gear allows it to land on soft and rough airstrips as short as 750m (2,500ft).
SPEED AND HEIGHT: The maximum speed of Mach 0.72 corresponds to 420 knots 'true air speed' at medium altitude. At low altitudes it can slow to less than 110 knots to refuel helicopters - that is 20 knots less than that approach speed of a small jetliner. A knot is one nautical mile per hour.
TANKER: It doubles as a refuelling tanker and can be refuelled itself.

COMPETITION: With a ticket price around £90million, it aims for a niche between the veteran Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules turbo-prop, whose modern stretched version lifts 21 ton, and the Boeing C-17, a transporter jet with a capacity of 75 ton and capable of landing on semi-prepared airstrips. In practice all three compete to some extent, market experts say.

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