MILITARY ATLAS C1
Mark Ayton reports from RAF Brize Norton, home of the Atlas C1 force
Working through pre-flight procedures 25ft above the ground on the flight deck, Ed, the pilot for the day’s mission, has a five-hour flight ahead. Ed is not sitting in a flight deck of a legacy transport aircraft, though; Ed is in the flight deck of an Atlas C1, the RAF’s name for the Airbus A400, quite possibly the most advanced propeller-driven transport aircraft yet to be designed and enter military service in the world.
The RAF has accepted 20 such aircraft into service, all of which are assigned to the Atlas force, which comprises three squadrons. Test and evaluation is undertaken by 206 Squadron, training by 24 Squadron and frontline operations by 70 Squadron.
A team goes to the Airbus A400 production facility in Seville, Spain, to accept each aircraft from the manufacturer, following the procedures set out in what’s known as the customer acceptance manual. The process is not a one-day affair, but one that lasts up to six weeks, involving extensive engineering ground inspections and some functional check flights; a process that has been progressively refined and streamlined since acceptance of ZM400, the first RAF aircraft that arrived at Brize in November 2014.
Airbus is a multinational company, as is the A400 programme, with many stakeholders involved from each of the customer nations, all of whom are looking at what they want from the aeroplane. As the manufacturer, Airbus continues to work with each customer nation to facilitate its specific list of requirements, which varies nation to nation. One big aspect of the A400 programme is aircraft configuration at the point of delivery. Seven were planned from the outset, each designated as a batch number. Each batch introduces additional systems on the aircraft to provide an increased level of capability:
Batch 1 provided the basic air transport capability for flying cargo and passengers between two locations.
Batch 2 provided RAF-specific defensive aid systems, not confirmed by the RAF, but believed to include the Northrop Grumman AAR-47
Batch 3, provided an initial aerial delivery capability, in particular the container delivery system (CDS).
Batch 4 provided an autonomous landing system, something the RAF is not planning to use in the near future.
Batch 5 and Batch 6 will provide minor upgrades including a calculated air release point or CARP function for air drop.
Batch 7 will provide the A400’s full-up capability to enable advanced parachute roles such as low-level paradrop of personnel and medium weight equipment; all in a threat environment.
The Atlas force is currently in the process of fitting minor upgrade bundles to those aircraft based at Brize. The installation process is undertaken as each aircraft undergoes its C check, the main depth maintenance activity undertaken at Brize by a joint RAFAirbus- Flybe engineering team. Installation of minor upgrade bundles is a process designed to introduce capability as early as possible without reliance upon the planned, long-term retrofit upgrade programme performed by Airbus at Seville; six of the RAF’s early aircraft are currently in retrofit.
Currently, RAF Atlas C1s do not have a calculated air release point function within the flight management system, which is an essential requirement for airdrop missions by a two-person flight deck crew. For now, aircrews are using a tablet computer, backed up by manual calculations, and use of procedural workarounds developed from the RAF’s many years of operational service with the C-130. The minor upgrade bundle featuring Batch 5 and Batch 6 capability should allow crews to drop extracted loads; the RAF needs the capability to extract a variety of loads, including bundles of stores and boats.
The RAF has also designated three of its own standard operational configurations (SOC), each of which includes progressive sets of the batches; SOC 1 covers Batches 1 and 2, SOC 2 covers Batches 3 to 6 and SOC 3 Batch 7.
At this point of the story, it’s important to consider the RAF’s A400 acquisition concept. From the outset the big turbo-prop was procured as a replacement for the C-130, initially the C-130K, which went out of service in 2010, and ultimately the C-130J.
In accordance with the A400 service entry plan, which resulted from the UK government’s 2010 and 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, the first aircraft, ZM400, was to be a basic post pre-production fit that enabled basic air transport so that aircrews could begin training, rather than aerial delivery or paradropping roles. Configuration of the first aircraft lacked the software and the flight management system upgrades and cargo hold equipment required for aerial delivery, one aspect of the ongoing retrofit programme, which is also being used to implement the UK-specific defensive aid system.
The RAF’s 22nd and last aircraft is scheduled to arrive at Brize in 2022, configured as a Batch 7 aircraft.
Often missed by media reports is the way the RAF configured its air mobility force using C-130Js and C-17s for the tactical air transport role. As the 14 aircraft C-130J fleet draws down to 2035, the A400’s capability is planned to ramp up in sync with the drawdown of the C-130J.
The first role adopted by 70 Squadron was strategic air transport resupplying RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, supporting the MoD’s worldwide exercise programme, and flying resupply missions supporting French, UK and UN forces in Africa, those in benign threat environments. Subsequent operational tasks have included aeromedical missions and resupply missions within nonpermissive environments of Afghanistan and Iraq. Away from the hot and dusty African and southwest Asia locations, 70 Squadron also performs maritime reconnaissance and SAR around the Falkland Islands, once the role of the C-130J, but conducted by the A400 since April 2018.
Challenges with the Atlas
It’s appropriate to consider the challenges faced by the Atlas force while bringing the aircraft into service. The process is not just about the aircraft, but also ensuring the Atlas meets UK Military Aviation Authority safety regulations and engineering standards. Unsurprisingly, this requires detailed scrutiny to ensure the stakeholders responsible put an ironclad safety case forward for every new capability. Take the Falkland Islands role. There are many different stakeholders that must work together to recommend a capability is accepted into service in a safe and as thorough method as possible. Consequently, such process takes time.
Air safety is paramount. When the tragic crash of A400 (msn 23) happened at Airbus’ Seville facility on May 9, 2015, the RAF decided to stop flight operations until the cause of the crash was understood and additional safety measures were put in place.
Root-cause analysis showed a problem with the FADEC software on one engine for which technical fixes were required. Aircrews at Brize did a lot of work in the simulators to try and replicate the situation to determine that the technical fix worked; it did.
A clear strength in the engineering organisation at Brize is having RAF personnel embedded with those from Airbus and Flybe who provide expertise and maintenance support. If the appropriate expertise is not available on site the Airbus representatives have direct access to specialists in Madrid or Seville, making information rapidly available.
According to Group Captain Chris Jones, Head of the UK Atlas Support Centre, Airbus has really leaned into the Brize operation because RAF engineers assigned to 70 Squadron are experienced customers with operational commitments to meet. When issues are found on the aircraft they need support. Consequently, the size and scope of the Airbus engineering support at Brize has increased above and beyond that called for in the contract. The company is helping accelerate processes and fixes for issues found.
As a consequence of the 2010 Haddon Cave report about the tragic loss of a Nimrod MR2 over Afghanistan, the RAF continues to be a prudent customer of aircraft and subsystem manufacturers. From an RAF perspective, there are many stakeholders looking into the cause of anything that happens, not least the Seville crash. Those stakeholders look at the facts from an operator and engineering perspective to ensure every aspect of the type of aircraft remains safe to operate going forward.
According to Wing Commander Ed Horne, the outgoing Offcer Commanding 70 Squadron, the Seville accident certainly set RAF Atlas operations back, because rightly everything associated with the type had to stop for flight safety reasons. However, the former squadron boss said the overall programme was not set back by the accident, nor did it cause the RAF to have to extend the overall service life or the capabilities of the C-130J.
The following year (2016), issues with the propeller gearbox emerged. Pinion plugs were breaking within a particular part of the gearbox. Designing and implementing a fix to the issue caused a knock-on effect, which was a big constraint the Atlas force had to deal with.
An interim design fix was installed in the affected gearboxes, as a redesigned gearbox would take some time to introduce to the fleet. The effort required to change a gearbox, which involves splitting the assembly from the engine, wasn’t something any A400 engineering organisation had prepared for. Procedures to physically swap a gearbox with the engine fitted to the wing to reduce the time required, were developed with Airbus and EPI. The process called for the removal of the propeller, followed by the engine and gearbox as one item, but there were insuffcient engines available within the multinational inventory. Consequently, the Brize engineering team could only work through the gearbox swap programme once modified gearboxes started to arrive at Brize. All affected gearboxes had been swapped out by the beginning of 2017.
In addition, another planned upgrade that provides improved thermal barrier coatings in the engine combustion chambers also had to be implemented. The coatings on early aircraft (including those deleivered to the RAF) were found to have a shorter in service life than expected. Affected engines are aggressively inspected to make sure there is no cracking until they can be removed and upgraded. If cracking is found, it’s measured to ensure it remains within prescribed limits. Under a free design upgrade, the affected engines are sent back to EPI for rectification, and whilst this fixes the issue, the upgrade process ties up spare engines in the repair loop.
For the engineering team, the challenge is matching the number of engines under upgrade to the requirements of the front line squadron to keep aircraft flying. Consequently, the RAF’s stock of engines cannot all be upgraded at the same time. A challenge, which according to Gp Capt Jones is common to other aspects of the programme that will endure in the short term, but come good in another three years.
Eventually, the issues currently in effect will be overcome through modifications and upgrades, the final designs for which are complete. Many of the 14 aircraft currently assigned to Brize have been modified under the retrofit programme to a common interim standard to ensure each one is configured to the same capability and reliability standards; a plan is in place for the remainder of the fleet to undergo the same process.
Additional engines were purchased earlier than had been planned to give the RAF Atlas force more resilience to a potential shortage of engines during this rework phase.
General aircraft availability has slowed the RAF’s Atlas capability development such that the batch upgrades are slightly out of sync with the operational requirements, with some capability functions that should have been delivered on early standard aircraft, not planned until later batches; the CARP function is a good example.
According to Ed Horne, the stepped approach for developing the capability of the Atlas force is as much about the aircrews as the hardware of the aircraft. He said: “We started the programme with a blend of experience levels and backgrounds; amongst the crews, we have 80 experts in aerial delivery and Special Forces operations, and considerable expertise from former C-17, C-130, Tristar, Tucano and VC-10 aircrew. That’s why from an air mobility force perspective, we’ve meshed the C-130 and the A400 programme to continue the tactical airlift roles, while the C-17s carry outsize loads and the Voyagers transport passengers, in addition to air refuelling. From a Brize Norton perspective, we don’t look at the A400 programme in isolation.”
The front-line unit, 70 Squadron, conducts a continuous line of tasking that involves a weekly resupply to RAF Akrotiri in support of Operation Shader, the UK’s commitment to the coalition fighting over Iraq and Syria. The aircraft then flies to a base in the Middle East. The RAF would not confirm the actual destination but this is believed to be Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, home of the RAF’s 906 Expeditionary Air Wing. The A400’s weekly Middle East tasking supports UK operations under Operation Kipion. Over a week-long milk-run, the aircraft flies to various bases in southwest Asia to resupply UK service personnel based at each one. It returns to Brize via Akrotiri.
Unsurprisingly, front-line continuation training is a big part of 70 Squadron’s workload, the bulk of which takes place in synthetic environments: simulators and the cargo hold trainer. Needless to say, real flying is also part of the continuation training. A good example is use of the UK’s lowflying training system, which is currently being used by 24 Squadron to develop tactics and procedures for low-level ops
Current and regular task roles include air transportation of pallets of freight, including dangerous goods, ammunition and personnel, with the capability to perform any of those roles in a non-permissive environment, in the dark using night-vision goggles to an unlit paved surface. Using these capabilities, 70 Squadron has been flying resupply missions into nonpermissive environments in Africa to support UK forces deployed there since November 2018. Missions flown in Africa require use of the aircraft’s defensive aids and infrared countermeasure systems, flight deck armour and armoured windows, role equipment that can be installed when required. Most Atlas C1 aircraft currently assigned to Brize are configured for the installation of armour. All 20 aircraft will be configured once the retrofit programme is complete. Armour kits can be transferred between aircraft as required, usually during a C check to ensure the capability is always available within the fleet. The armour provides ballistic protection up to a specific, undisclosed calibre of round, and is the most complex front-line role currently employed by 70 Squadron. Other such roles are natural surface operations (NSO), and aerial delivery of loads and paratroopers, which are all under test and evaluation by 206 Squadron.
From a training point of view, 24 Squadron is already practising aerial delivery and developing the tactical flying course, but the capability has yet to be released to the front line. Operational tasking into non-permissive environments has been conducted since the beginning of Operation Shader and since September as part of Operation Kipion. The first A400 to be permanently based in southwest Asia started in September 2018 to replace the C-130J.
One year earlier a call came in to 70 Squadron tasking the unit to help the UK government in the Caribbean in the aftermath of Hurricane Jose and Hurricane Irma. Two Atlas C1s deployed to Barbados alongside a C-17, C-130J and a Voyager. Both A400s and the C-130J were tasked to conduct hub and spoke operations in theatre, while the C-17 and Voyager delivered personnel and supplies across the Atlantic.
The tasking presented a scenario that perfectly suited one of the A400’s big strengths: its reach. Given the amount of cargo loaded aboard the aircraft at Brize, the aircraft’s restrictions meant one 90-minute fuel stop at Lajes in the Azores. Colleagues of 70 Squadron flying the C-17 and Voyager flew their jets direct to Barbados, the Voyager with an Atlas crew on board. Planning in advance, the forward crew was able to rest and be ready to launch the first in-theatre Atlas mission just a few hours after the two aircraft arrived in Barbados. The Atlas flew to Henry E Rohlsen Airport on Beef Island in the British Virgin Islands.
Beef Island Airport’s runway is just under 4,000ft/1,220m long, roughly a third of the Brize runway. The aircraft landed with 20 tonnes/44,000lb of equipment, supplies and Royal Marines on board. Utilisation of the 54 seats along the side, the floor and ramp for pallets meant the A400 was able to transport a significant humanitarian package into a really small airport, all accomplished withoutadditional training or the need to employ special techniques. A subsequent aircraft transported a full-size JCB excavator.
Beef Island Airport had suffered the full effects of a Hurricane, such that there were no fuel bowsers or support equipment ready on arrival. It was a 1,000-mile round trip. The first aircraft was loaded with lifesaving equipment on board and flew the leg non-stop, making a quick turnaround. Missions flown over the following days airlifted local people out as it became clear how far reaching the devastation had been.
Following the September 2018 tsunami in Indonesia, 70 Squadron was tasked with another humanitarian relief operation under Operation Rakeful. During a week-long deployment, a single A400 delivered 60 tonnes/132,200lb of freight into the affected region.
Given the nature of such operations, the squadron always includes an aircraft ground engineer and a mechanic as part of the crew to assist with all tasks involved with the aircraft’s maintenance. One big advantage of the A400 is the access the crew has to all of the aircraft’s systems. A laptop, integrated into the flight deck, is used by the engineer to interrogate the aircraft’s systems to see what faults might be pending or to run tests using the built-in test equipment.
The two-person flight deck is set up such that the aircraft provides an on-screen notification to the crew of any issue, and the procedure required to rectify the problem. If a rectification is not possible in flight, once on the ground the ground engineer uses the laptop to link into the flight deck and perform more detailed fault diagnosis.
The A400 uses big data, and the Atlas force is learning how to use that big data to best advantage. Engineers are using big data to good effect in the Falklands for preliminary fault reporting. The aircraft’s data notifies the ground crew when a system or component is starting to degrade, but not to the point when it annunciates it to the crew as a distraction whilst flying.
Explaining the system, Gp Capt Jones said: “We analyse the data in slow time and, for example, realise an igniter system is now starting to wear. That allows the engineering team at Brize to order a new igniter and get it to the Falklands before a notification is enunciated to the crew. The RAF is leading the field amongst the A400 nations to process the big data, and there is more to capability to come.”
Ops in the Falkland Islands
The UK is the only nation that is currently conducting maritime surveillance with the A400, more specifically using the radar and visual procedures to detect ships to ensure those found within the Falkland Islands Conservation Zone are licensed to be there.
Long-range maritime SAR is also provided in support of the four Typhoon FGR4s based at Mount Pleasant, and similarly to any mariner in distress. The A400 is able to reach the areas in which Typhoons operate, those that are much further out from the islands and beyond the reach of the helicopters tasked with SAR.
In addition, the Atlas adopts a communication relay role in support of the SAR helicopters, in one example during a rescue of a fisherman lifted offthe ship and bound for hospital.
Medevac is another role performed by the A400 at Mount Pleasant. One example involved the medevac of a Falkland Islander who had suffered a stroke whose condition was too serious for the hospital at Port Stanley to deal with. With engines running, the patient was stretchered from a helicopter up the ramp of the A400 and flown from Mount Pleasant to Montevideo in Uruguay. The A400, its aircrew and the RAF medics who travelled with the patient played a vital part in saving the person’s life.
Maritime surveillance and SAR was always an RAF requirement for the A400 and a capability milestone in the programme. Using the expertise held by the C-130J crews assigned the role in the Falklands and integration of UK-specific SAR equipment, the air sea rescue assembly, 206 Squadron conducted its test and evaluation, which in turn passed on its procedures to 24 Squadron, which built a course for pilots and crewmen that is now being used by 70 Squadron.
The unit continues to train crews to enable quicker rotation periods at the Falkland Islands detachment. Aircraft are deployed to Mount Pleasant for three months, which is a significant length of time at such a remote location. Situation as it is presents a logistics supply challenge, one made easier thanks to the twiceweekly Voyager flights between the UK and theFalklands. Each Atlas is deployed with six RAF engineers who benefit from reach back to Brize Norton for any technical expertise they might need. Similarly, the engineers can send postflight reports from the aircraft back to Brize for analysis to determine if any pending issues are coming up.
Prior to its journey south, the aircraft undergoes stringent engineering checks to ensure no significant maintenance requirements will fall due during its threemonth detachment. Mount Pleasant has a hangar available and a spares store, should depth maintenance be required, but, surprisingly, no spare engine. To date, the Mount Pleasant detachment has not required a new engine. Assurance that the engines are not susceptible to any degradations during a detachment are part of the aircraft’s preparation. That’s quite possibly a good thing, because changing an engine on an A400 is not as simple as legacy platforms. The process involves use of huge computer-controlled jacks to perform the balancing procedure. To forward deploy the jacks would require a means to ship the weighty machines to Mount Pleasant and a considerable amount of money to pay for the shipping. If an engine fails when the aircraft is away from Brize, an engine change procedure can also be undertaken using a deployable kit.
Part of the Falklands role is aerial despatch, so to meet the requirement the aircraft deployed must be in Batch 3 configuration.
Test and evaluation
Until April 1, 2005, 206 Squadron was a maritime patrol unit equipped with the Nimrod MR2 based at RAF Kinloss in Morayshire, Scotland. Today it’s one of the RAF’s test and evaluation squadrons specialising in most of the RAF’s fixed wing types other than the F-35B Lightning (undertaken by 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron, based at Edwards Air Force Base, California) and Typhoon FGR4 (undertaken by 41 Test and Evaluation Squadron, based at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire).
Post Nimrod, the unit was stood up at MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, but subsequently relocated to Brize in January 2016, a move implemented largely due to the amount of test work required on the A400, and other trials work on C-17 and C-130J also based at Brize.
Currently, 206 is testing eight different types of RAF aircraft including integration of tablet computers into the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Spitfires, and some fascinating work for the UK Military Flying Training System, together with ongoing testing of defensive aid systems for both the BAe146 and Voyager. The unit is expecting to commence fresh test programmes on the C-17 to integrate tactical capability. Comprising 25 aircrew, three of which fly the A400, 206 has qualified test pilots, who have completed a test pilot school course. Each A400 crew includes an evaluator pilot, meaning somebody who most likely has some recent operational experience on 70 Squadron. According to Wg Cdr Neil Philp, Offcer Commanding 206, having a member of a flight test aircrew with operational experience is critical to the way the squadron operates with a good balance of pilots and crewmen: “…some with test experience and some with operational experience who can explain what the front-line issues are. All of the squadron’s A400 aircrew [pilots, crewmen and flight test engineers] have either operated C-17 or C-130J. Even with that amount of expertise, aircrew can very quickly be absorbed by a big project. Consequently, we can’t run too many lines of development concurrently.”
In terms of its test objectives, 206 is an integrated test organisation that covers the full spectrum of testing from developmental to operational test, referred to as category one through to category five testing. One of the benefits of the integrated approach is provided by operational input, the realities of the front line. According to Wg Cdr Philp: “By the time 206 hands it over to 24 Squadron, the product will be something the front line can actually pick up and use, as opposed to handing a product over following a pure developmental test evaluation, which then goes into operational test.”
Relationships are close within the air mobility force based at Brize, such that 206 regularly has personnel from 24 and 70 Squadron on board the aircraft during tests flights so they get an early look at the capability that will go to them a few months later. This enables the 24 Squadron team to design the required course without waiting for a large trials report that then has to be read and analysed for designing the course.
Squadron test aircrew have been embedded with Airbus since the A400 programme’s outset and continue to flight test all military aspects of the release to service process. Invaluable for informing all stakeholders to the capabilities required on the Atlas aircraft, the set-up has proved beneficial throughout the programme and has resulted in capability solutions, some of which are compromises, but nevertheless meet the requirements of all nations.
Recent A400 test programmes include the low-level night-time flight capability; others are crosswinds, envelope expansion and pallet offload in a combat environment.
The MoD conducts delta test packages for any developmental testing of UK-specific systems that differ from the multinational requirements. This is generally performed by the Air Test Evaluation Centre (ATEC) based at Boscombe formed as part of a long-term partnership agreement between the MoD and QinetiQ. ATEC is an independent organisation to the military that gives the UK an integrated test force and allows full spectrum tests to be performed, and comprises 206 Squadron and QinetiQ. ATEC also provides the safety recommendations required for a system’s release to service.
Night-time low-level flying at 250ft is one recent example. The aircraft was previously certified at 300ft. For UK developmental test, ATEC aircrews fly lower and with night-vision goggles. Natural surface operation (NSO) testing undertaken at Pembrey Sands in Wales is another example of delta package testing, but this time undertaken solely by 206 Squadron under direction of the Air Warfare Centre based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.
Multinational NSO certification used methods that were too operationally limiting for the RAF, so 206 was called upon to conduct a trial using more demanding methods (minimal markers on the beach) and started testing in day time.
The following night, the test crews performed NSO using NVGs, which was a form of capability expansion; the aircraft proved very capable day and night.
Following its developmental testing at Woodbridge, Suffolk, Airbus successfully demonstrated NSO at Pembrey Sands using a well-defined surface granularity. However, operators don’t necessarily have the ability to measure the size of the gravel on the surface of the landing strip, and no one gravel size suits all situations. Subsequent 206 Squadron testing ensured RAF operational requirements were met.
Wg Cdr Philp said the biggest challenge faced by the 206 team was to expand the trial beyond the standard already used (which had the requirements for strategic lift very much in mind). He said: “The classic style of surveying the landing site is more operationally focused with a bigger risk in the margins. We will work with Airbus to determine how much risk we can take.”
Commenting on the RAF’s ultimate NSO requirements, Wg Cdr Horne said 70 Squadron wants to be able to drop somebody out the back of the aircraft or a Chinook to prod the surface to determine the CBR (California Bearing Ratio) and relay to the Atlas aircrew to confirm the surface is good to go.
Airbus’ design philosophy for its survey method was designed to determine how many times an A400 can use the strip before it breaks up. That’s best suited for hard strips or at a controlled environment good for 40 rotations before it needs regrading, whereas the front-line RAF aircrews might only need to use the strip once, which opens up a greater range of landing options, but means a wider range of testing. Atlas performed well in the 206 Squadron tests.
More recently, ATEC tested the CDS for aerial delivery of 24 containers, each weighing 1 tonne, using both a UK system and parachutes. This was one of the biggest ever air-dropped loads from any type of UK aircraft on record: 24 tonnes of containers. Operationally, RAF C-130Js regularly dropped up to 20 tonnes in Afghanistan, demonstrating how the bigger A400 can not only achieve a greater payload than a C-130J, but can carry a greater load further without aerial refuelling, described by Wg Cdr Philp as “proper operational effect”.
Aerial delivery of the CDS is the next capability to be delivered to 70 Squadron via the basic tactical course, which will also include NSO, and give the RAF air mobility force the allimportant humanitarian aid and non-combative evacuation operation abilities.
Explaining the work-up process for the night-time low-level flying trials, Wg Cdr Philp said the aircrews initially flew the simulator and then followed a progressive approach using in service night vision goggles (the same type as used by the C-130J), on known low level routes and areas. He said: “The A400 is very good at low level, thanks to the handling qualities which make it a pilot’s aircraft.”
Wg Cdr Horne added: “For those of us that have flown and loved the C-130, it’s an instant step change; A400 is the next-generation air transport aircraft.”
The CDS trial was also undertaken by ATEC, making use of its specialist engineers and experts, personnel that 206 Squadron does not have without ATEC’s partnership.
The first challenge faced by the ATEC team was aircraft configuration; those available all lacked a calculated air release point function within the flight management system.
Overcoming the lack of the function, the ATEC team devised a solution using a tablet to feed limited release point information to the head up display, but it lacked some functionality, requiring the release point to be manually entered into the aircraft’s mission computer.
The test process involved air dropping progressively greater loads. Air flow generated by the propeller engines is powerful enough to disrupt the static lines from which the parachutes deploy. Understanding what length of static line was required to achieve consistency and reliability in a position away from the aircraft was one of the first test points. A Diamond DA40 chase aircraft equipped with high-speed cameras was used to gather data from which the desired static line length was determined. Starting with a single container, the test team progressively increased the load to 24 containers. Drop altitudes were similar to those used by C-130Js in Afghanistan, bearing in mind that the higher the drop altitude, the more the containers spread across the drop zone. Air drops are undertaken for humanitarian relief and in combat, so a balance must be struck between using an altitude that’s out of range of small arms fire, but still has a usable decent area. The tests were conducted over drop zones used by C-130Js on Salisbury Plain, which are about 2,500ft/760m long.
“For those of us that have flown and loved the C-130, it’s an instant step change; A400 is the next-generation air transport aircraft.”
Trying to determine the unique vibration signature of the aircraft created by the four very powerful TP400-powered FH385/386 propellers is the most recent test programme to start.
Explaining the objectives, Wg Cdr Philp said it’s important for us to measure and understand what vibration is doing to cargo and the aircraft’s systems. Like all propellerdriven aircraft, the A400’s propellers generate a characteristic frequency vibration, which can have an effect on some types of cargo and aircraft systems. The first potential solution is use of attenuation equipment. At the time of the author’s visit to Brize, an attenuation system was being tested using an aircraft fitted with flight test instrumentation to measure vibration. This is a UK-specific test programme designed to increase utility for the important role of carrying weapons. Testing will help determine how transportation of a specific type of weapon could affect its performance.
More recently the A400’s military operating standard and its reduced operating standard were both determined with a flight test programme. These standards are determined so that military commanders can - where necessary and justified - authorise flights into and out of locations that normal safety factors would preclude.
Normal RAF operating standards include a standard safety factor, and sit just below its military operating standard as certified by Airbus, for which 206 Squadron carried out the operational test. As part of its certification process, Airbus set reductions for the distance and speed at which the A400 must land and take offusing the same length of runway or shorter, as set for normal operating standards, but with a higher payload.
Wg Cdr Horne said 70 Squadron was able to land at Beef Island Airport in the BritishVirgin Islands with a 20-tonne payload without needing to consider using a military operating standard, such is the performance of the A400. He described the aircraft as incredibly capable, but said that further evaluation is required to exploit its full capability through additional flight testing.
Similarly time, the team was part way through fitting a minor upgrade bundle, and 206 was about to fly the first RAF bundle-configured aircraft for a single operational test mission. This was not the first time members of 206 Squadron had flown the configuration. During Airbus’ bundle certification, squadron aircrew were involved with the process.
Should 206 and QinetiQ (the joint ATEC team) have safety recommendations, they report to the delivery team for inclusion within the release to service for sign-offby the independent Type Airworthiness Authority (TAA) as a capability for front-line use.
However, for the likes of a minor upgrade bundle, already certified by Airbus, the TAA will consider, and if content with the evidence, accept the certification recommendations and 206 conducts operational test on the bundle under full military governance
Explaining the single flight, Neil Philp said: “The aircrew’s default is simple. Can we continue to operate the way we have been operating? Is there anything that’s been introduced that is going to cause front-line crews an issue with operating this aircraft? We’ll evaluate that and the capability can be introduced to the front-line when required.”
The minor upgrade bundle mentioned above includes the calculated area release point functionality, but once the bundle is released to service, 70 Squadron will not use it immediately. Instead it will wait until a formal assessment has taken place proving its introduction into the aircraft’s flight management system is not presenting crews with any issues. Everything tested on the aircraft to date has shown the system is not presenting aircrews with any issues.
One other tasking for 206 Squadron is flying acceptance flights for each of the RAF aircraft under the retrofit programme at the Airbus’ plant at Seville. This is not a short process, but one that requires a couple of weeks to study every aspect of the upgrade and then flight testing every aspect with Airbus.
Neil Philp said it’s a constant task for 206 Squadron and that the interesting aspect of the process is linked to the front-line build-up of crews. He said: “Until that is complete and we have the tactical capability in place, 206 holds new capabilities that have been cleared. An example, in November 2018, we  started low-level flight trials, but it takes time before 70 Squadron can accept it as a front-line capability [some 18 months later]. During that time, 206 Squadron aircrew keep current with the capability until transfer to the front-line is appropriate. Another example is CDS, which we will probably demonstrate to 24 Squadron towards the end of 2019, but until that point, 206 will conduct that role on Salisbury Plain to maintain aircrew confidence and keep the capability alive.”
He went on to say that the big A400 headline for 2019 is parachuting of personnel from both a static line and offthe ramp. He said: “It’s quite a big trial with some issues to overcome. The airflow at the back of the aircraft is quite significant, so at what point do the parachutes deploy? How many troops can we drop? Are there crossover effects to consider if we are using the side doors, or do we use the ramp initially? There are plenty of questions and aspects to be evaluated.”
He went on to say that the big A400 headline for 2019 is parachuting of personnel from both a static line and offthe ramp. He said: “It’s quite a big trial with some issues to overcome. The airflow at the back of the aircraft is quite significant, so at what point do the parachutes deploy? How many troops can we drop? Are there crossover effects to consider if we are using the side doors, or do we use the ramp initially? There are plenty of questions and aspects to be evaluated.”
This test programme is for UK-specific equipment offthe ramp and the side door. Simultaneous despatch using both side doors is one of the two remaining roles yet to be certified by Airbus; the second is aerial refuelling of helicopters, one that the RAF does not currently plan to use.
Simultaneous despatch presents a theoretical risk of parachutists or parachutes crossing over. The issue is caused by the airflow along the aft of the fuselage, which creates the risk of parachutes and parachutists being pushed in toward the fuselage and crossing over. In comparison, the C-130J also presents this risk. All stakeholders in the UK A400 programme are working with Airbus to solve the issues and a modification has been developed.
Status of the fleet
Interestingly, the traditional initial operating capability (IOC) and full operating capability (FOC) terminology has not been used for the RAF Atlas at programme level. Instead, the RAF project offce is using capability milestones to denote a combination of aircrew and aircraft capabilities. However, the Atlas force based at Brize did define IOC and FOC. Defined requirements for IOC were a serviceable aircraft throughout a 15-day route, which was achieved in September 2015; programmatically, this was defined as capability milestone 2. Ten subsequent milestones follow, some of which have already been achieved; capability milestone 5 was maritime surveillance for the Falkland Islands task and capability milestone 6 is critical care and medevac. Largescale aerial troop insertion is the final one and is programmatically denoted capability milestone
12. FOC is expected to be achieved in 2025. When the RAF requires a new capability for A400, the requirement is initially handled by the programme manager before being passed to 206 Squadron. Its personnel develop the idea and the ability to achieve it, after which it goes back to the programme manager who then manages the requirement through all lines of development, including all aspects of training, equipment, personnel, information, doctrine and concepts, organisation infrastructure and logistics.
For any new capability, the programme manager’s team makes a series of visits to 24 Squadron to help with determining how the new capability will be trained by the squadron. Before any visit happens, the capability must be given consideration by all stakeholder organisations, not least the Military Aviation Authority and release to service authorities.
Determining how to train with a new capability involves two key offcers and their respective teams; the air mobility force commander who sets the capability requirement to train for the Chief of the Air Staff, and RAF Brize Norton’s station commander, who is the training delivery authority. The station commander and his team must develop the courseware and procedures that comply with the defence systems approach to training. This is an essential part of the process that ensures, as the name suggests, a systematic approach to the development, delivery and refinement of training courses. This is undertaken using a structured approach such that all stakeholders understand the learning objectives for each ground school lesson, simulator, flight or exercise to be conducted on the course. This involves determining what the outcomes will be, how assessment will be made and whether the outcome meets front-line requirements. As the training unit, 24 Squadron currently provides a basic and an advanced course for both pilots and crewman. Once an individual has successfully completed both courses, that person is qualified limited combat ready for the front line.
Other training products devised and implemented by 24 Squadron include modules for non-permissive air transport and maritime roles. Pilots and crewmen alike generally complete these modules six months after arriving on 70 Squadron. Successful completion of these modules ensure that crews are combat ready, and each element includes a capstone check flight to ensure each crew member’s competence.
It takes about four months to develop what’s dubbed course zero, the very first iteration of a new syllabus for a new capability such as air drop of the CDS. Course zero is followed by course one, which specifically comprises training of two front-line crews and instructors. All courses and modules are benchmarked against other training organisations in a bid to avoid thinking about training in just one way. To date, this has happened against one international airline.
Wg Cdr Horne noted the starting premise for all training at Brize is to use syntheticbased systems as much as possible before an aircraft is required, an aircraft that’s invariably required for front-line operations. Synthetic systems include two simulators, a cargo hold trainer, a loadmaster’s workstation trainer and a computer-based maintenance training system.
Recurrent training is another slice of breadand- butter tasking for 24 Squadron, comprising quarterly simulator packages that involve dedicated ground school and three simulator rides designed to build up knowledge of defined aspects such as cold weather, hot and high, high workload or non-permissive environment ops.
Maintaining the Atlas at Brize Norton is performed by a workforce comprising 190 Royal Air Force, 57 Airbus and 40 Flybe personnel; the latter are outsourced by Airbus to Flybe to conduct depth maintenance. All deployments, including those to the Falkland Islands, are manned by 70 Squadron personnel.
Gp Capt Jones rates the A400 as being a welldesigned aircraft which means it is quite easy to maintain. Five years of ops at Brize have provided plenty of opportunities to optimise front-line maintenance, such that the RAF is repackaging some of the aircraft’s maintenance requirements to make more efficient use of hangar space and to enable longer overseas deployments without maintenance. Under an ongoing programme of work with Airbus, the RAF is trying to reduce the burden of A400 maintenance on the front line to make it easier to deploy the aircraft for longer periods of time without major maintenance requirements during the aircraft’s deployment period, straightforward in principle, but not so in reality; because the A400 is a new platform, Airbus requires data to make decisions such that all changes to the maintenance procedures remain within the established safety margins.
In terms of spares, the RAF is part of a global support system contract, which yields economies of scale when buying spares to be shared with partner nations. The first iteration of the contract recently ended, and a new fourand- a-half-year term contract has been let. Dubbed global support step two, the contract includes all spares, all back-office support systems from Airbus, such as technical services, and all evolutions in the computerised systems.
Hands-on RAF maintainers continue to build their experience performing work on the A400, especially when deep engineering issues arise for the first time. Unlike the C-17 and C-130J squadrons, who have experience of all such deep engineering issues owing to the early stage of the A400, the Atlas force has yet to acquire similar levels of maintenance experience.
The author asked Chris Jones whether the size of the aircraft presents a logistical problem with having to get support equipment in position to conduct maintenance. He said: “On the flight line, no; during depth maintenance in the hangar, yes, when we use purpose-built towers and gantries to access all of the highest surfaces on the aircraft. We continue to model all maintenance activities to optimise them.”
The A400 currently uses a spreadsheet-based, predictive maintenance system that requires lots of human interaction. That system is being replaced by the maintenance data system (MDS). Post-flight data downloaded from an aircraft can be plugged in to MDS enabling maintainers to analyse the maintenance status of the aircraft and access predicted maintenance requirements up front. There is also a deployable version cunningly called portable MDS for use while the aircraft is deployed from Brize. Eight aircraft are solely operating on MDS, with the entire fleet expected to be using the new system by the end of the year.
Chris Jones described MDS as a cultural change for the Atlas force. He said: “MDS allowsthe sorties planned to be input to the system, so the maintenance team can select the best aircraft for each sortie. It really sharpens the maintenance team’s ability to get ahead of the maintenance curve and work better with the aircrew to plan.”
Ed Horne added: “At a glance, MDS allows us to see which aircraft has the most remaining potential before its next servicing event. We can do that with the legacy system, but MDS is the next-generation air worthiness management system and a maintenance data system. You download data from the aircraft on a card, plug it into the MDS and it takes all of the flight parameters [number of landings, number of flying hours, number of landing gear cycles] clocked up on the sortie just flown, and automatically reforecasts the maintenance required on that aeroplane without the need for human interaction, which unfortunately can often be error prone as a fact of the human condition.”
According to Chris Jones, the RAF is pushing the boundaries of the MDS to determine what it can be used for and what information can be extracted from it.
The A400 is not designed to routinely have major maintenance activities performed away from its main operating base. Take the Europrop International TP400-D6 engine, rated at 11,000hp (8,200kW). It’s big and weighs 1.89 tonnes (4,166lb), so large, in fact, that to change an engine away from base is not a preferred option. It can be done, but to do so would require specialists to be sent to the aircraft to perform the engine change, and as maintenance requirements go, it’s not routinely required, thankfully.
When an engine needs to be changed, the process is undertaken with four computercontrolled jacks that work in sync to lift the aircraft at the right rates. The process takes about six days to complete.
Reflecting back on when the Atlas force first encountered the initial problems with the engine gearboxes, Wg Cdr Horne said: “Gearboxes had to be swapped out, which involved taking the engine and gearbox assembly offthe wing, taking it into the engine workshop, splitting them, putting another gearbox on and then reinstalling the engine.
That took in the order of 12 to 15 days, because it was new to everybody. Since then, RAF and Airbus maintenance personnel completed a double engine change for the combustion chamber upgrade in six days.”
Describing Atlas front-line operations, Wg Cdr Horne reckons 70 Squadron has flown to many countries around the globe, from Norway to New Zealand, and has encountered all kinds of environmental conditions, including cold weather, snow and ice and contaminated runway operations (CRO), and described the aircraft as fantastic at CRO. Why? He said: “Because it has been designed to land on soft surfaces, it’s got lots of wheels and tyres, which means lots of brake packs, which means you can stop in a very short distance. It can do that automatically as well. As soon as it touches down, it will stop on a sixpence.”
Referring to cold weather operations in Norway, he said the squadron had not encountered any unexpected problems: “We de-iced the aircraft just like we would de-ice any other aircraft, and it works very well in a cold environment.”
Based in the Middle East, in daytime temperatures higher than 50°C, the aircraft performed well. The aircraft notifies the crew when it has a problem, and according to Ed Horne, his only experience of getting a notification in a high temperature was to warn that the point at which the fuel was about to exceed its designed operating temperature of 55°C was close; the system brings up the warning once the fuel temperature reaches 51°C.
Nor has 70 Squadron experienced any significant issues when operating from paved runways (not dirt strips) in hot and dusty environments, though the squadron’s breadth of operational experience on how the aircraft will hold up to repeated NSO is not that extensive yet. However, the Armée de l’Air does have extensive experience of operating its A400s on dirt strips in Africa based on its tasking in support of Opérations Barkhane and Serval, and is feeding back its experience to Airbus and the other operators. That’s welcome feedback for the RAF, which is in the process of procuring underbody protection kits for the Atlas, similar to those used by C-130s as a pre-emptive way of countering any problems encountered when operational NSO tasking begins.
RAF tactical airlift in combat environments is still undertaken by C-130Js. Eventually, the role will be taken over by the A400 as the required capabilities for the role are released to service. This is one of the primary reasons why the C-130J will continue in service until 2035.
The Atlas C1 is equipped with a radar warning receiver, but neither its test and evaluation nor a training course for using the system has been completed yet. That said, 70 Squadron has regularly flown missions in Africa and Afghanistan where the threat environment is not benign and where the aircraft’s defensive aid system has been successfully employed. Painting a picture of the aircraft’s configuration for a threat environment like those faced in Africa and Afghanistan, Wg Cdr Horne said cockpit and cargo cabin armour is always fitted. High-threat environments require the aircraft’s crew to maintain good situational awareness, which Ed Horne says the A400 provides, thanks to its latest-generation cockpit. Pilots are made aware of where any threat might come from on their displays and in the head-up display.
He said: “The spacious cockpit and large windows enable the pilots to look out at the ground ahead, and at night use night-vision goggles to enable us to land on an unlit runway and spot a ground-based threat or another aircraft, one that may not be on frequency, given the general level of air traffc control in parts of Africa. The level of integration is amazing, I can combine my route of flight, threat information, defensive aids warning and a Link 16 picture all onto one display or distribute it across four or five displays as the mission demands, as well as dodging thunder storms or tracking a TCAS contact.”
When asked for a summary of the RAF’s A400 programme, Ed Horne said the Atlas force has come a long way since the aircraft was first introduced in 2014, “compared to the C-130J’s service introduction, which I am familiar with, at this five-year point, the A400 is further ahead. We are deployed on operations and are making a real contribution to the air mobility force based at Brize Norton.”AI