7/9/12: by Robbin Laird
Building new platforms in the 21st century is challenging.
caroThe challenge in part is that it has been so long since new air platforms have been built that an entire generation has grown up as the recipients of the work of the 50s and 60s and has seen little novelty in shaping replacement platforms.
With the absence of an historical context, new platforms are judged in terms of themselves, not against the challenge of building new complex systems.
When I was young, we grew up with test pilots dying, and planes crashing as part of the context of shaping new platforms. It was expected that testing was dangerous and new platforms were forged in the context of blood, sweat and tears.
There is no such context today.
A recent headline in a Reuter’s story brought this home to me.
Here is the headline: Engine woes again force A400M out of air demo: Sources.
In this story we learn that a troubled program (implied) which is a “loss-making” aircraft and which has suffered a “series of teething problems” that have “led to a four-year delay and billions of euros in cost overruns, mainly due to engine software delays and glitches with other systems.”
I might note that for many journalists, the game seems to be to highlight difficulties and to show that all programs are “troubled.”
It is a good thing these folks are NOT engineers or nothing would be flying.
It is called development and testing. Testing is supposed to FIND problems and sort out solutions in the context of the overall operating system. And software is a central part of the operation of all flying systems, notably those that “fly by wire.” So it is no shock that “software” glitches are part of the process of DEVELOPMENT.
As far as the loss idea let us ask a different question: over what period of time?
It is not surprising if a launch program is not making money. The question in the 21st century is rather a different one – with so few core multimission platforms being built what will be the alternatives available to customers?
The A400M will have a good run as a unique platform for global customers. It is very likely to be profitable over a 50 year run, if for no other reason that aircraft are not likely to be built in this class of aircraft. And this is due to the high cost of developing and launching programs.
And missing Farnbourgh as a flying platform is hardly a sin. And when it last flew at Farnbourgh, the flights were part of the test program. The planes were loaded with measurement systems which calibrated performance and operations.
And as far as the engine goes, there have been problems over the past couple of years, and as those problems have been identified and they have been resolved. And problems in this sense can be design or manufacturing problems, which have different origins and require different solutions.
The headline could have been: A400M at the Farnbourgh Airshow is a Production Aircraft: Getting ready for the first customers.
But that would have required an understanding that testing is well testing, and problems show up.
And as operations start and customers use the aircraft – here is a news flash – the plane will have problems and the customers and manufacturers will find solutions.
But of course we will have a headline something like this: A400M fleet after carrying tons of support to a humanitarian crisis in Asia, develops oil heating problems, or something like that.
Or more likely: A400M Develops Oil Heating Problems.
And then we will have journalists playing engineers commenting on the challenges using “industry” sources.
Airbus Military responded to the Reuters headline with this statement:
Airbus Military adapts Farnborough Air show planning
Based on the current flight test schedule and planning for the coming days, Airbus Military has decided to bring the first production representative example of the A400M – the MSN6 – to the Farnborough Air show.
The aircraft will be on static display, allowing a maximum number of current and potential customers and other visitors to view the production standard cargo-hold and appreciate the real dimensions of the aircraft without flight-test instrumentation for the first time. The decision to have the aircraft on static display only is based on engine issues that happened last week which need further investigation.
A400M flight-testing continues at an aggressive pace with successful achievements in the field of military capabilities. It is beginning to show the level of technical maturity required at first delivery, and we are pleased with the overall performance of the aircraft. Despite some engine maturity challenges, we are confident that we will find the right solutions and provide our customers with an aircraft that fully meets or exceeds the expectations.
For my look at the challenge of building 21st century aircraft in the face of headlines such as the one from Reuters please see
And for our look at Farnbourgh see
For a look at the status of the A400M program and testing you can see the following: