Air forces across Europe suspended flights of the Airbus Group NV A400M after one of the military transport aircraft crashed near Seville, Spain, killing four people.
Britain’s Royal Air Force and Germany’s Luftwaffe both said they’d pause operations of the plane until the reasons for the crash become clear. The aircraft that went down on Saturday was several minutes into a first test flight before being delivered to Turkey. Germany has just one unit so far.
France will only permit “priority flights in operations already underway,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a meeting of European defense ministers in Lorient, western France.
Among the six people on the plane, all Spanish employees of Airbus, four were killed and two seriously injured, Airbus said. The accident occurred about 1 p.m. local time Saturday, about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) north of Seville’s San Pablo Airport. Airbus said it’s investigating the circumstances of the disaster and has dispatched a special team.
The incident is the first crash of an A400M. Television news coverage showed the aircraft, which carried the manufacturing serial number 23, completely destroyed and a large plume of black smoke rising over the scene. Photos supplied by the local government indicate the plane went down in a field, with wreckage strewn across a wide area and fire services on site to extinguish the blaze.
“It’s a human tragedy, but an accident like this does not indicate a design flaw that would jeopardize the program” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, an aviation advisory firm based in Fairfax, Virginia.
Germany’s only A400M so far was delivered in December and is still undergoing tests. The country has ordered 53 in total, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said. Britain has two of the aircraft, according to a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman. France already has six A400Ms that Airbus started delivering since Sept. 2013 and is expecting to get 3 more this year.
The four-engine turboprop transporter is assembled in Seville, in southern Spain, and the aircraft has started service with armed forces in France, Germany, Turkey and the U.K. The aircraft that crashed was to have been Turkey’s third such purchase and delivered in June.
The A400M is Europe’s most costly defense program, aimed at improving the region’s military-transport capabilities by replacing models already several decades old. Airbus has spent years haggling with governments over order numbers and follow-up financing as costs escalated and the A400M had to overcome technical and software issues.
Airbus typically performs two or three test flights on a production plane before it’s handed over to the customer. Saturday’s flight was the first for MSN023.
The A400M competes with Lockheed Martin Corp.’s smaller Hercules and Boeing Co.’s C-17. Airbus has said the plane handles short, poorly prepared runways better than the C-17 and can carry bulkier cargo than Lockheed’s model.
The A400M program is more than 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) over budget at 25 billion euros. Customers including Germany and the U.K. have cut the number of A400Ms they’re taking, and further cancellations are possible.
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At one point, cost overruns became so overwhelming that Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders threatened to scrap the plane. The program was sapping money and engineers on a scale that put the entire company at risk, he said at the time.
Even now, after the plane has moved into serial production, the program remains dogged by delays. Airbus said last month that it would deliver just two A400s to Germany instead of five this year.
Airbus, which relies chiefly on sales of its civilian airliners, appointed Fernando Alonso, head of flight test operations at the company, to lead the military aircraft unit amid repeated delays and quality shortfalls.