A nation's military does more than defend sovereignty. Most also act as first responders, delivering humanitarian aide to disaster victims. But, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in the US, getting supplies into areas affected by natural disasters (or even forward operating bases) is far easier said than done. That's why a collaboration of European nations have spent more than a decade developing a heavy transport plane fit for the 21st century, the Airbus A400M Atlas.
The A400M Atlas is a four-engine turboprop transport aircraft designed by Airbus as a tactical airlift platform. It measures 148 feet long and 48 feet tall with a 139-foot wingspan, putting it squarely between the C-130 and the C-17 in terms of size and speed (but still way smaller than the Antonov An-225). A quartet of 11,000 HP Europrop TP400-D6 turboprop engines and four 8-bladed 17 foot-diameter "scimitar" props grant the plane a 485MPH cruising speed, a service ceiling of more than 37,000 feet and a range of 1,781 to 3,450 nmi, depending on the load. That's over 100MPH faster and 1,000 miles farther than the C-130 Hercules. Plus, the Atlas' beefy power plant, combined with its reinforced landing gear and lightweight carbon fibre-reinforced plastic wings and rotors, allows it to take off from short, unpaved runways in as little as 980 metres.
Interestingly, the A400M's propellers are designed to turn in opposite directions. This not only reduces maintenance and replacement costs (most turbo prop planes have left- or right-handed engines depending on which wing they go on; this uses a gearbox to only turn the blades backwards so the engines themselves become universal), it also produces superior lift, reduces torque, prop wash, and yaw compared to the older designs where both engines on each wing turned the same direction.
Most impressive is the new plane's cargo capacity. At 37,000kg (116 paratroops or 66 stretchers with 25 attending medics) at 58 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 12 feet tall, it holds roughly double what the Hercules can. In addition, the Atlas is outfitted with aerial refuelling equipment, allowing it to be used as a flying gas station, and can also be equipped with a variety of electronic surveillance and countermeasures for ISR operations.
To control this very large, very heavy plane without sacrificing manoeuvrability, speed, or altitude, the Atlas' three-person crew rely on a fly-by-wire flight control system similar to that found in the B-2 Stealth Bomber. All pertinent flight information is displayed in the glass cockpit — digital displays rather than traditional analogue gauges. Multi-Colour Infrared Alerting Sensor (MIRAS) missile warning sensors have also been integrated into the plane's countermeasure systems.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union and disagreements between the partner nations of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Belgium, and Luxembourg have slowed the development of the craft over the past decade, Airbus is under contract to produce more than 200 A400Ms at a pace of 30 per year. Initial deliveries are expected to begin later this year once the plane has finished its final rounds of flight testing. And when they do, the skies will be that much safer. [Defense Talk - Wikipedia 1, 2]