Airbus A400M Atlas Tactical Transport Completes Beach Landing Trials.

Interesting Exercise Demonstrates A400M Unimproved Takeoff/Landing Capabilities.

The new Royal Air Force Airbus A400M tactical transport, aircraft ZM414, recently conducted a fascinating tactical capability trial at the Pembrey Sands Air Weapons Range in South Wales, U.K.

The Airbus A400M demonstrated its capability to insert into and deploy from unimproved sand airstrips while loaded. This is a critical mission set for tactical transports, especially in support of special operations in forward areas in austere conditions.

While landing and take-off operations from unimproved airstrips have been previously proven with the A400M this test confirmed the aircraft’s capabilities with a heavy load. Close examination of the aircraft’s performance, especially on landing, suggest it was heavily laden during the Pembrey Sands tests.

The testing and verification flights were organized by the DE&S (Defense Equipment & Support) A400M Project Team, based at MOD Abbey Wood in Bristol, working with the Airbus A400M development team and the Royal Air Force.

In a statement released by the MoD (Ministry of Defense) local Wing Commander Simon Boyle told media that the “Indication is that the aircraft will perform very well in the tactical role and on unprepared runways. We’re starting to understand how good the aircraft could be in the tactical environment.”

The Pembrey Sands Air Weapons Range is a fascinating test and training range that is effectively an island separated from the mainland on the West and North by an estuary and Carmarthen Bay, then to the East by a shallow, marshy inlet. The southern border is virtually impenetrable thick forest of the Pembrey Country Park.

A RAF Airbus A400M Atlas conducts testing of unimproved forward airfield operations at Pembrey Sands Air Weapons Range in South Wales, U.K. (Crown Copyright)

Pembrey Sands is an active live weapons deployment range used by a wide variety of tactical combat aircraft from many countries. Hulks of derelict vehicles and even old Jaguar combat aircraft are strewn around the island for use as targets. It is a unique facility for training and testing of the RAF and other air arms.

Other tactical transports have conducted beach and grass landing exercises at Pembrey Sands prior to the A400M trials including C-130s and C-160 Transalls.

Mission sets that may include the capability to land on unimproved or dirt/sand airstrips could include the insertion of special operations light vehicles for strike and/or reconnaissance missions in denied areas and support of airborne assault operations. The ability to take-off from sand landing areas is especially important for the evacuation of casualties from forward areas. In general a team of pathfinder personnel is inserted into an unimproved, austere landing area to inspect and prepare the landing area and then to act as air and ground traffic controllers once aircraft begin to use the area.

Perhaps one of the most infamous examples of air forces using tactical transports in the special operations role from unimproved airstrips is the April 1980 U.S. Operation Eagle Claw, the failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. The mission ended in disaster. A U.S. heavy helicopter and C-130 transport collided in the dark on the ground while forward refueling resulting in a fire and the operation being abandoned. Testing and qualification of the A400M Atlas in sandy, unimproved conditions is a direct effort to avoid similar outcomes in the future.

A significant amount of preparation of the landing/takeoff area at Pembrey Sands was done before for the trials by the 23 Parachute Engineer Regiment, based at the neighboring Rock Barracks.

Despite some early concerns the A400M Atlas development program has gained momentum with several countries including the U.K. and Germany over the past year. This RAF exercise is an example of the program’s continued success.