And the FCAS goes to…

Mock-up of a sixth-generation combat aircraft at the Paris Air - FCAS (Future Combat Air System)

As though it was an Oscars ceremony, many people were keeping the eye about what company would be finally awarded such a relevant prize in Spain.

At this point in time, the French company Dassault Aviation, and the German branch of Airbus Defence & Space had been already designated to be the main coordinators of the project in their respective countries.

The final decision was eventually made public the Thursday, 4th September 2019, and the local media quickly broadcasted the piece of news.

“And the FCAS goes to … Indra

Spanish Defence Ministry

The reactions were almost immediate. For some people, the decision was astonishing whereas for some others it was perceived as a bang on the table of the Spanish Government.

What is clear is the fact that the Spanish branch of Airbus, the former Airbus Military and Cassidian, was not going to be the main coordinator company of the project in Spain. This decision has broken a trend of more than twenty years of Airbus leadership of the aerospace military projects in Spain.

Defence Ministers of Spain (Margarita Robles), France (Florence Parly) and Germany (Ursula von der Leyen), during the signature of a letter of intent about Spain’s integration in the French-German cooperation on the FCAS (14 February 2019). - Spanish Ministry of Defence.
Defence Ministers of Spain (Margarita Robles), France (Florence Parly) and Germany (Ursula von der Leyen), during the signature of a letter of intent about Spain’s integration in the French-German cooperation on the FCAS (14 February 2019). – Spanish Ministry of Defence.
Defence Ministers of Spain, France and Germany after the signature of a letter of intent about Spain’s integration on the FCAS (14 February 2019). – Spanish Ministry of Defence.

Four months after the signing of a letter of intent about Spain’s integration on the FCAS project, the formal announcement of the Spanish participation in the FCAS project finally took place in Le Bourget during the edition of the Paris Air Show the last 17 June 2019. This announcement was ratified by the French, German and Spanish Defence Ministers signature of the so-called Framework Arrangement for the development of FCAS.

Signature of the Framework Arrangement for the development of FCAS during Paris Air Show (17 June 2019). - Flynews.
Signature of the Framework Arrangement for the development of FCAS during Paris Air Show (17 June 2019). – Flynews.

The Spanish participation and its announcement came late and after the pressure and insistence of some social sectors. Sectors which strongly support the need for investing in the Spanish industry, and in this kind of multinational projects to get benefits in the medium and long term.

This practice of lagging behind rather than being proactive is something that seems to be usual in this sort of subjects for the Spanish Government, no matter the ruling party, an this is another example illustrating that. Actually, almost at the same time and in the same scenario, the German and French companies already selected to coordinate the Project in their respective countries, signed a joint industrial proposal which delivered to the nations.

Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier and the Airbus Defence & Space counterpart Dirk Hoke formalising the joint industrial proposal to deliver it to the nations. - Flynews.
Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier and the Airbus Defence & Space counterpart Dirk Hoke formalising the joint industrial proposal to deliver it to the nations. – Flynews.

Since then, everyone would have still to wait for two and a half months to finally know which company would take the coordinating role of the project in Spain. A decision which demonstrates that the Airbus extensive technical capabilities, its proven experience participating in multinational aerospace and defence programmes, and its excellent track record leading them in Spain have not been enough to tip the balance in its favour.

Time goes by since the decision announcement, and several hypothesis and theories are arising trying to explain the reasons behind the final decision of the Spanish Government. The most relevant and supported ones are addressed below:

National Champion of Defence

In the beginning, Indra was a state-owned compàny until 1999 when it was made a privately-held company. However, this movement was reversed in 2013 when the Government dependent organisation called SEPI (Sociedad de Participaciones Industriales; State Industrial Ownership Corporation) acquired the 20% of Indra participation.

Indra Headquarters in Madrid (Spain). - Indra.
Indra Headquarters in Madrid (Spain). – Indra.

This movement, perceived as a protection of the Spanish industrial interests due to the risk of acquisition of Indra by foreign companies, turned out to be permanent and eventually destined to pursue different goals.

Proof of that was the unsuccessful attempt of acquisition of ITP Aero by Indra during this year, company which currently belongs to the aircraft engine manufacturer Rolls Royce. ITP Aero is an originally Spanish company, well known for participating in the development and manufacturing of aircraft engines such as the EJ200 (Eurofighter Typhoon) or the TP400 (A400M).

ITP Aero Headquarters in Basque Country (Spain). - ITP Aero.
ITP Aero Headquarters in Basque Country (Spain). – ITP Aero.

The acquisition would have been a big step ahead on balancing Indra internal capabilities dominated by IT, and in reinforcing its aerospace ones in order to be better positioned to address future aerospace projects as the FCAS. In addition, it would have led to set up a Spanish Champion of Defence.

Despite the above, FCAS coordination in Spain was achieved by Indra, and it can be considered another step on the way of setting up this Champion of Defence in Spain. Taking these facts into account, strategic movements aiming this goal seem to be very likely to happen in the near future. Even a second try of acquisition of ITP Aero may sound plausible.

Hidden Political interests

The fact that Indra is 20% participated by a Government dependent organisation, which supposes to be the major shareholder, has led some sectors to think about what particular interests could be also behind this decision.

The current chairman of Indra, Fernando Abril-Martorell, is supposed to be replaced in the medium term and the probable substitutes seem to come from the political sphere. Among them, the best positioned is Miguel Sebastián, former Spanish Minister for Industry, Tourism, and Trade during the period from 2008 to 2011 under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero Government.

Miguel Sebastián who is currently an executive advisor in Indra representing SEPI interests. - El Mundo.
Miguel Sebastián who is currently an executive advisor in Indra representing SEPI interests. – El Mundo.

In addition, it is usual for Spanish politicians to have a second life linked to private-held companies after leaving the political sphere. Felipe González and Gas Natural, or José María Aznar and Endesa are only the two best-known examples. Although morally reprehensible, because their nominations seem to respond to a return for privileged treatment of the enterprise during their public life, this practice is not illegal in Spain. Will Indra be now open as a new destination for Spanish ex-politicians?

From left to right José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Miguel Sebastián, and Pedro Sánchez who is the current Prime Minister of Spain. - Energíapost.
From left to right José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Miguel Sebastián, and Pedro Sánchez who is the current Prime Minister of Spain. – Energíapost.

Overconfidence

A more questionable theory supports that the more than twenty years consecutively being the winning horse in Spain could have gone against Airbus own interests. According to this theory, the following ones are perceived as potential reasons which could have affected the final decision:

  • Maybe the strategy line followed was not ‘strong’ enough to guarantee its participation as the main coordinator in Spain, or
  • The effort invested in reinforcing the Airbus dominant position of the Aerospace Industry in Spain was too limited.
  • Focusing mainly on how the FCAS programme workload was going to be internally distributed rather than ensuring the Airbus participation at the highest level, is a statement that has room within this theory too.

What is sure is that after this decision, the lessons learnt are not going to be overlooked by Airbus.

Risk of investment and ROI relocation out of Spanish boundaries

This theory relies mainly on two elements: the comparison between the ownership structure of both companies, and the different strategies followed by them during recent times.

The participation of the Spanish Government in Airbus is around 4% through the SEPI, whereas the Indra’s one reaches around 20% as stated before. It means that the Spanish Government is in the third position concerning Airbus ownership, pretty far from the 22% equally distributed between the German and French Governments.

Indra shareholding distribution. - Indra.
Indra shareholding distribution. – Indra.
Airbus shareholding distribution. - Airbus.
Airbus shareholding distribution. – Airbus.

Their ownership distribution is substantially reflected in the OBS (Organisational Breakdown Structure) of both Companies. Indra’s board of directors is fully coped by Spanish people, whereas in Airbus there is no position in the decision front-line covered by any Spaniard (in the line behind decision front-line neither).

In fact, although Airbus Spanish ownership has been always the same, the Spanish influence in Airbus seems to have gone in detriment during the last decade. The present lack of Spanish executives contrasts with the situation in the past when one or even two executive positions were covered by Spaniards. Pilar Albiac Murillo as Executive Vicepresident HO Operations has been the most recent example.

The differences between the top of the organisational charts are the most visible ones. However, some people also support that this loss of Spanish influence goes downstream across the organisational chart even affecting programmes traditionally handled by Spanish managers.

This theory goes beyond, even stating that Spain is pushed into the background behind France, Germany or even other Airbus countries concerning the participation in the development of new core technologies. These technologies as for instance the AI, UAS, Cybersecurity, Cloud and so on are destined to become the cornerstone for the future of the Aerospace Industry.

One of the open debates across LinkedIn supporting this theory (text in Spanish).

Francisco Javier Cruz Hernandez.

Taking the exposed hypothesis as true ones it is not surprising that some analysts support that choosing Indra as Spain’s FCAS coordinator is a sensible decision. If the final goal is to guarantee that Spanish FCAS investment and ROI (Return On Investment) will remain inside Spain and mainly handled by Spaniards during the programme life-cycle, the decision seems to have completely sense. The Spanish branch of Airbus Defence & Spain would have merely been perceived as unable to guarantee that.

In parallel to this theory, there are people who foresee a really bad outcome for the Spanish branch of Airbus Defence & Spain. They support that systematic poor financing of RDI (Research Development and Innovation) initiatives in Spain joint to the low number of orders that Spain places in each programme developed by the Company, pretty far from the German and French ones, logically lead to this loss of influence in Airbus.

In the worst-case scenario, the decision about the FCAS could undermine the Spanish influence in Airbus even more. The consequence would be an unpredictable ‘stall’ (speaking in aerospace language) of the Spanish Airbus branch interests in particular, and of the Spanish Aerospace Industry in general.

Above statements may sound quite catastrophic but as the famous quote says: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”.

FCAS programme in a nutshell

FCAS (Future Combat Air System) is Europe’s most strategic defence programme in the 21st century. Defined as a combat system of systems, the cornerstone of FCAS is the Next-Generation Weapon System (NGWS) where next-generation fighters team up with manned and unmanned platforms and with remote carriers as force multipliers.

Based on leveraging the collective and connected capabilities of pooled platforms, FCAS and its air combat cloud will provide full interoperability with allied forces across domains from land to cyber.

FCAS - Future Combat Air System infographic. - Airbus
FCAS – Future Combat Air System infographic. – Airbus
Promotional video of the Future Combat Air System – FCAS, manned and unmanned European system by Airbus & Dassault published during the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show.

Unreleased images and all about the Airbus A400M accident

Airbus A400M military aircraft accident Sevilla

Three years and four months time has passed since one of the events which for sure is recalled by any aviation enthusiast. Even more by the Spanish ones or by those related to Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturing company. And not precisely because of being something good and worth remembering, quite the opposite.

The events

9th May 2015 at Seville – San Pablo Airport (Spain),  It is Saturday 12:05 AM and the A400M named MSN023 (Manufacturer’s Serial Number) was about to take off for the first time to perform some in-flight tests. Nobody could predict what was going to happen next.

Airbus A400M military aircraft
Airbus A400M, a similar model to the MSN023 involved in the accident. / Airbus

Just after around three minutes on air, an unexpected failure left three out of the four engines powerless and without recovery capacity.  In light of this dramatic situation, the only option was to perform an emergency landing so the aircrew reported the emergency and ask for returning to the airport straight away.

Thanks to the recently released images published by Europapress, and the first-person testimony of the photographer, Manuel Vilela, more details about the last stages before the final impact have been revealed.

Once declared the emergency, a too abrupt roll to the left in order to return to the departure airport unstabilised the aircraft. Right after, and being the aircraft falling uncontrollably down, the return to the airport turned out impossible at that time.

Airbus A400M accident military aircraft Sevilla Seville
The Airbus A400M MSN023 rolling to the left trying to go back to the departure airport. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

Avoiding the industrial and commercial facilities around the airport, the only available landing area nearby was some farming fields in which Manuel Vilela was taking photographs that morning. The maneuver was proved impossible due to the aircraft imbalance and the lost of engines thrust. In addition to that, the surrounding airspace was crossed by uncountable overhead power lines, making even more lethal the aircraft path.

When collided to the ground, the aircraft was rolled around 30 degrees to the left. The first impacting part was the left wing bursting into a fireball, followed by a second fireball when the right wing hit the ground. Simultaneously, the cabin broke in two halves spitting out all the items inside.

Airbus A400M MSN023 accident military aircraft Sevilla
The Airbus A400M MSN023 about to collide to the ground. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

Next, and while the damaged aircraft expelled rests of its structure and pieces of equipment, the T-shaped tail hit one of the above-mentioned overhead power lines provoking the third big explosion. In a matter of seconds and with no chance to react, all was in flames, one of the power lines’ pylons knocked down, and several explosions of lower intensity kept happening.

The Airbus A400M MSN023 at the time of the collision. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

Manuel Vilela, the photographer and first-person witness of the accident, called Emergencies who after a few minutes get there and began to assist the crew members. Moreover, and exercising a strong sense of responsibility, Manuel Vilela proceeded to deliver all his photography material straight away to the competent judicial authority for helping in the further investigations.

The column of smoke and fire after the Airbus A400M MSN023 collision. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

The fatal outcome of this terrible event were four casualties out of six crew members: Captain, Jaime de Gandarillas; First Officer, Manuel Regueiro; and Engineers, Gabriel García Prieto and Jesualdo Martínez. The other crew members; José Luis de Augusto Gil, and Joaquín Muñoz de Anaya; resulted badly injured and still suffering the effects of the accident.

The Airbus A400M MSN023 set on fire after the accident. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

Investigation findings

The  Commission for the Technical  Investigation of Military Aircraft Accidents (CITAAM), dependent on the Spanish Defence Ministry, was the entity in charge of the experts’ technical report elaboration about the A400M accident.

Technical analysis

The main conclusion of this report was that the accident was eventually caused by a software failure: the incorrect loading of this software on the engines’ Electric Control Units (ECU) erased some critical parameters for the engines to operate correctly in flight. This issue kept unnoticed till was triggered in mid-flight.

MSN023 was the second A400M flying with the new engines’ software developed by Europrop International (EPI ), which was responsible for loading the software into the Electric Control Units (ECU) of the engines, even if there was an update to be made in the Airbus factory. However, with a new software release, the loads began to be made by Airbus, which understood that the software could be used ‘freely’ and ‘within the use limitations established by the manufacturer’, a position that was not shared by EPI.

The Airbus A400M MSN023 set on fire after the accident (another angle). / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

In this particular case the engines arrived the factory with an old software release but, before the delivery, a new release obtained the certification. Airbus wanted to update it before the delivery to the Turkish Air Force, but in the ‘absence of an agreed procedure’ for loading the software, EPI informed Airbus that it could not sign this ‘supplementary’ certification. As a result, EPI staff went to the factory in February 2015 to load the new software release in several aircraft, one of them the MSN023.

Above procedure was registered in the engine logbook, being stored by EPI, but not in a yellow card which includes, among other data,  the engine ECU version. The report states that there is no record of yellow cards delivered by Airbus to EPI for updating. This fact caused that Airbus checked the engine software to load the new release just a month after EPI  successful loading.

The Airbus A400M MSN023 cockpit in flames after the accident. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

During the Airbus check, the new software release was not detected proceeding then to load it into the ECU. Furthermore, the aircraft electrical configuration for the loading process was not correctly collected in the work order, leading to a wrong energizing of the ECU and some loading errors.

The software loading was eventually performed, but by then the torques calibration parameters of one of the channels had been already erased. Despite the loading errors, those were not collected in a nonconformity sheet or officially reported and, besides, the torques calibration parameters were not verified after the software loading. Both actions should have been performed as stated procedures.

The Airbus A400M MSN023 fuselage parts after the accident. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

At this point, the operational logic of the ECU allowed a normal engine on-ground operation, nevertheless,  and due to the lack of parameters in one of the channels, the system did not know how to act in-flight leaving the engines in idle. This failure, included in the document called ‘problem report’, was considered far remote enough to happen that was accepted to be corrected in the next software release.

One of the ECU was changed by another one before the flight, which already had the software well updated, and that was the reason for the only engine working as expected.

In conclusion, the report states the lack of coordination between EPI and Airbus regarding the software uploading and update processes, and that Airbus did not agree with EPI its software charging procedure.

The Airbus A400M MSN023 fuselage parts after the accident (another angle). / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

Operational analysis

The main conclusion in this sense was that the crew took reasonable decisions in the light of the arising issues suffered in-flight, even though they were not the most adequate.

Despite the errors in the crew performance, they acted in a logical way according to the warnings and alerts received, the operational limitations imposed by the control tower, and the lack of training of the crew concerning the arisen emergencies.

The three engines failure at the same time is so unlikely, and with such critical effects, that it was really difficult to process all the information available in the cockpit to take the appropriate decisions in such a short period of time.

Rests of the Airbus A400M MSN023 after the accident. / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

Court process

The accident and its consequences were investigated by the court of instruction number 13 of Seville. The last step took place the last 3rd April 2018 and it was the stay (dismissal without prejudice) of the case ordered by the head of the court María José Moreno. Considering that there were no indications to continue the criminal prosecution and after the Prosecutor’s Office request.

Likewise, the request for additional investigation presented by the private prosecutions, including the ones of the crew members’ families, was rejected.

Rests of the Airbus A400M MSN023 after the accident (another angle). / Manuel Vilela (Europapress)

The court pointed out that the accident was caused by a ‘concatenated set of events’, but none of them with ‘enough’ entity to attribute criminal liabilities. However,  it was also stated that “multiple failures” were made by Airbus and Europe International (EPI).

This decision was appealed by the majority of the prosecutions to revoke it and to keep open the procedures, requesting as well the opening of new ones ‘needed’ for ‘the total clarification’ of the facts. This appeal was dismissed by the court, but at this time this order for dismissal has been appealed too at the Provincial Court of Seville. It will have to decide among the definitive dismissal of the proceedings or to continue with them and the opening of the new ones requested by the prosecutions.

Conclusions

The accident investigation reveals some things that sound self-evident, but worth to recall from time to time: define and follow rigorously stated procedures when developing engineering works is a must, as well as register and report whichever arising issue during their performance. No matter how relevant or important they seem to be because the incidents and accidents are mainly caused by the addition of minor issues or mistakes.

The only positive side of such dramatic events is that their investigations allow reducing the risks and the probability of happening again.

Some videos related to the Airbus A400M accident can be found below and following this link to the original article published in exclusive by Europapress (videos are in Spanish, but subtitled English edition will come soon here and in ideaerospace youtube channel)