After years of delays and huge cost over-runs, Airbus on Monday delivers its first A400M military transport plane, handing over the huge turboprop to France at its Spanish assembly plant.
The pan-European aircraft maker expects the ceremony at the Airbus Military plant in Seville, southern Spain, to be the start of sales to military forces worldwide.
The plane was actually delivered on August 1 but the official ceremony was being held Monday in the presence of French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Spain's Prince Felipe.
The French minister was to return to a military base in Orleans aboard the tactical lifter, which is equipped with propellers measuring more than five metres (16 feet) long.
It took 10 years to bring the A400M to the skies in one of the European military industry's most ambitious projects, backed by seven partners: NATO members Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey.
The project was dogged by delays and broken budgets as developers struggled with the complex engine design and the divergent requirements of client nations.
In January 2010, Tom Enders, then Airbus head, even threatened to leave the project if the seven countries refused to share the budget over-runs.
Two months later, they reached an agreement in principle, but it took another year of arduous negotiations to sign a final contract as the European economic and financial crisis squeezed military budgets.
Finally, four years late and 6.2 billion euros ($8.3 billion), or 30-percent, over budget, Tom Enders, now chief executive of Airbus parent EADS, is handing over the revolutionary aircraft to France, its first client.
The A400M was designed at the request of European chiefs of staff after the first Gulf War of 1991, which exposed the need for such a plane.
"It will transform the way military operations work," Ian Elliott, vice-president of Airbus Military, told AFP.
"For the first time ever, it will allow combat delivery in the point of meet," he added. Equipped with four turboprops, it can transport up to 37 tonnes including armour or helicopters over a distance of 3,300 kilometres (2,050 miles) but also land on unprepared terrain such as sand.
"I have flown about six or seven times and it's fantastic," Elliott said, touting the comfort in the cabin, modelled on that of the Airbus double-decker superjumbo A380, and other qualities such as its quietness and its seats, developed with the advice of paratroopers.
The A400M will be the sole plane on the market to challenge the other US long-range military transport aircraft, Lockheed Martin's C-130 Hercules, which has a capacity of 20 tonnes and was designed more than 50 years ago.
Its other rival, the C-17 Globemaster, which can lift 76 tonnes, will fall out of production from 2015, US manufacturer Boeing announced recently.
Within a month, France will receive its second A400M and Turkey its first. A third plane is scheduled to be delivered to France by the end of this year.
Airbus Military aims to export 400 A400M planes in the next 30 years, beyond the 174 already ordered in Europe and Malaysia. Germany has ordered 53, France 50, Spain 27 and Britain 22. The manufacturer will assemble 10 planes next year, and then about 30 a year.
Airbus Military chief Domingo Urena-Raso said the plane maker was targeting the Gulf and the Asia-Pacific region, where several countries were renewing their fleets.
The strongest selling point will be the way the plane performs in military operations over the next four or five years, Urena-Raso said in June.
The reaction of French and British air forces will be key, said Airbus Military's Elliott.
"The French Airforce and the Royal Air Force have a great credibility all over the world so if they are really happy about it, their opinion will matter," he said.
"We are already talking to many US military officials," Elliott said, adding that the aircraft would also be "perfect" for humanitarian operations.
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