Airbus has retired A400M MSN4, also known as Grizzly 4, after more than 2,000 flight hours, 1,000 flights and many missions and test campaigns completed over the last 12 years.
MSN4 landed in Bremen, Germany last week after twelve years to be decommissioned. The flight, which was its thousandth is to be placed on display at Bremen airport.
A400M MSN4 has been used for all kinds of test flight campaigns through the years to develop key capabilities such as aerial delivery, low-level flight and air-to-air refuelling.
Ignacio Lombo, chief test pilot at Airbus Defence and Space has contributed to the development of the A400M having completed around 200 flights and 500 flight hours inside the cockpit of the MSN4. He said, “I will keep Grizzly 4 in my memory as a strong and robust beast. We have taken it to the limit in speed, Mach, altitude, load factor (g’s) and almost tore off its skin.
“This aircraft has exceeded all expectations in all kinds of operations with superior performance.”
Air-air refueling development
MSN4 played a key role in the development and certification of the air-to-air refueling (AAR) capability which enables A400M operators today to fly further and safer on their military operations and combing with other military platforms.
César González was the flight test engineer in charge of the development and certification flight test of AAR capability, both as tanker and as receiver. He said, “MSN4 was our aerial refueling workhorse, as it was the one where we tested receiver capabilities with tankers like A330 Voyager and C160 Transall.
“As a tanker, we used MSN4 to develop and certify pods refueling with F18 receivers, Hose Drum Unit refueling with F18s and A400M receivers, the Cargo Hold Tanks and more recently, the helicopter aerial refueling capabilities with H225M Caracal.
“I feel particularly proud of the mission that first refueled an A400M receiver from an A400M tanker.”
It is precisely the air-to-air refueling capability that came to Lombo´s mind when asked about its most challenging experience with the MSN4 as a pilot: “Air-to-air refueling as receiver was the most challenging one. There was a lot of work behind the development of this capability.
“Through different steps, we reached the Flight Control Laws to perform the receiver role in an easy way with respect to other platforms. As a pilot, it has been fantastic to fly on different Flight Control Laws and, step by step, we managed to reach the perfect maneuverability of the aircraft”.
MSN4 has been the determinant for the development and certification for cargo and parachute drops – these being key capabilities for A400M operators today – as it was designed in such a way that the cargo hold was free of instrumentation and, therefore, fully usable for aerial delivery or additional fuel tanks.
“I fondly recall the early days of aerial delivery tests where we went from the very start of single loads by gravity and extraction, towing of (large) parachutes at low level and high altitude, to dropping 25 tonnes of loads in a single sequential stick of extracted platforms, as well as air displays at some of the UK airshows”, said Simon Nicastro, A400M flight and integration test programme manager at Airbus.
The A400M is able to carry more paratroopers over a greater distance, a capability that reinforces its strategic value.
MSN4 has exceeded expectations. “Many challenging campaigns, many successful flights, many impressive achievements and few surprises”, Gonzalez said.
However, Lombo pointed out that testing and certification was not always easy: “We faced some difficulties during this journey, but working as a team, we overcame all of these until we reached the certification and qualification of all the capabilities that our customers needed. We are really proud to see the A400M utilized by our customers in real operations all over the world.”
More than 100 A400M aircraft are deployed today in eight different countries. MSN4 was also the first aircraft among the Military Air Systems unit to perform a first demo flight with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) last summer, guiding its successors into a cleaner future and helping to pave the way towards the decarbonization of military aviation.
Bremen: Back to the beginning
The MSN4 is now back home in Bremen, where every A400M is manufactured, with the scars of all the battles it helped win during its remarkable career. “I will always keep this last flight in my memory. As the Captain, I speak on behalf of the team behind our dear friend Grizzly 4, and we want to thank this aircraft for the great times we have spent together,” pilot of the last flight, Michel Gagneux said.
González added, “I can’t help feeling that Grizzly 4 is my prototype, my baby. I feel a bit sad, but also proud of the work we achieved together with the team. Godspeed, mate! Time for you to rest after an exciting journey.”
The team that now welcomes the MSN4 in Bremen is excited about the months ahead: “We are happy to have the MSN4 back home after all these years and all that it helped accomplish for the A400M development. It is in good hands here, where we will get it ready for its next chapter”, said Marc Steckling, head of site in Bremen at Airbus Defence and Space.
Dennis Neumann, head of A400M industrial programme in Bremen, and currently leading the project for the future of the MSN4, said, “This project hits the heart of all of us here at the Bremen site. Before being placed at its final location next to the Bremen Airport, where everyone landing in Bremen will see it, it will get a new coat of paint and be configured to host team meetings and workshops as well as be part of the official guided site tour.”
This article has been edited for style and length and was originally published by Airbus.