Airbus is making a big play to replace New Zealand's ageing Hercules by swooping in with its hulking A400M air lifter this week.

Britain's Royal Air Force is bringing one of its near-new Airbus planes, which it knows as Atlas, to display on the ground at Ohakea this weekend as the RNZAF celebrates its 80th birthday.

The Air Tattoo will attract big crowds and the impressive display includes aircraft from all over the world, including fighter jets and C17 Globemasters from Australia and the United States.

However, it's the muscular presence of the turbo prop A400M that is notable. Airbus and the RAF are also showing media the plane on Friday morning.


The even larger C17 was an early front runner to replace the five Vietnam war era Hercules, but now Airbus' A400M programme is recovering after a number of setbacks, including a fatal crash, the European plane maker is keeping its hat in the ring.

Also in the contest is the KC390, Brazilian plane maker Embraer's first foray into military transport, whose innovative, versatile and very quick twin jet engine plane has been successfully undergoing testing but is not yet in service. Defence chiefs have looked over the plane.

Also in the running is the new model C130 Hercules which is similar in appearance to the original Lockheed Martin model, developed in the 1950s.

The Airbus plane - known also as Grizzly - looks like a Hercules on steroids and has a far greater payload, which it can carry at much higher speeds, with four engines built by a European consortium which includes Rolls Royce. Its counter-rotating eight-bladed carbon composite and nickel-edged propellers give it a distinctive look.

The Airbus A400M had a role in the movie Mission Impossible Rogue Nation in which Tom Cruise in a full-tailored suit hung onto the side of the aircraft as it flew over Britain.

Its flight deck is similar to that in Airbus' A380 super jumbo but adapted for military use.

While Airbus and the other contenders are aiming to fulfill New Zealand's typical missions - responding to natural disasters and serving Antarctic operations - the A400M has a range of optional defensive countermeasures if used in hostile environments.

"The A400M has been specifically designed for low detectability, low vulnerability and high survivability, giving it excellent self-protection," Airbus says.


''With clean and minimised infra-red signature engines, highly responsive fly-by-wire flight controls, four independent control computers, damage tolerant controls, and comprehensive optional defensive aids and cockpit armouring, the A400M is hard to find, hard to hit and hard to kill."

The A400M programme was launched in 2003 to respond to the combined needs of seven European nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemburg, Spain, Turkey and the UK), with Malaysia joining in 2005.

Its maiden flight took place on December 11, 2009 and the delivery of the first A400M was in August 2013 to the French Air Force. Two years later an aircraft destined for Turkey crashed shortly after take-off in Spain killing four of six crew on board. Investigators found a software glitch meant engines were mistakenly shut down and could not be powered up in time.

Airbus is hoping to sell it's A400M to NZ. This is how they are assembled in Spain.

Like many other new aircraft programmes the A400M's development was plagued by years of delays. It was the European consortium's first military venture.

The Daily Telegraph reported that even after its maiden flight in 2009 it looked as though the project might be scrapped entirely. Eventually a $5.17 billion government bail-out in 2010 allowed the aircraft to officially enter service.

Airbus now has orders for 174 of the planes, although besides Malaysia, it is struggling to find buyers outside of Europe.

Airbus says it is not only capable of carrying large equipment such as tanks, trucks, boats and helicopters, such as the NH90 that New Zealand has, but ideal for a paratrooping role.

It can drop from both high and low altitudes, (as high 12,200m for special forces' operations, and as low as 5m for low level load deliveries). It can carry 116 fully equipped paratroops, who can jump two at a time from the ramp or through the paratroop side doors.

Airbus says it can operate on marginal airstrips as short as 750m long and its 12-wheel main landing gear is designed for operations from stone, gravel or sand strips.

The A400M is hard to find, hard to hit and hard to kill.

New gear box technology allows propellers to counter rotate, aimed at smoother flight.

Its propeller blades are made of composite, polyurethane and nickel and are promoted as better at protecting engines from foreign objects.

Peter Greener, a senior fellow at Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, said the appearance of the A400M was interesting.

"The advantage of an A400M as a strategic lifter is its ability to carry an up-armoured LAV or an NH90. "

A Defence spokesman said it was still at the early stage of the project "and is not at the point of considering specific aircraft/types."

The Ohakea Air Tattoo will attract up to 50,000 each day on Saturday and Sunday and adult tickets are selling for $35.

The Air Tattoo

Among the aircraft flying or on static display are:

T6-C Texan II
Boeing 757 (Saturday only)
C-130 Hercules
P-3K2 Orion
A109 LUH
SH-2G(I) Seasprite
B200 King Air
RAAF F/A-18 Hornets RAAF C-17 A400M Atlas
USAF F-16 Fighting Falcons USAF C17 Globemaster III
USAF KC-135 Stratotanker CASA CN-235 (France)
Singapore C-130 Hercules Singapore F-15SG Strike Eagles
KC767 (Japan)

Historic and civilian aircraft Catalina
Harvard Tiger
Spitfire Avenger Harvard
Spitfire replica
Air Tourer
Air New Zealand 787 (Sunday only)