Powered by the West's largest turbo-prop engine, the new European competitor is designed to lift 37 tons compared with the Hercules's payload of 21 tons and the C-17's 75 tons. Its list price is around 100 million euros for domestic buyers.

Here are details on the pan-European airlifter, nicknamed the "grizzly" by test crew after its burly design.

WHO WILL BUY THE A400M?

-- Mostly European NATO nations, though Malaysia also wants four planes. Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey recently won a 10 percent price increase which will come through a mixture of fresh money, longer delivery timetables or fewer planes for the same price.

Here is a table of buyer nations

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COUNTRY | AIRCRAFT:

GERMANY 60***
FRANCE 50
SPAIN 27
UK 25**
TURKEY 10
BELGIUM 7
LUXEMBOURG 1

Total launch nations 180

Exports:

MALAYSIA 4
SAFRICA 0*

NOTES:

*In 2009 South Africa canceled an order for 8 A400Ms and said it would withdraw from the program.

**In March Britain said it would reduce its order to 22 from 25:

*** Germany has said it will reduce the number of A400Ms it has ordered to keep costs down.

DESIGN:

-- The A400M is the first high-wing aircraft with a T-shaped tail ever built by Airbus, known for its classic low-wing airliners. Some 30 percent of the wide-body plane is made of weight-saving carbon-fiber composites including most of the wings. As on many modern airliners, pilots control the plane using electronics or "fly-by-wire" systems.

ENGINES:

-- The plane's four 11,000-shaft-horsepower P400-D6 engines were developed by a European team including Rolls-Royce, Safran and MTU Aero Engines. A local engine was chosen after governments vetoed Airbus's choice of an imported engine made by Pratt & Whitney Canada.

PROPELLERS:

-- Each engine has eight Ratier-Figeac propeller blades measuring 5 meters tip-to-tip. The scimitar-shaped blades on each pair of engines rotate in opposite directions -- one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. That makes the wings more efficient and saves weight, enabling the plane to fly with a smaller rudder. If all the engines turned in the same direction and one failed, a much bigger rudder would be needed to keep the plane stable.

SOFTWARE:

-- Much attention has been given to crucial engine software, known as FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control). Writing and documenting the software to civil certification standards proved a daunting task and contributed to delays. The code was twice as long as that on the world's largest civil jet engine.

PAYLOAD VS RANGE:

-- With a typical 20-ton payload, the A400M can fly 3,450 nautical miles. With 30 tonnes on board its range is 2,450 nm.

WHAT IT CAN CARRY:

-- The 340 cubic meter hold can carry an NH-90 transport helicopter, or a CH-47 Chinook, or a container truck or two infantry vehicles.

-- In emergencies it has room for 125 stretchers plus an intensive care unit. It can hold 116 soldiers or fully equipped paratroopers.

-- Airbus says the A400M's size allows it to combine strategic and tactical roles, but competitors say this makes little sense as the competing Lockheed C-130J and Boeing C-17 already overlap.

WHERE IT CAN LAND:

-- Airbus says the 12-wheel landing gear allows the A400M to land on soft and rough airstrips as short as 750 meters (2,500 feet).

SPEED AND HEIGHT:

-- The maximum speed of Mach 0.72 corresponds to 420 knots "true air speed" at medium altitude. At low altitudes it can slow to less than 110 knots to refuel helicopters -- that is 20 knots slower than the approach speed of a small jetliner. A knot is one nautical mile per hour.

TANKER:

-- It doubles as a refueling tanker and can be refueled midair itself.

COMPETITION:

The A400M fits into a niche between the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules turbo-prop and the Boeing C-17, which is also capable of landing on semi-prepared airstrips. In practice all three compete to some extent, market experts say.

A spokesman for Lockheed Martin said the C-130J, a modernized version of which first flew in 1996, can carry 95 percent of what the A400M is specified to do.

Source: Reuters / Airbus Military, industry