* Gearbox problem grounds army plane during most of air show
* Sources say A400M also recently had propellor cracks
* Doubt raised over plane’s readiness for “Atlas” ceremony
By Tim Hepher and Victoria Bryan
LE BOURGET, France, June 19 (Reuters) - Europe’s delayed and over-budget military transport plane suffered yet another embarrassing setback on Sunday when manufacturer Airbus was forced to curtail its debut appearance at the Paris Air Show.
The Airbus EAD.PA A400M military airlifter suffered a gearbox problem in one of its powerful turbo-props days before the world’s largest air show and will not now be able to carry out its daring display routine in front of aviation enthusiasts.
Airbus officials said the future European troop plane, which was bailed out with 3.5 billion euros ($4.96 billion) by purchasing nations last year, would take part in a flypast on Monday to mark the show’s opening but then be placed on static display.
“This is not a problem with safety, but flight test requirements are very demanding at the moment,” Airbus Military Chief Executive Domingo Urena-Raso said.
Airbus did not give an estimate for the cost or time involved in fixing the problem, but did not indicate any change in its target to make the first delivery in early 2013.
The A400M has been developed at a cost of more than 20 billion euros for Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey. It is running four years late due to problems in building the West’s largest turbo-prop engines and other snags.
The aircraft has been flying since Dec. 2009 but this week’s appearance is the plane’s first at the prestigious Paris event.
About 340,000 visitors from the trade and general public are expected for the air show, which runs from June 20 to 26.
The latest disappointment has cast doubt over whether the plane will be available to attend another air show in Britain in July at which the Royal Air Force and other buyers are expected to unveil an official new name for the aircraft: Atlas.
The naming follows a spat between the RAF and Airbus over the manufacturer’s proposed nickname for the plane, “Grizzly,” which RAF chief Sir Stephen Dalton told Reuters last year he would accept as an operational code name “over my dead body”.
The name Atlas was chosen to represent the A400M’s endurance after the mythical Titan ordered by Zeus to hold up the sky. But it has failed to dispel red faces entirely before the ceremony.
According to mythology, Atlas tried to trick Hercules into replacing him but was duped by the Greek superhero into taking back his burden, while Hercules nabbed the golden fruit.
Hercules is also the official name for the A400M’s main competitor, the veteran Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) C-130.
Industry sources have told Reuters that the gearbox problem was not the only recent technical glitch during flight testing.
The aircraft’s huge propellors built by French company Ratier-Figeac, indirectly owned by U.S. group United Technologies (UTX.N), also developed cracks prematurely.
Project officials said the problem was being resolved.
Despite the aircraft’s complexity and development problems, Airbus parent EADS EAD.PA says the A400M will be a reliable and effective aircraft once it enters service. Airbus hopes to sell around 500 more of the planes, from which it will pay back part of the extra money pumped in by purchasing nations. (Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer)