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Airbus A400M grounded across Europe after fatal crash

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[MADRID] Air forces across Europe suspended flights of the Airbus Group NV A400M after one of the military transport aircraft crashed near Sevilla, Spain, killing four people.

Britain's Royal Air Force and Germany's Luftwaffe both said they'd pause operations of the plane until the reasons for the crash become clear. The aircraft that went down on Saturday was several minutes into a first test flight before being delivered to Turkey. Germany has just one unit so far.

Among the six people on the plane, all Spanish employees of Airbus, four were killed and two seriously injured, Airbus said. The accident occurred about 1 pm local time Saturday, about 1.6km north of Seville's San Pablo Airport. Airbus said it's investigating the circumstances of the disaster and has dispatched a special team.

The incident is the first crash of an A400M. Television news coverage showed the aircraft, which carried the manufacturing serial number 23, completely destroyed and a large plume of black smoke rising over the scene. Photos supplied by the local government indicate the plane went down in a field, with wreckage strewn across a wide area and fire services on site to extinguish the blaze.

"It's a human tragedy, but an accident like this does not indicate a design flaw that would jeopardize the program" said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, an aviation advisory firm based in Fairfax, Virginia.

Germany's only A400M so far was delivered in December and is still undergoing tests. The country has ordered 53 in total, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said. Britain has two of the aircraft, according to a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman. France already has six A400Ms that Airbus started delivering since Sept 2013 and is expecting to get 3 more this year.

Spokespeople for France's Defense Ministry and Armee de l'Air couldn't be reached outside of normal business hours.

The four-engine turboprop transporter is assembled in Seville, in southern Spain, and the aircraft has started service with armed forces in France, Germany, Turkey and the UK. The aircraft that crashed was to have been Turkey's third such purchase and delivered in June.

The A400M is Europe's most costly defense program, aimed at improving the region's military-transport capabilities by replacing models already several decades old. Airbus has spent years haggling with governments over order numbers and follow-up financing as costs escalated and the A400M had to overcome technical and software issues.

Airbus typically performs two or three test flights on a production plane before it's handed over to the customer. Saturday's flight was the first for MSN023.

The A400M competes with Lockheed Martin Corp.'s smaller Hercules and Boeing Co.'s C-17. Airbus has said the plane handles short, poorly prepared runways better than the C-17 and can carry bulkier cargo than Lockheed's model.

The A400M program is more than 5 billion euros (US$5.6 billion) over budget at 25 billion euros. Customers including Germany and the UK have cut the number of A400Ms they're taking, and further cancellations are possible.

BLOOMBERG