Airbus has started production of the A400M transport plane, its first military aircraft. A ceremony at the company’s Varel facility in Germany was attended by representatives of the seven European NATO countries that have said they will buy the planes.There are already orders for 180 from Germany, France, Spain, the UK, Turkey, Belgium and Luxemburg. The South Africa government has also said it is also interested in purchasing them. Final assembly of the planes will be at a factory in Seville, Spain with deliveries scheduled to start in 2009. The A400M, which is due to make its first flight in 2008, will be able to carry 32,000kilos and have a range of 9,200 kilometres. Each plane will cost 90 million euros and is designed to carry bulky cargo like helicopters or heavy vehicles. It is just 18 months since the programme was launched. Airbus said the first fuselage components are being milled out of solid aluminium even as detailed design of other parts is going on. The plane is to be a direct competitor for Lockheed-Martin’s C130 Hercules, which has become the work-horse of the world’s military. It is intended for use by rapid reaction forces or for humanitarian missions and can also converted into a flying tanker to refuel fighter aircraft.