Test milestone for Eurofighter

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Another milestone in the development of the hugely expensive and seriously delayed Eurofighter 2000 took place over the weekend, with the maiden flight of the two-seater version of the aircraft, writes Chris Godsmark.

The sixth Eurofighter, constructed by Casa of Spain, took off from an airfield on Saturday for what was described as a successful test-flight. More details of the flight will be given at the Farnborough Air Show, the UK's aerospace industry showcase, which opens to trade customers today.

The single-seater Eurofighter will also make its Farnborough flying debut this week.

The project, which involves British Aerospace, Daimler-Benz and Alenia of Italy in addition to Casa, is running three years late.

Last month the National Audit office said that the 48 per cent British stake in Eurofighter would cost an extra pounds 1.25bn, taking the UK's contribution to pounds 15.4bn.

One key topic of conversation at Farnborough will be the on-going talks aimed at restructuring the European defence industry.

Last week BAe's head of commercial aircraft, Mike Turner, called at a conference for a further rationalisation of the defence sector to match the consolidation in the US.

Mr Turner said that Europe had 10 helicopter and aircraft producers compared with five in the US, and 11 missile contractors against just five in the US, despite the fact that the US defence budget is twice the size of Europe's.

"For the defence budget now available in Europe, we simply have too many contractors," Mr Turner said.

Another challenge for the European industry at Farnborough could be the possible launch of Boeing's enlarged version of the long-established jumbo- jet, the 747-500 and 600.

The plane, which will cost up to $230m (pounds 150m) each and carry up to 550 passengers, is a serious challenge to the Airbus consortium, which has yet to decide whether to go ahead with the $8bn (pounds 5bn) A3XX, an entirely new design.

Boeing has been intensively lobbying airlines to commit themselves to buying the 747-500/600 in order to launch the plane this week.