Largest Brazilian-made Military Aircraft to Kickoff Operation

Two KC-390 prototypes went through various stages of testing, bringing together up to 150 members of the Brazilian Armed Forces.
Nelza Oliveira/Diálogo | 5 February 2018

Capacity Building

The KC-390 flies during the testing phase at Embraer's headquarters in Gavião Peixoto, in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Brazilian Air Force Technical Sergeant Bruno dos Santos Batista)

The largest military aircraft ever developed and manufactured in Brazil, the KC-390, reached initial operational capability, Embraer announced on December 20, 2017. The company confirmed meeting required conditions for the aircraft to start operation. Two aircraft prototypes completed more than 1,500 hours of test flights and more than 40,000 hours of ground tests. As part of the testing phase, both KC-390 prototypes underwent various evaluations. Ground and flight testing started in 2015, and brought together up to 150 members from all three branches of the military—Brazilian Army (EB, in Portuguese), Brazilian Navy (MB, in Portuguese), and Brazilian Air Force (FAB, in Portuguese)—under the coordination of FAB.

Cockpit of the KC-390. (Photo: Embraer)

FAB, the aircraft’s first customer, will receive its first KC-390 sometime in 2018. For the plane to reach ultimate military operational capacity and certification, additional testing phases with the military will be necessary through the end of 2019.

“We are pleased to announce that the KC-390 Program reached this important milestone,” said Jackson Schneider, president and CEO of Embraer Defense & Security, the division of the company responsible for strategic products and defense. “The certification phase moved forward as planned, and the tests performed were successful, proving the aircraft’s maturity and confirming its performance and anticipated capability.”

Military tests

The KC-390 will replace Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules cargo plane, which FAB has used since it was first produced in the 1950s. The new aircraft can carry up to 80 passengers and 26 tons of cargo—six more tons than the C-130. The KC-390 is suitable for a range of missions, such as in-flight refueling, search and rescue, aeromedical evacuations, humanitarian mission support, troop transport, cargo drops, launching troops and paratroopers, and fighting wildfires. The aircraft can reach a maximum speed of 470 knots (870 kilometers per hour) and can operate in hostile environments—including unpaved or damaged runways.

From the start of the testing phase, two major in-flight tests were carried out with military personnel—one in June 2016 to launch cargo, and another in September 2017, with military paratroopers. The tests brought together service members from FAB, EB, and MB at Campo Grande Air Base in Mato Grosso do Sul. The September 2017 event included unprecedented night jump tests. The refueling of fighter aircraft was also tested in February 2017 at Santa Cruz Air Base in Rio de Janeiro, although it was a dry transfer (no fuel).

Skydiving tests conducted on the KC-390. (Photo: Brazilian Air Force Technical Sergeant Bruno dos Santos Batista)

The KC-390 can conduct up to two in-flight refueling operations simultaneously. Refueling tests are scheduled for the first half of 2018 in Rio de Janeiro. The MB tests also certified transport procedures for navy vehicles. “All [test phases] were of great benefit to this program. They enabled us to start familiarizing service members with this aircraft, which soon will be the backbone of Brazil’s transport and refueling capacities,” Embraer said to Diálogo.

“We conducted on-ground and in-flight activities. Of all ground tests, the most relevant, which included participation of all three branches of the military, consisted of test rigs for load handling and aerial delivery, during which procedures for loading, stowing, and unloading cargo, pallets, and heavy vehicles were tested and certified. We made all preparations for the in-flight cargo-drop phase at this same testing facility,” said to Diálogo Air Force Colonel Samir Mustafa, KC-390 project manager on the Coordinating Committee for FAB’s Fighter Aircraft Program. Test phases lasted throughout 2017. “The paratrooper launch tests allowed for jump certification of free and line jumping from the aircraft’s side doors and the rear loading ramp, which included high-altitude jumps and those using night vision systems,” he said.

Future flights

Founded as a state-run corporation in 1969 and privatized in 1994, Embraer is the third largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft in the world, producing more than 8,000 aircraft and employing 18,000 people (85 percent of them in Brazil). The company has industrial units, offices, service centers, and parts distribution centers in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Despite being a business conglomerate, Embraer is considered a strategic corporation by the Brazilian government, which maintains a special share of the company—dubbed a golden share—giving it veto power over new business dealings.

In early 2018, media reports speculated on merger negotiations between Embraer and U.S. aerospace company Boeing. Embraer confirmed to Diálogo it reached a synergy agreement with Boeing for sales and operational support in specific markets for the KC-390. Citing strategic reasons, Embraer declined to disclose those markets. The Brazilian manufacturer highlighted the international interest generated for the KC-390 and confirmed advanced negotiations with the Portuguese government for the sale of up to six aircraft.

Embraer’s aircraft represent Brazilian intellectual property for which the Brazilian government receives a share that can be poured back into the economy. FAB estimates the market demand for the aircraft will reach 300 exported aircraft in the next 20 years.

“We expect this aircraft to be a commercial success worthy of the effort made to develop it. As for this product, it is an aircraft that will exceed any client’s expectations. We proved it in our trips to aircraft demo shows in 2016 and 2017, when all potential customers for this aircraft were positively surprised and thrilled by its capabilities,” Col. Samir said.

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