South Korean aerospace targets international impact

Busan
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A large sign in the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) Sacheon plant is unambiguous: "Be the world best!"

It exhorts workers in an area producing parts for the Boeing 787's wing box. Outside, one of the Republic of Korea's E-737 airborne early warning and control aircraft is undergoing work, while KT-1 trainers, T-50 Golden Eagles and a Surion helicopter fly around the plant's airfield.

"The Korean government places a high priority on developing the country's aerospace sector," said a US government official familiar with offset deals between the two countries. "They see it as a way to create jobs and work, as well as to move up the innovation ladder."

In Flight International's top 100 companies ranking this year, KAI placed 56th, up from 63rd in the last top 100, driven by a rise in operating profits to $106 million in 2010, compared with $44 million in 2009.

Korea's dominant aerospace player attributed its strong operating figures to a number of factors. Foremost is increased revenue from full-scale production of the T-50 Golden Eagle advanced jet trainer and its T/A-50 attack variant, as well as production of the KT-1T basic trainer for the Turkish Air Force.

kal-asd overhauls a korean air 747-400 at its base in the city of busan

The 747-400 is one type on which Korean's maintenance arm offers capabilities

Copyright: Greg Waldron/Flightglobal

The company said these programmes helped revenue grow to $1 billion in 2010 from $954 million in 2009.

In 2011, the company scored a major coup with the first international sale of the T-50, with Indonesia committing to 16 aircraft. The type is also involved in competitions in Poland and Israel. The aircraft, co-developed with Lockheed Martin, will be a contender in the USA T-X competition to replace the venerable T-38 Talon. Long term, the company says the market for AJTs is 3,300 during the next 20 years, and it hopes to get a 30% share of this.

In the coming years, KAI hopes to place a greater emphasis on producing systems for commercial aircraft. The company is involved in both the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 programmes, producing the wing rib for the A350 and the wing box for the 787. "Currently, the ratio of production of military to civilian projects is 60:40, but we hope to change this to 50:50 in the near future," said KAI.

The southern city of Busan is home to the aerospace division of flag carrier Korean Air. Founded in 1976, KAL-ASD provides maintenance repair and overhaul support for KAL, the Republic of Korea Air Force and the USAF. It provides heavy maintenance for a vast range of commercial and military types, from 747-400s to F-16s. It also produces a range of aerostructures, namely fuselage and win structures, for several types of large commercial airliners, including the 787, 777 and A320.

 kai work on the wing of a kt-1 trainer

Wing work on a KT-1 trainer at Sacheon

Copyright: Greg Waldron/Flightglobal

Focus on defence
KAL-ASD has also embarked on ambitious aerospace projects, namely unmanned aerial vehicles such as the developmental KUS-7 and KUS-9. The KUS-7 has endurance of 3h and a range of 50km (30 miles). The KUS-9 has 6h endurance and can transmit real-time video from an 80km range. KAL-ASD is also looking to develop longer-range strategic UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

Other key players in Korea's aerospace sector include Samsung Techwin, Hanwha Corp, and LIG Nex1. Given South Korea's geopolitics, most of these focus on defence. Samsung Techwin has produced a number of engines, notably General Electric types such as the F100 for the KF-16, F110 for the F-15K, and F404 for the T-50. Hanwha produces parts for types such as the F-15, while LIG Nex1 produces radars, mission computers and heads-up displays for the T-50 and F-15K.

Seoul hopes this aerospace ecosystem will also provide innovative jobs at home and spur high-value exports. Korean companies have become world beaters in consumer electronics and automobiles. South Korea aims for its aerospace sector to replicate this success.