Embraer comes to the 2010 Farnborough air show with development work well under way on its biggest and most ambitious project to date - the KC-390 tactical transport. The Brazilian manufacturer is using the show to step up its hunt for new customers, as well as strategic industrial partners and suppliers.

Currently in the initial definition phase, the aircraft is being developed under a Brazilian air force contract worth $1.3 billion, signed in April 2009. Embraer has its work cut out to convince sceptics that it can develop the aircraft to specification for such a relatively paltry sum, while avoiding engineering problems of the kind which beset Airbus Military's A400M.

The Brazilian air force contract calls for the construction and certification of two KC-390 prototypes, plus associated production tooling.

"With that amount of money, we will be conceiving, developing, designing and producing two prototypes, and having the tooling to certify those two prototypes to Part 25 and having all the tooling and assembly jigs ready for production," says Orlando Neto, Embraer executive vice-president defence market. He adds that series production is not included in the contract.

Embraer KC-390
 © Embraer
Embraer believes its KC-390 offers capacity and cost advantages over rival tankers

The air force is expected to eventually order around 30 production KC-390s, designed to support a multitude of roles including humanitarian missions, rapid mobilisation, special forces operations, air dropping of paratroops, air-to-air refuelling, airborne cargo delivery, medical evacuation, search and rescue and even firefighting.

Conceived as a jet-powered replacement for the Lockheed Martin C-130, the KC-390 is designed to be operated from semi-prepared airstrips with holes up to 40cm (15.7in) deep, and will also be used to support the Brazilian air force's operations in Antarctica.

"Antarctica was one of the critical tasks that dimensioned the aircraft in the end," says Neto.

The KC-390 is configured to carry a payload of 19t, cruising at Mach 0.8 at an altitude of 36,000ft (11,000m). It will accommodate 23.4t of fuel in its wing tanks and carry an additional 14t of fuel in the air-to-air refuelling role. The fuselage will withstand a pressure differential of 0.52bar (7.6lb/in2), which Neto says will provide a "very comfortable environment for soldiers, for this type of aircraft". He adds that the KC-390 will carry "in excess" of 64 parachutists or 80 soldiers.

"It is designed to be superior to the C-130," says Neto. "The Brazilian air force could have purchased the C-130J, but this aircraft will do more for less, so that's the challenge we have ahead of us. It's as simple as that. We have a contract to produce a product that will do that job."

The KC-390's cargo deck will be 17.8m long, 3.45m wide and 2.9m high (uninterrupted by the wing box). On a ferry flight the aircraft is designed to fly 3,350nm (6,200km), or 1,450nm with its maximum 19t payload. Maximum fuel and an 11t payload gives a range of 2,800nm.

Neto says the KC-390 has to be jet powered because, given the size of the country that the Brazilian air force is charged with defending, "it has to be fast". However the air force also insists that the aircraft be able to take off or land wherever a C-130 can.

"It will land and take off from airfields that are two classes below the C-130J and [Airbus Military] C-295," says Neto.

Despite having a huge amount of airspace to patrol, the Brazilian air force constantly grapples with a tight procurement budget, and Neto says this could work in Embraer's favour when it comes to addressing export markets.

Embraer KC-390
 © Embraer

"If there is one thing that Embraer Defense is blessed with, it's to have the Brazilian air force as a customer," says Neto. "They are very creative people with a small pocket and a big mission. That means that you have to be creative.

"Look at the Bandeirante, the Tucano, the Super Tucano, look at all the products we have developed for them. The ERJ-145 ISR was initially invented for surveillance of the Amazon. They were made to be affordable. With this in hand, you have a good chance of having export success."

Neto sees a conservative potential market for the KC-390 of 700 units (a figure which discounts the possibility, for example, of making a sale to the US Air Force), out of a global C-130 replacement market of 2,800 aircraft.

"This is a product that puts us in a new league," says Neto. "Geopolitics can play a big part pro and against us of course, but we are pretty comfortable that this is a highly addressable market for this type of product."

Embraer KC-390 three view
KC-390 specifications

The fly-by-wire KC-390 has 52% more wing area than Embraer's current largest product - the 190/195 airliner. Its maximum take-off weight of 72t is 40% higher than that of the E-195.

"We are just finalising the preliminary design phase as we speak," says Neto. "Then will come the initial definition phase, the joint definition phase, the detailed design, and building and certification of the prototypes.

"The initial definition phase is where suppliers and strategic partners will be defined and put on board, because they need to be here for the joint definition phase. Now is the time up until May next in which we'll be seeing movement in terms of suppliers and strategic partners being announced."

Neto says Embraer is open to a foreign government - and that country's local industry - participating in the programme, with the agreement of Brasilia.

"They will be more than welcome to come, provided that the non-recurring costs that are embedded into this $1.3 billion contract are taken from Brazil and taken to them for them to spend.

"We want as many strategic partners as possible, because to be on board you have to take the non-recurring costs and you have to commit to buy the KC-390 in the future.

Embraer KC-390
 © Embraer

"If there is a decision for an air force and a local industry to participate, that is a government-to-government decision. Purchase of the KC-390 is at the air force level and participation of the local industry in doing part of the job is at the industrial level. A handful of countries would be fine."

Metal for the first KC-390 is due to be cut by mid-2013. The initial prototype is scheduled to emerge in mid-2014, with the certification campaign getting under way in the third quarter of that year.

The requirement for the as-yet unselected engine is "more than 25,000lb [110kN] and less than 30,000lb thrust", says Neto. "We're in discussions with the engine manufacturers. The idea is to have as much proven technology as possible. We're not reinventing the wheel here."

The French government has indicated its willingness to purchase 12 KC-390s if Brazil selects the Dassault Rafale for its F-X2 fighter contest.

"We do see opportunities for the C-390 in France, period," says Neto. "If somebody wants to tie those things together, we'll I'm not tying anything together. You don't buy something you don't need."

Sweden has also made a similar pledge, linked to its offer of the Gripen NG.

The Brazilian air force is looking for "high 20s or low 30s" in terms of number of aircraft, including air-to-air refuelling variants.

"We have completed the final subsonic test of the preliminary design phase, in Holland," says Neto. "We finished the preliminary design phase with a product that we are pretty much confident is robust, complies with the mission it is being designed for, and will be very simple in terms of systems, and to operate."

Three workshops with air forces (similar in format to the airline advisory boards formed by Embraer for its new airliner programmes) have been held, one for general configuration, one focused on the cargo compartment, and one for the maintenance of the aircraft.

The KC-390 has been designed to offer a high level of survivability. "The distribution of systems through the aircraft has to be designed in such a way to ensure the aircraft has the level of survivability necessary for it to do the mission," he says.

Neto is confident that the KC-390 programme will not suffer similar difficulties to those encountered in Europe with the larger A400M.

"This is one product to be developed to fulfil a certain specified mission for one customer," says Neto. "That keeps things very, very straightforward.

"To develop this programme we will have to overcome technical difficulties, learn a few things that we don't know for sure, but that's part of the challenge. We don't want to develop technology out of this, we want to get the aircraft serving the requirements of the Brazilian air force at the end of the development phase.

"Mitigating the risk means having a customer, a contract to get the plane, which will come with its challenges, but no extra technology. We want to be safe because the application and the requirements are there."

Source: Flight International