In the 1980s, it was a heavyweight in military training – supplying thousands of aircraft to the Soviet Union and its allies. In the 1990s and 2000s, it became an industrial relic with cul-de-sac programmes that no one – including one-time stakeholder Boeing – wanted. Finally, this decade has seen its reinvention as an aerostructures specialist with a tier-one position on several emerging platforms, including the Bombardier CSeries and Embraer KC-390. In the past 30 years, you could say that Czech aerospace champion Aero Vodochody has had its share of ups and downs.
Now new chief executive Giuseppe Giordo wants to open a new chapter in the century-old company’s history, by returning it to past glories as a leading manufacturer of training aircraft. The product at the centre of his plans is a re-powered and revamped version of the L-39 Albatros – 3,000 of which entered service during the Cold War. Aero Vodochody conceived and flew the “next generation” variant before Giordo joined earlier this year, but has not so far secured any orders for the Williams International FJ44-4M-powered L-39NG. The former Alenia Aermacchi boss aims to change that.
Giordo – who was closely associated with the M-346 jet trainer programme before he left the Leonardo subsidiary a year ago – says he accepted the offer of becoming Aero Vodochody’s first non-Czech chief executive because he was impressed with the commitment shown by Penta, the Prague-based investment house that has owned Aero Vodochody since 2007. “I realised this company offers a lot of opportunities,” he says. “Penta had a clear strategy of growing the company on the international market. They wanted to see the company coming back with a leading role in advanced training.”
He says Aero Vodochody’s heritage in training is impressive. “They have produced more than 11,000 aircraft. Few others have done that in the military segment,” he maintains. “There are still 800 Aero Vodochody aircraft flying around the world with 60 different operators. With about 3,000 L-39s produced, only the [Lockheed Martin] F-16 and [McDonnell Douglas] F-4 have sold in greater numbers.” That legacy – and the fact that air forces around the world are increasingly looking for value solutions to pilot training – gives the company a “strong base” to seriously market the L-39NG, he says.
The L-39NG performed its first flight from Aero Vodochody’s facility near Prague last September. As well as the new Williams engine, enhancements include Genesys Aerosystems avionics and head-up displays. The wings have also been modified, with the wingtip fuel tanks on earlier L-39s replaced with composite structures. Giordo says there are “many prospects” for the type. “We have assessed the potential market as 5,400 units,” he says. “It’s a cost-effective platform with low life cycle costs. Few countries can afford four different platforms [for pilot training]. This is a good solution to move from primary to advanced.”
Although Aero Vodochody has not secured any orders for the L-39NG, Giordo says there have been “several letters of intent” and the company is aiming for “initial entry into service” in 2018. Representatives of several armed forces, he says, have flown the new aircraft in the Czech Republic. Giordo maintains the L-39NG can “bridge the gap” between former Soviet allies operating ageing legacy L-39s and Western nations looking for a value-for-money training solution, with the reassurance of substantial Western content. “We are starting from a position where there are 800 around the world, so we can use a different approach,” he says.
Giordo also does not rule out restarting production of the L-159 light combat aircraft, a project begun during the Cold War but axed in 2003 after the Czech Republic ordered 72 examples and then promptly parked most of them, declaring them surplus to requirements and buying the Saab Gripen instead. For more than 10 years, Prague – with the help of Aero Vodochody – tried to sell them on, with limited success. Finally, however, in 2014, separate deals with US private training contractor Draken International and Iraq saw them commit to 28 and 10 aircraft, which Aero Vodochody has been refurbishing and delivering.
Giordo says Draken is “very happy” with its L-159s, which it uses to play the aggressor role in NATO training exercises. “Having it in the USA gives [the aircraft] a lot of visibility,” he says. “It is performing well.” Meanwhile, Iraq has already taken delivery of two L-159s – which it will use in a counter-insurgency role against so-called Islamic State installations – with three more on the way. Giordo says Aero Vodochody is “working to add some additional capabilities” to the aircraft and could – if demand is there – produce further examples as the tooling, expertise and supply chain is still in place.
Although the L-159s were not on Aero Vodochody’s balance sheet, selling them has been symbolically important, as the parked aircraft were a reminder of the company’s dark days as a failed aircraft manufacturer. Another project – the Ae-270 commercial turboprop, developed with Indonesia – was also shelved in the mid-2000s, around the time that Boeing walked away from its 35% stake in the company. When Penta bought Aero Vodochody in 2007 it was losing money and in need of reinvention. That came with new chief executive Ladislav Šimek, who began positioning Aero Vodochody as a built-to-print contractor.
That strategy was successful in that it brought in much-needed cash and steadied the ship. Thanks to contracts to produce parts and aerostructures for the Airbus A320, Alenia Aermacchi C-27J, Sikorsky S76 and UH-60M Black Hawk, among others, turnover rose to more than $300 million and staff numbers to 2,000 by 2015 – far fewer than the 5,000 employed in the 1980s, but twice what it had been a few years earlier. However, Giordo now plans a “strategic review” of these aerostructures contracts, fearing some of them are bringing little real value to the company.
“Our focus has to be existing and future aircraft,” he says. “Some of our aerostructures programmes are important, others less so.” The more valuable are those where Aero Vodochody adds engineering expertise and substantial technical content, he says. Among those are contracts with Bombardier in Belfast for elements of the leading edge of the CSeries wing – it had previously supplied these through Belgium’s Sonaca – and the KC-390, on which it is a risk-sharing partner, engineering sections of the rear fuselage. It also builds the S-76 fuselage, although that programme is suffering as a result of the oil and gas crisis.
While aerostructures will remain a vital part of the business model, Giordo says that Aero Vodochody’s owners have the confidence to push the company up the value chain. “A company like Aero Vodochody that has all the capability to build complete aircraft can provide complete assemblies and engineering instead of just producing parts. Yes, labour costs are low [in the Czech Republic], and we want to retain our competitive edge on costs, but to really add value you need to add your involvement in more technical areas,” he says.
After being kept afloat by the Czech government in the 2000s, Penta and the previous management team pulled Aero Vodochody from the abyss. Now Giordo says the company is ready for the next step, to become a major player again in European aerospace. “I believe that, based on past experience, if you really want to be tier one, you need to invest money and see a return on that investment,” he says. Sometimes that requires patience and a long-term outlook. “We decided to invest in CSeries and now that they have achieved certification the situation is completely different,” he says. “Now we are getting ready to ramp up.”
Source: Flight Daily News