There are few signs to or on Tecnam's modern production plant just outside the small town of Capua, near Naples. However, the cult Italian manufacturer – which has produced almost 5,000 small piston aircraft for the training and private pilot market since the late Professor Luigi Pascale founded it in 1986 – is about to be very much on the map in the wider commercial aviation world.
This is thanks to its latest, and largest, design, the 11-seat, Lycoming TEO-540-powered P2012 twin. Tecnam believes that – as the first aircraft to be certificated in this segment for decades – the Traveller can replace many of the thousands of ageing legacy piston types serving island and other remote communities from Scotland to the South Pacific, including the Cessna 402 and Britten-Norman Islander.
Tecnam, which has roots going back to Pascale's first ventures in aviation 70 years ago, launched the P2012 in 2011 (all Tecnam's aircraft are named after the year work on the programme begins) and five examples are now in production at Capua – with two in flight test. Planned first delivery to Massachusetts-based Cape Air is early next year. The employee-owned carrier, which has ordered 100, helped Tecnam design the aircraft from scratch.
In fact, Cape Air founder and chief executive Dan Wolf has literally made his mark on the type. His signature adorns the forward bulkhead of the first production aircraft, 003, which was close to completion when FlightGlobal visited the facility in early October. Two others were in advanced stages of assembly, while the two flight-test prototypes were busy in the final stages of the certification campaign.
Cape Air – which flies routes to the Caribbean and small communities and vacation resorts in New England – is actually an operator of one of the types Tecnam thinks the Traveller can supersede, with 83 Cessna 402s in its fleet. After being rebuffed by Cessna and Piper, the carrier turned to the Italian company around 2009 to ask it to come up with an all-new passenger aircraft around its specific needs.
These included a requirement for single-pilot operation, a modern, but unpressurised cockpit and cabin, a high wing for better passenger visibility and rough runways, fixed landing gear, a metal structure, and removable panels to give mechanics easy underfloor access. "It’s all about simplicity, for flying and for maintenance" says Walter da Costa, Tecnam’s global sales and marketing director.
With the Lycoming engines delivering 375hp (280kW), the P2012 has a maximum cruise speed of 190kt (351km/h) and maximum take-off weight of 3,600kg (7,930lb). A large passenger door, twin cockpit doors, a spacious cabin, and a range of 950nm (1,750km) means the type is suitable for a wide range of missions, from commuter and charter air taxi to medevac, troop transport and cargo, suggests da Costa.
At its newly extended Capua facility, Tecnam is getting ready for a rapid production ramp-up, with plans to build around 15 Travellers in 2019, of which eight to 10 will be for Cape Air. On top of the US airline's 100 commitments, da Costa says there are about 30 additional orders "from around the world", although Seychelles charter company Zil Air – taking two P2012s – is the only other named customer.
Production will increase to 25 in 2020 and then 35 the following year, says da Costa. Although the current plant could cope with annual volumes of 40 aircraft, Tecnam is looking to extend the premises further or open a second site, especially if there is a flurry of new orders. The company's semi-rural location next to Capua's little-used airfield means there are plenty of options.
Of the two flight-test examples, aircraft 002 has a 90% production-conforming cockpit, and by early October had contributed about 200 of the total 500 flying hours carried out by the pair. The chance to design a "clean" cockpit meant Tecnam could introduce features not available in legacy competitors, with their rather cluttered control panels.
For instance, the flight management system is easily accessible, directly below the Garmin G1000 NXi glass cockpit, rather than between the pilot seats. Passenger comfort enhancements in the certificated aircraft might include an optional air conditioning system. Operators can also quickly remove seats to make space for additional cargo, or a stretcher, says da Costa.
Although, in cabin size, the Traveller directly rivals the Cessna 402 and Islander, Tecnam concedes it will also compete with modern aircraft such as the single-engined Quest Kodiak and Viking Twin Otter. However, the Twin Otter in particular is larger, heavier and more expensive – and the P2012 will give operators a chance to "right size" on routes where nine seats or fewer are required, says da Costa.
In terms of aftersales support, Tecnam will shortly announce a contract with a "global parts supply company" and is in talks with several companies about designing a simulator. Cape Air will initially keep its aircraft close to its Hyannis headquarters, operating local routes, and using two pilots – though not required by the Federal Aviation Administration – to build experience.
The airline will have "someone on site for the first year from Tecnam", Cape Air president Linda Markham told FlightGlobal at September's Regional Airline Association conference in the USA. "As we get more airplanes, we will start to diversify and put them in more regions," she added.
While the Traveller is Tecnam's most complex and important programme, the company is also focusing on the rest of its range, which comprises the P2008 and P2002 two-seat, piston-single trainers, as well as the Lycoming IO 360-powered P2010 four-seat single, a type pitched largely at the enthusiast market.
In additional, there is the Rotax-powered P2006T twin, which has retractable landing gear and is used chiefly for more complex, multi-engine pilot training. Tecnam built around 200 aircraft last year, and expects roughly the same output in 2018, with the P2006 and P2008 remaining the top sellers.
Tecnam distributes through 65 dealers around the world, with subsidiaries in Australia and the USA. Four years ago, the company signed an agreement with China's Liaoning United Aviation Shenyan (LUSY) to reassemble three models for the local pilot training school market – the P2006, P2008, and P2010. Eventually, the plan is for the Chinese to move to full-scale assembly.
During November's Zhuhai air show, Tecnam and LUSY announced an order from Anhui Lantian International Flight Academy, or ALIFA, for 30 P2006s and P2010s. Intended to replace a "legacy fleet" of training aircraft, ALIFA says the Tecnam types will help fulfil its ambition to be a "world-class flight training organisation".
Pascale – a legend in the Italian general aviation industry – died in March last year, aged 93. He and his brother Giovanni built their first aircraft in 1951 – a giant photograph of the pair with their design adorns the entrance area at Capua. Although Tecnam is now headed by their nephew, Paolo Pascale, the elder Pascale was still involved to the end, helping to conceive the P2012.
In the late 1950s, Luigi Pascale went on to found Partenavia, which in the early 1970s produced the P68 light twin, a six-seat passenger and utility aircraft that inspired the P2012. Although four decades separate the two designs (a separate company, Vulcanair, now owns the rights to the original aircraft), there is a clear evolution from one to the other.
As Tecnam now prepares to enter the passenger transport market for the first time in its own right, da Costa believes many carriers will really be taking notice. "It's the first time we've developed an aircraft from the operator's point of view," he says. "There is a lot of interest around the world to see what Cape Air do with it."