French-speaking Wallonia is where Belgium's traditional heavyweight aerospace manufacturers are based, a legacy of the region's coalmining and steel-making past. The industry grew up after the war, directed by state investment, although nowadays several of its big companies are foreign-controlled.

Aerostructures and military upgrades specialist Sabca, based in Brussels but with a plant in Charleroi, is owned by France's Dassault and Stork of the Netherlands. Engine system manufacturer Techspace Aero near Liege is a subsidiary of French aerospace group Safran. Thales too has two businesses in the region.

The traditionally left-leaning Wallonian government is also a big investor in the sector, owning Sonaca, the Charleroi-based aerostructures manufacturer. It leads the Belairbus consortium that produces wing leading edges for Airbus aircraft. In total, the aerospace industry in Wallonia employs 5,800, including 1,400 in the space research sector, and turns over almost €1.4 billion ($1.9 billion).

 © Techspace Aero
Safran subsidiary Techspace Aero is one of Belgium's most important aerospace concerns

The fact that Belgian industry got on board Airbus programmes at a crucial time in the European airframer's development gave a huge kickstart to Wallonian aerospace a quarter century ago. The other key boost was the late 1970s procurement for Lockheed Martin F-16s made by Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. Belgium's order for 160 fighters (later reduced) led to production deals for Sabca and Sonaca, while Techspace Aero built the Pratt & Whitney F100 engines for all four countries.

Today, only residual upgrade work remains from that massive industrial contract and with no big Belgian military procurements in sight (unlike the Netherlands, the country is not a participant in the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter programme), the civil side has become increasingly vital for the region's aero­space manufacturers. "We were 99% military and now 90% of our revenues come from civil activities," says Michel Milecan, executive vice-president business development with Sonaca, which was set up by the Wallonian government in 1978 as part of the Belgian F-16 workshare package.

Despite its government ownership, Sonaca has been "very reactive" to changes in the marketplace, he says. "Capital ownership is one thing, but the behaviour of managers and staff is like a private company, not part of the civil service. We know we have to compete in the marketplace." Realising that it could not depend on dwindling military work or even on Airbus, Sonaca established beachheads over the Atlantic, setting up a greenfield factory in Brazil in 2000 and acquiring a wing panels specialist, National Metal Finishing, in Wichita three years later.

"The board realised that we had to be closer to Embraer, which we had been working for since the end of the '90s," says Milecan. "And we needed to get our brand into the USA because we were unknown there. That got us into Bombardier and Dassault." Sonaca NMF also supplies Hawker Beechcraft and Gulfstream and won the contract to supply the leading edge on the Cessna Columbus large cabin jet, before that programme was cancelled in 2009.


Sonaca now makes 60% of its revenues from leading edges, 20% from fuselage panels and 10% from wing panels. But although it only represents one-tenth of its business, defence remains important, particularly the Airbus Military A400M for which Sonaca manufactures the leading edge, as well as the main landing gear doors, its first major move into carbon composite structures.

Techspace Aero low pressure compressor
 © Techspace Aero

Techspace Aero began life as part of industrial combine FN in 1949 and was given a tremendous bonanza by the F-16 programme and its F100 engine. But it was French engine champion Snecma (now Safran), rather than Pratt & Whitney, which became the major investor in the business (P&W as well as the Wallonian government are minority shareholders). With a 65,000m2 (700,000ft2) complex near Liege, turnover of €350 million and a workforce of 1,250 it is one of Belgium's most important aerospace concerns. A three-year €60 million investment programme in its factory culminates this year.

Like many engine systems suppliers, Techspace Aero is not reliant on one manufacturer and supplies General Electric, P&W and Rolls-Royce, specialising in low-pressure compressors, including for the GE GEnx and CFM International CFM56, and also in equipment and oil systems. Its client base is split between Snecma 53%, P&W 25% and General Electric 18%, but the company says that the GEnx will push GE's share up to one-third by 2013, at the expense of the other two manufacturers.

But Wallonian aerospace is not all about big industry. SkyWin, one of five industrial "cluster" organisations created four years ago to help diversify the region's economy from its legacy of smokestack industry and coalmining, is keen to promote the small and medium enterprise sector too. "Our goal is to push SMEs to be in contact with OEMs, to create new activity and attract foreign investment," says director Alain Moreau. "Our strategy is all about improving competitiveness and innovation."

Source: Flight International