Andrzej Jeziorski/MUNICH

It seemed a fairly innocuous announcement: Fairchild Dornier had appointed ex-McDonnell Douglas executive John Wolf to the new position of chief operating officer, responsible for the company's aircraft, components and services businesses.

Behind the scenes, however, the move triggered the departure of one of the foremost figures in the company's regional jet programmes, Earl Robinson. The senior vice-president of product development had previously answered directly to company president Jim Robinson and resigned rather than accept the loss of seniority resulting from Wolf's arrival from the Boeing/Microsoft satellite telecommunications company Teledesic, where he was chief operating officer.

Earl Robinson's softly spoken engineer's manner belied his past as a former US Navy fighter weapons school instructor pilot and Vietnam veteran, with 20 years' subsequent experience in the aerospace industry, including a spell as programme manager for Hawker development at Raytheon Aircraft. During his time at Fairchild Dornier's Oberpfaffenhofen site, he had overseen the development of the 328JET from its turboprop forerunner, the launch of the 428JET and the crystallisation of the larger 728/528/928JET regional jet family concept.

With the announcement of conditional orders for 120 aircraft and the same number of options from Lufthansa CityLine and Crossair providing a launch platform for the 728JET family at the Berlin air show in May, it seemed as if both the Robinsons and their products were riding high. Jim Robinson had felt for some time, however, that he needed to bring more people with large aircraft experience into the company as its product range began to extend into the 90-seat market and possibly beyond. A view held sufficiently strongly that he was ready to countenance the departure of Earl Robinson - whose industrial experience had been mostly in the defence field - barely a month after Berlin's multiple programme launch.

Wolf's arrival also resulted in the ousting of 328JET programme manager Jim Brown, an Earl Robinson protegé.

Observers suggest that Wolf has been brought in to the company to add credibility to a 728JETschedule so tight that some worry whether its seams will hold together, and to reassure doubters about the question of financing the $850 million programme.

"This is a private company, and so the funding resources are not public," says Wolf carefully, "but I can assure you-that I have looked at it myself, and I have got very high confidence in the funding." The money will come from diverse sources, including Fairchild Dornier itself, from independent financial institutions, risk- sharing partners expected to join the programme and German Government loans.

The risk-sharing partnership concept is crucial not only to the funding of the programme, but also to its schedule. Wolf says the 728JET development is being split into about 15 packages to be divided among companies which will shoulder the non-recurring development and production costs of their workshare, with final assembly in Oberpfaffenhofen.

With the development burden of the various elements divided in this way, Wolf is confident that Fairchild Dornier should be able to meet its 728JET first flight target of March 2000, with certification a year later. The 55-seat 528JET and 90-seat 928JET are then to be certificated at 14-month intervals.

"The customers understand the risks [of this schedule]," says Wolf. He adds that his previous experience has been focused on programme management, which will be crucial in meeting this timetable.

Until now, Fairchild Dornier's primary focus has been on the 328 turboprop and jet programmes. With the launch of the 728JET family, Wolf intends to set up separate programme management organisations for 328JET, the 728JETfamily and the 42/44-seat 428JET, which he feels is sufficiently different from its 328JET forerunner to have its own department.

"We have already hired some experienced programme managers that have developed aircraft before [to lead the programmes], and will announce who they are in early August," he says.

Wolf has almost 33 years of experience in aerospace, having been at Douglas from 1989 through to early 1997, working on aircraft such as the MD-80, MD-90, MD-11 and most recently the MD-95 - now renamed the Boeing 717. His MD-95 experience is especially relevant to the 728JET programme, as the aircraft is being developed in a similar fashion to the international partnership which Wolf helped establish for Douglas.

The first risk-sharing partners will be announced around the end of August, rather later than had been hoped. The top priority is an engine decision, with General Electric's CF34-8D already rumoured to have been selected rather than Pratt & Whitney Canada/Snecma's SPW 14.

The wing package has attracted a bid from Textron Aerostructures teamed with Kawasaki, competing with bids from AIDC of Taiwan, and South Korea's Samsung leading a team including Daewoo, Korean Air and Hyundai. The South Korean team has also bid for fuselage work, against Aermacchi, OGMA and Sogerma.

Wolf is cautious about whether the programme will now go beyond 90 seats. There has been discussion of going as far as 110 seats with a so-called 1128JET stretch.

With aircraft for the 30, 40 and 70-seat market sectors now under development, allied to plans for 50- and 90-seat aircraft, Wolf hopes to realise what he calls a "very aggressive vision": leadership of the regional jet market.

"We are positioned to be the first [in the regional jet business] to produce a full family in the same way as Airbus and Boeing have done higher up the market," he says.

Source: Flight International