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Aeronautical Engineering

Global project

Embraer develops a new military aircraft in joint effort with Brazilian Air Force, foreign partners, and Brazilian companies

Illustration shows a planned feature of the new KC-390: refueling military aircraft in flight

EMBRAERIllustration shows a planned feature of the new KC-390: refueling military aircraft in flightEMBRAER

Big enough to transport a helicopter or three military jeeps, 80 soldiers or 74 NATO-standard stretchers, the first prototype of Embraer’s new cargo and military transport aircraft – the KC-390 – was presented to the public in October 2014. The roll-out ceremony took place at the Embraer plant where the aircraft will be built, in the town of Gavião Peixoto, 304 kilometers from the São Paulo State capital. The versatile new aircraft can also be equipped to fight forest fires and to be used in a wide range of missions, including humanitarian aid, search and rescue, and cargo and paratrooper airdrops. Last but not least, it can refuel and be refueled in flight by other military aircraft. None of this will be beyond the abilities of the largest plane made in Brazil, although it would be classified as midsize among the world’s military cargo and transport aircraft. With K standing for “tanker” and C for “cargo” as per current naming conventions, the KC-390 is 35.20 meters (m) long and has a height of 11.84 m, with a 35.05 m wing span. It is larger in wing span and height, but shorter in length, than Embraer’s commercial airliner – the EMB 195, which measures in at 28.7 m, 10.5 m, and 38.6 m, respectively.

The KC-390 will replace the famous Hercules C-130 aircraft designed and released in the 1950s by U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin and used to this day by the armed forces of almost 100 countries, including the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). A modernized version, the four turboprop engine C-130J Super Hercules, is still produced today, whereas the KC-390 is equipped with two turbofan engines. The FAB owns 22 C-130s, all of them nearing the end of their useful life. The new aircraft design was developed jointly by Embraer and the FAB, which requires a midsize military transport that can be refueled in flight and be quickly refitted for use as a tanker. Embraer completed a preliminary market study, and the KC-390 project finally got underway in 2009, when the company signed a contract with the FAB for the construction of two prototypes. In May 2014, an additional contract, for R$7.2 billion, set the terms for the purchase of 28 aircraft over a 12-year period, with the first delivery scheduled for late 2016. In addition to the planes per se, the contract also contemplates a logistics support package that includes spare parts, training, and maintenance. The Brazilian Air Force – which is supplying 100% of the funds for development of the KC-390 – holds intellectual property rights over the project and will receive royalties for each KC-390 exported by Embraer.

Over the next 15 years, the company expects to sell upwards of 700 military transport aircraft to more than 70 countries. By October 2014, the Air Forces of five countries had signed letters of intent to buy a combined total of 32 KC-390s: Argentina (six); Chile (six); Colombia (12); Portugal (six); and the Czech Republic (two). “We have designed the aircraft to operate in any scenario, on whatever mission the operators require, and with flexibility. We used technology to improve mission efficiency, reduce the workload of the crew and, just as importantly, provide an aircraft that is easy to maintain,” said engineer and KC-390 program director Paulo Gastão at the roll-out ceremony for the first prototype in October. More than 1,500 Embraer employees are directly involved in the project.

“In terms of project robustness, we say that the aircraft was designed to operate on short, low-strength, semiprepared runways, or runways that have been damaged in combat, with little steering space, addressing the entire spectrum from the Amazon and hot tropical deserts to Antarctica,” says Gastão. The KC-390 can be loaded either with seven complete, standard, 108-inch by 88-inch pallets or with military vehicles. The possible configurations include one midsize Black Hawk helicopter, to be used in troop transport or search and rescue missions; three multipurpose Humvees; or one small combat vehicle like the LAV-25 or the Guarani armored personnel carrier.

First prototype rolled out in Gavião Peixoto...

EMBRAERFirst prototype rolled out in Gavião Peixoto…EMBRAER

“The KC-390 is a joint project by Embraer and the FAB, with collaborations from defense industries in Argentina, Portugal, and the Czech Republic. This aircraft establishes new standards for its category,” says Jackson Schneider, president of Embraer Defense and Security, the Embraer subsidiary responsible for developing and building the KC-390. In the countries mentioned above, other companies also collaborated in the design and production of parts for the KC-390. In Portugal, for example, the state-controlled Aeronautical Engineering Company (EEA) was responsible for designing and calculating the structural resistance of the lateral fairings called sponsons – which protect the landing gear and other fuselage systems – and the aircraft’s elevators, which provide pitch-up and pitch-down control. OGMA, a Portuguese company controlled by Embraer, built the structural panels for the central section of the fuselage. The participating company from Argentina is the Fábrica Argentina de Aviones (FAdeA), the country’s largest aircraft manufacturer, which also participated in the development and production of several parts for the KC-390. Embraer’s Czech partner is Aero Vodochody, responsible for industrializing and producing the doors used in the cockpit, cargo loading ramp, and aft section of the rear fuselage. The engines are built by International Aero Engines (IAE), which is controlled by the American company Pratt & Whitney, using parts manufactured in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan.

There is also an international agreement between Embraer and Boeing, setting the terms for technical know-how sharing in areas in which the American company has ample experience. The agreement has an additional, commercial facet under which the two companies will jointly evaluate the market, which may result in important commercial synergies to exploit opportunities in different regions of the world, especially Asia. In Brazil, major assemblies and structural components of the KC-390 are built at the Embraer facilities in the cities of São José dos Campos and Botucatu, in the state of São Paulo. All of the aircraft’s parts and pieces are brought together in Gavião Peixoto, where all the junctions, fitting, structural equipping, and final assembly take place.

... next to the facility where the KC-390 will be built

EMBRAER… next to the facility where the KC-390 will be builtEMBRAER

Among the Brazilian companies that take part in the project, LH Colus, located in the Technology Park at Vale do Paraíba University (Univap) in São José dos Campos, used computer models and ran tests to develop the seats for troops and the stretchers that will be included among the aircraft’s equipment. The landing gears were developed by Eleb, a company controlled by Embraer and also located in São José dos Campos, which has filed for a patent on its design. Other highlights among the Brazilian technologies incorporated into the KC-390 are the bullet-resistant armoring produced by Aerotron in the city of Itajubá, state of Minas Gerais, and the double heads-up display (HUD) produced by AEL in the city of Porto Alegre, state of Rio Grande do Sul. The double HUD consists of two screens located on the windshield in front of the pilot, displaying the most important aircraft and flight information so that the pilot will not need to divert his line of sight from the horizon in order to check the instruments.

Embraer itself has also developed technology for the project, particularly the software used in control-of-mission systems, airdrop operations, and flight commands, in what is known as fly-by-wire. This system is an interface between aircraft and crew, making it possible to fly exactly as desired. Conventional command systems use steel cables to convey commands from the pilot to the controls, such as the connection between the control stick and the outer aerodynamic surfaces that make the aircraft climb, descend, or turn. A fly-by-wire system uses wires to transmit commands from the pilot to computers that determine how the plane should move, taking into account all the relevant flight parameters. Other wires then convey the commands from the computers to the aerodynamic surfaces, effectively controlling the aircraft’s flight. “A fly-by-wire system can ensure that the crew will not exceed the aircraft’s limits, extracting the maximum performance that it can offer without compromising safety. The system is commanded by fully integrated software developed by Embraer, using active sidesticks instead of the more typical central sticks. This is the first time we are using this type of stick in an aircraft, which has advantages in terms of cockpit coordination and optimized control of the aircraft,” says Gastão.

ith a maximum speed of 870 kilometers per hour, flying at up to 36,000 feet, and with a maximum range of more than 6,000 kilometers – more than enough to fly from São Paulo to Manaus in the Amazon region and back without refueling –, the KC-390 can carry 26 tons of cargo, and its pilots can use night vision goggles that enable them to fly the aircraft in the dark without using visible lights, to minimize the chances of detection in a hostile environment. This is all controlled by sophisticated avionic equipment that serves as an interface between the aircraft and its pilots, enhancing overall operational capability. There are significant innovations in the KC-390, such as the active sidesticks. When the position of one stick is changed, the other stick automatically mimics the movement. The cargo compartment floor is set up in such a manner that it can accommodate many different types of cargo, also an innovation when it comes to military transport aircraft. The KC-390 even includes a lavatory similar to the ones available in commercial airliners, a feature not found in similar models.

Illustration of the KC-390 in a forest fire-fighting mission

EMBRAERIllustration of the KC-390 in a forest fire-fighting missionEMBRAER

Modern military aircraft are equipped with self-protection systems designed to improve their survival ability in dangerous situations. “For the KC-390, we designed a complete system not just for self-protection, but also contemplating many aspects involved in aircraft operation in hostile environments, such as bullet-resistant armoring, damage-resistant structures, and a fuel tank on board inert gas generation system [OBBIGS] to prevent explosions in the event of impact,” says Gastão.

“We are putting the finishing touches on the KC-390. We will conduct a ground vibration test campaign, a standard test that we perform before clearing any aircraft for flight. After it is inspected by the certifying authority, in our case the National Civil Aviation Agency (Anac), the prototype will be ready to make its first flight by the end of 2014. The development and certification flight test campaign will take around two years and two prototypes to complete, in addition to a series of ground tests. Most of the testing will be performed in Brazil, but some specific tests will require relocation to other regions where ice and snow are present, conditions that the FAB’s KC-390s will need to face in Antarctica. As for the price tag, Embraer informed that the price of any defense aircraft varies according to the configuration that suits the requirements of each customer, so there is no list price for this type of model.