For decades Brazilian plane maker Embraer SA has kept its head down, shying away from larger aircraft in competition with industry giants that its executives called the “big dogs.”
A military cargo plane trundling down the runway is about to change that.
In a direct challenge to Lockheed Martin Corp.’s storied C-130 Hercules airlifter, Embraer is promising a jet that flies higher, fuller and faster – at a lower price.
The bold move is part of Brazil’s campaign for credibility as a player on the world stage. After years sprucing up second-hand military gear, the South American powerhouse is bulking up its homegrown defence industry and looking to export into a shrinking global market.
If Embraer’s KC-390 is airborne by the end of next year as planned, Brazil will succeed in a segment where peers stumbled, leapfrogging programs launched by Russia, India and China over the past decade. It will be the largest plane ever made in Latin America, with a belly big enough to fit a Blackhawk helicopter.
“I don’t think the Hercules has ever faced such serious competition – and it’s the oldest aircraft in production,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant with the Teal Group.
Embraer is betting it can not only match the gold-standard Hercules but outperform it on many fronts by using jet engines instead of the sturdy turboprops that have powered Lockheed’s workhorse since the 1950s.
Upsetting the common wisdom on tactical transport, Embraer is hitching its hopes to the same family of engines powering the Airbus A320 airliner, and promising an edge when it comes to maximum payload, cruising speed and altitude. Lockheed argues nothing can match the durability of the turboprop.
“The props give us a tremendous advantage going into dirt, gravel and unprepared strips,” said Larry Gallogly, a former C-130J pilot for the United States Air Force now working for Lockheed. “If you go into those strips with a jet engine, that engine is liable to get destroyed.”
Executives at Embraer, which is designing its cargo jet for the Brazilian Air Force to land on rugged airstrips from the Amazon to Antarctica, say the fear of fragile jet engines is based on old assumptions they are overturning with this plane.
“If you’d asked me 30 years ago, I would have told you a turboprop is better on rough terrain. Today I’m certain it’s not,” said Paulo Gastao, head of Embraer’s KC-390 program.
The evolution of high bypass turbofans means the turbines at their core are better protected from flying debris, said Mr. Gastao, a former test flight engineer with Brazil’s Air Force.
Still, analysts say that will be a hard sell for the handful of nations that regularly deploy special operations units in hostile territory.
By opting for an engine that has already flown a million hours, Embraer is avoiding the risks associated with the latest turboprop technologies. Huge propellers made of cutting-edge composite materials added to costly delays on the massive Airbus A400M cargo plane, for example.
Still, the move away from turboprops means sacrificing fuel efficiency and range – two points on which the Hercules will hold an edge.
The jet engine may help set the KC-390 apart in a market that has shown signs of stagnating under Lockheed’s dominance.
The U.S. plane maker sold more than 2,000 Hercules planes in its first four decades, but sales of the upgraded C130J Super Hercules have barely topped 300 since the turn of the century.
Early demand for the Super Hercules was tepid, but sales have picked up in the past five years and Lockheed expects to close deals for about 300 more in coming years. A huge user base and global support infrastructure will help sales campaigns.
The Brazilians are promising to shake up the market by undercutting the Super Hercules on price.
A competitive price tag will be key for Embraer, which can’t rely on a huge domestic market as many military contractors do.
Instead, Brazil has rounded up partner nations expressing early interest in the new aircraft in exchange for a role in its industrial development – a largely Latin American version of the coalitions that back big European defence products.