The routine of takeoffs and landings of the first prototype of the KC-390 is intense: on average, two flights a day. The Brazilian Air Force’s future military transport aircraft has already exceeded 150 flight hours; the assembly of the second aircraft has been completed, and it will soon join the flight test campaign. This phase is accompanied by pilots and engineers from different units of aircraft manufacturer Embraer, whose factory is located in Gavião Peixoto (SP).
Effectively started in October 2015, the flight test campaign involves over 1,110 professionals responsible for evaluating the performance and robustness of the largest aircraft ever produced in Brazil. Each flight tests the aircraft in different situations, at new altitudes, speeds and configurations. Flight tests are expected to continue for two years, and the goal is to obtain certification from the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) and from the Institute of Development and Industrial Coordination (IFI), a military agency of the Air Force Command. After being certified, the KC-390 can be used on operational missions.
To allow improvements during the testing phase, 23 cameras have been installed inside and outside the fuselage of the KC-390 prototype. All images and other data collected are sent to the telemetry station, a remote monitoring that has high-tech software to analyze this information.
During this phase, the crew of test pilots and flight-test engineers, all of whom have extensive experience on civil and military aircraft, are Marcos Salgado de Oliveira Lima, a former Brazilian Air Force fighter pilot who has been with Embraer for nineteen years. He says that the KC-390 is the prototype with the highest availability in the manufacturer history.
The aircraft has already flown over 50 hours in its third month of testing, a number that is usually only achieved with the maturing of systems at a more advanced stage. Another difference is that this project had the longest wind tunnel tests, so that its aerodynamic configuration was frozen earlier.
"This integration of the teams that developed the aircraft, plus the airplane’s flight qualities, makes it very easy to pilot. It is precise and quick to perform all maneuvers while maintaining a smooth ride. It also offers the pilot a very low workload because it is as if the plane was coupled with the autopilot most of the time," he adds.
The aircraft’s gestation process was developed by the Brazilian air force’s Coordinating Committee of the Combat Aircraft Program (COPAC), the FAB, from the operational demands and the Air Force Command's requirements. The goal was to bring together in one aircraft the ability to carry out many different missions, including search and rescue, transport, in-flight refueling, cargo and paratrooper drops, medevac, and fighting forest fire.
Work done in conjunction with Embraer engineers made it possible to define the size of the KC-390 platform. A high-wing aircraft of generous proportions, powered by jet engines, it is able to land on unpaved and unprepared runways, and also uses the latest technologies in several areas. Among the innovations, it can be refueled and refuel in flight - helicopters as well as fixed-wing aircraft - and also land in Antarctica.
In the cockpit, five large touchscreen displays facilitate the pilot's navigation and change commands with a single touch. The avionics system is developed by the US company Rockwell Collins, ad does away with clocks, gauges and thermometers.
The FAB’s future transport aircraft will be the only one of its category to have a full fly-by-wire electronic flight control system, which in addition to providing greater efficiency for piloting will also provide integration with other missions. An example is the air-dropping of loads, where the fly-by-wire controls will act in real time in order to keep the plane on the pilot’s desired trajectory.
Foreign companies from three countries have also cooperated in the development of the KC-390. Argentina’s FAdeA manufactures spoilers, the doors of the nose landing gear, the door of the rear ramp, the flap fairings, the tail cone and the electronic cabinet. Two Portuguese companies, OGMA and EEA, are responsible for providing the central fuselage panels, the landing gear sponsons, the doors of the main landing gear and the tail elevators. A Czech company, Aero Vodochody, produces part of the rear fuselage, the fuselage doors, the emergency doors and hatch, the rear loading ramp and the wing leading edge.
"No doubt, the KC-390 is a world reference in terms of engineering. We employed what is most modern, both in what we already knew, and in new technologies to facilitate the development of the aircraft, given the FAB requirements," says Márcio Eduardo Regis Monteiro, the product development manager at Embraer.
Before certification, the prototypes will also conduct operational tests to test the KC-390’s performance and capabilities. Also planned are cargo drop missions in Brazil’s midwest, and high temperature tests in the northeast. It is also planned to fly out of the country for low-temperature tests and icing trials in the United States.
"The ultimate aeronautical technology that is built into the KC-390, gives it a huge performance advantage, as it is the only aircraft in this segment with all the updated technology. It will provide a very large operational flexibility to the FAB, "said Paul Gaston, Embraer’s KC-390 program manager.
On the Market
Fruit of the latest technologies, the KC-390 will provide an operational boost to the armed forces and a breakthrough for Brazil’s aviation industry. In all, 28 units have been ordered by the Brazilian Air Force and will be delivered from 2018.
According to the FAB’s KC-390 program manager, Colonel Claudio Evangelista Cardoso, the new aircraft will contribute to the strengthening of the National Defense Strategy and the growth of domestic industry. "It's a milestone for the Air Force because we will receive an up-to-date aircraft, in fact what is most modern in its class," he says.
Thanks to its advantages, the KC-390 has aroused interest on the international market. According to the President of Embraer Defense & Security, Jackson Schneider, there is a market demand for new aircraft like this military jet transport. "We're talking to some potential customers. The feedback has been extremely positive, confirming that we are on track," he says.
The KC-390 series production line should start next year, and is expected to generate 1,060 direct and 5,300 indirect jobs. Claudia Renata Miranda, an electrician at the aircraft assembly plant, took part in the assembly of the prototypes. According to her, it is a great pleasure to be part of this process. "When I saw the plane taking off, I thought: Hey, I worked on that plane! It is like a child, we are very involved," she says.