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KC-390: The New Generation Multimission Transport Aircraft

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2017/18

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The KC-390 - delivering versatility, reliability and value for money.The KC-390 - delivering versatility, reliability and value for money.


Embraer is offering their new generation multi-mission aircraft, the KC-390 Military Tactical Airlifter, as the solution to New Zealand’s Future Air Mobility Capability needs. In this profile, Embraer outlines why this new jet aircraft is a game changer.


New Zealand’s geographical isolation means that it will always need to deploy forces, equipment and aid thousands of miles to where they are needed. There is then the need to support them in often remote regions. In this context, speed and tactical capabilities are the keys to success.

The KC-390 has been designed and built to be the key to unlock this potential for countries like New Zealand. So, what makes the KC-390 stand out from the rest?

It is easier to maintain – reliability, maintainability and availability were major design requirements for the aircraft. Reliability through proven systems, redundant architectures and robust design all contribute to outstanding availability levels, which are projected to be best in class.

Secondly, the KC-390 has outstanding cargo capacity. Combine this with superior speed over its turboprop rivals, and the result is incomparable effectiveness for missions abroad, including to Antarctica.

Lastly, Embraer has ensured the design of the KC-390 leverages reduced, best-in-class life cycle costs. This aircraft is a game changer.

Embraer has studied the NZDF’s contributions to international humanitarian and disaster response efforts. In many cases, including in the Pacific islands, runways are often short or unpaved – scenarios that present no problem at all to the KC-390 and its formidable tactical capabilities.

Antarctica operations are also set to be enhanced with the KC-390. Increased payloads, reduced flight times and the ability to return in a single day are all new capabilities that will deliver greater productivity to the RNZAF.


Getting noticed

The KC-390’s lead customer is the Brazilian Air Force, which will bring the aircraft into service in 2018 to replace their aged C-130 Hercules. This will have come eight years after Embraer initially announced its intention to design and build a clean-sheet, multi-mission transport aircraft.

The Brazilian Air Force has ordered 28 KC-390s. In addition, Embraer is in final negotiations with Portugal, a NATO country, who will acquire 5 to 6 aircraft – a similar number to that required by New Zealand to replace its C-130s.

In addition to the military forces taking an interest in buying KC-390, commercial transport leasing companies have recognised its capabilities and are placing orders.

The Embraer airlifter is setting new standards in the medium weight transport category dominated in the past by the C-130 Hercules, and people are taking notice. Now, due to the increased operational capabilities and reduced operating costs delivered by the KC-390, there is real competition.


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Testing and certification

The KC-390 is close to the end of its flight test campaign, which commenced in February 2015. Conducted in accordance with US Federal Aviation Regulations Part 25, which sets exacting airworthiness standards for aircraft in the transport category, the flight test campaign has progressed extremely well.

Since the start of the flight test campaign, two flying KC-390 prototypes have delivered very high reliability and availability metrics, with more than 1,450 flight hours accumulated to date.

In addition to civil certification, the KC-390 is undergoing comprehensive military certification in parallel, including successful dry contact air-to-air refueling between a KC-390 and F-5 aircraft. This important milestone is a result of the excellent aerodynamic characteristics of the aircraft that enable coupling to be performed accurately and safely.

Cargo airdrop and paratroop delivery operations have also been performed in a joint effort with the Brazilian Air Force and Army, with simultaneous use of lateral doors and cargo ramp. The flight certification programme has covered the full flight envelope of the aircraft, reaching cruise speeds of Mach 0.8 and climb and cruise at its operational ceiling of 36,000 feet.

Other milestones include general assessments of its systems, performance and flying qualities, fly-by-wire in final mode, sidesticks linked and active, artificial ice, crosswind and certification flights with the Brazilian military airworthiness authority.

Embraer expects to receive its initial operational capability declaration (IOC) soon and certification of final operational capability (FOC) in the second half of 2018. First deliveries of the in-production KC-390 are scheduled for 2018.


Embraer KC-390 - cutting a formidable figure.Embraer KC-390 - cutting a formidable figure.


Safety and capacity

The KC-390 is equipped with proven and reliable International Aero Engines V2500 turbofan engines similar to those on the Airbus A320 family operated by Air New Zealand. In addition, it boasts the latest Pro Line Fusion avionics from Rockwell Collins, which deliver advanced situational awareness to enhance the safety, efficiency and predictability of every mission.

These are well-proven systems fitted to modern Beechcraft King Air, Bombardier Global, Gulfstream and Embraer Legacy aircraft.

Flight control is managed using a modern fly-by-wire control system with integrated technology that lowers the workload of the crew and increases their safety. A whole lot of clever thought has gone into making the KC-390 a modern and low risk platform.

Additional capabilities include a larger rear ramp and an advanced cargo handling system similar to the C-17. The cargo handling system and flat floor arrangement will surely delight the Loadmasters, as it’s easy to use, reduces configuration time and speeds up the loading/unloading process. It has a fully enclosed toilet with external servicing, which means no more ‘honey pot’.

Reflecting the doctrine that ‘flexibility is the key to air power’, the KC-390 is capable of being reconfigured rapidly to perform a variety of missions, including general purpose airlift, airdrop and airland missions, parachute operations, aeromedical evacuation, aerial refuelling to support allied forces, search and rescue, support to special operations forces, maritime surveillance and HADR operations, to name just a few.

To do all of this, the jet aircraft boasts superior cargo bay width, length and height, and it’s quiet inside.

The KC-390 is capable of carrying up to 26 metric tons of cargo at a maximum speed of 470 knots (870 km/h) to unpaved or damaged runways. The aircraft can carry pallets in multiple configurations, helicopters, armored wheeled vehicles, and troops (80 soldiers or 66 paratroopers).

As previously mentioned, the KC-390 can refuel other aircraft in flight, with the installation of two removable internal fuel tanks. The aircraft can also be refueled in flight as a receiver, thereby providing greater flexibility for longer missions. It also has an advanced self-defense system to increase the aircraft survivability in hostile environments.

Delivering versatility, reliability and value for money, the KC-390 takes best-of-breed technology and capability from international manufacturers in the UK, USA, Europe, NATO countries and Brazil. Despite being a ‘clean-sheet’ design, its technology is leading-edge, not bleeding-edge.


Who is Embraer?

Embraer is a world-leading manufacturer of aircraft, both civil and military, delivering 8,000 plus aircraft. It has a 48-year track record of designing, manufacturing and supporting aircraft for military operators, commercial airlines and executive jet users, all of which demand high levels of reliability and excellent performance.

Embraer’s aircraft manufacturing sites are in the USA, Europe, and in Brazil, where the majority of its operations are located.

The company has a long and distinguished history in aviation, dating back to 1906, when Brazilian Santos-Dumont claimed to have flown before the Wright Brothers. Fast forward to today and Embraer is committed to building strong and enduring partnerships with local industry in New Zealand for sustainment and support services for the KC-390.

At Embraer, we believe this is the start of a successful and enduring relationship with New Zealand’s people, government, industries and, of course, the New Zealand Defence Force.


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