Embraer to demonstrate C-390 to the SAAF

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Brazilian aerospace company Embraer will later this month demonstrate its C-390 Millenium transport aircraft to the South African Air Force (SAAF).

The aircraft will be at Air Force Base Waterkloof on Friday 24 November, the SAAF said in a statement, where it will be shown to Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thandi Modise; Chief of the SA National Defence Force, General Rudzani Maphwanya; and the Chief of the SA Air Force, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo. Representatives from various government departments will also be in attendance, “as they will benefit from this multi-mission aircraft by requiring air mobility support.”

The SAAF said the purpose of the event will be to showcase the C-390’s cutting-edge capability for air-to-air refuelling, humanitarian aid delivery, search and rescue and aerial fire-fighting.

The demonstration comes after an April 2023 visit to Brazil to discuss bringing the C-390 to South Africa for testing and demonstration, the SAAF said. In May, Modise told Parliament her department hoped to soon publicly announce a partnership with Embraer, but gave little further detail other than that it would include the manufacture and repair of aircraft in South Africa.

Her comments came weeks after Brazilian Air Force commander Lieutenant Brigadier Marcelo Kanitz Damasceno told the Brazilian senate’s Foreign Relations and National Defense Committee that Brazil was negotiating with several countries to sell the C-390 to, including South Africa.

The SAAF spends millions of rands chartering aircraft to rotate troops and equipment from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique as it does not have sufficient airworthy transport aircraft. Although R1 billion has been allocated by National Treasury to get the SAAF C-130BZ Hercules medium airlift fleet airworthy, in January Mbambo said there “is a lot of talk around the strategic lift capability. This is not a surprise as to why this capability is being mentioned. The reality we face is South Africa is not in a strategic position. Our location cannot be changed. We need to have very strong legs to connect ourselves to the rest of the continent and the world.”

Embraer believes a capable multi-mission aircraft like the C-390 is the best option for many African nations as it performs a wide range of tasks, from the transport of cargo and troops to medical evacuation, search and rescue, aerial refuelling (fighters and helicopters in KC-390 guise), aerial firefighting and humanitarian assistance.

Embraer claims the C-390 can carry more payload (26 tons) compared to other medium-sized military cargo aircraft and flies faster (870 km/h) and farther. Digital design and manufacturing techniques coupled with an aerodynamic design, fly-by-wire technology, and proven efficient turbofan propulsion contribute to high efficiency and performance, and reduced life cycle costs and greater availability, the company says. Having two readily available commercial IAE V2500 jet engines (rather than four like the Il-76 or C-130) means less maintenance – using the latest avionics (Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion) and systems also results in lower maintenance requirements.

Embraer estimates Africa will need 105 aircraft in Africa in the C-390 class over the next 20 years, with global demand for this category amounting to 490 aircraft. Last year, the C-390 toured two Arican and eight Middle Eastern countries, of which some had specifically asked to see the aircraft, indicating strong interest in the type. Rwanda in particular believes the C-390 is a good contender for African Union nations that could use it for humanitarian and other missions across the continent – possibly in a multinational unit.

Embraer is quickly accumulating new sales of its flagship transport aircraft, with Austria becoming the latest customer in September. Austria will acquire four C-390s, valued at around €600 million, to replace its C-130Ks. Austria and the Netherlands are together buying nine aircraft. Other existing customers include Brazil (19), Hungary (two) and Portugal (five). In October, the Czech Republic began negotiations on the potential acquisition of two C-390s.

All existing C-390 customers are acquiring the jet to replace their C-130 fleets. While the C-130 and C-390 are similar, the C-390 has a slightly larger cargo compartment and carries 26 tonnes versus the C-130J’s 20 tonnes. A review conducted by the Netherlands found the C-390 offered superior payload/range, reduced maintenance and operating costs and overall greater availability and efficiency when compared to the C-130J.

The C-390 may not be able to go in exactly all the places as a smaller turboprop like the C-130, but it is able to operate from unpaved runways and at slow speeds (thanks to fly by wire flight controls and massive flaps), and also fly high, fast and far.