Insight: Embraer's Herculean task: Brazilian jet takes on Lockheed

Thu Sep 19, 2013 8:43am EDT
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By Brad Haynes

SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS, Brazil (Reuters) - For decades Brazilian planemaker 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 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 defense 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.   Continued...

Military cargo plane Embraer KC-390 is seen in this computer generated image provided by Embraer to Reuters on September 19, 2013. REUTERS/Embraer/Handout via Reuters