Embraer’s big bet on its largest airplane yet


Embraer is days away from the roll-out of its biggest airplane project yet and one that has the potential to make its biggest inroads yet into the global defense market: the KC-390.

Rendering of KC390 tanking two Embraer AMX fighters. Source: Embraer

Rendering of KC390 tanking two Embraer AMX fighters. Source: Embraer

The airplane, with a fuselage cross-section the size of the Boeing 767, challenges the Lockheed Martin C-130, a venerable aircraft that has been updated throughout the decades since it first entered service in 1956. Despite this modernization, Embraer believes the time has come for a modern design and a multi-mission capability that far surpasses that of the C-130, with higher productivity of a jet aircraft vs a four-engine turbo-prop.

KC-390 3D view with main data. Source: Leeham Co

KC-390 3D view with main data. Source: Leeham Co


  • Embraer sees a market for 728 KC-390s in 77 countries, excluding the US, Russia, China and Europe.
  • The KC-390 is half the price of the Airbus A400M and about the size of the Lockheed Martin C-130.
  • Launched with paid development and an order for 28 aircraft from Brazil to fulfill the country’s unique requirements.
  • Typical mission capabilities will be: Cargo 7 pallets, Displacement of 80 soldiers, air dropping of 86 paratroopers, transporting 1 Black Hawk helicopter or one LAV25 or 3 Humvees, Rescue missions, Air tanking of 2 aircraft or helicopters.
  • The KC-390 flies at M0.8 and will therefore finish missions in two thirds the time of the C-130 Hercules (which flies as M0.5). This will also result in more missions flown per day i.e. more airlift capacity.

Market positioning

The Embraer KC-390 is the largest airplane developed by what has become the world’s number three airplane marker, after Boeing and Airbus. The South American company is best known today for its E-Jets and corporate jets, but has been active in the defense market since its inception in 1969 with a variety of training, single-engine support airplanes, derivatives of its commercial Embraer Regional Jets (ERJs) into surveillance aircraft and ground attack aircraft (Alenia / Embraer AMX).

The KC-390 is an entirely new design, with new structures and a manufacturing process that expands Embraer’s overall knowledge basis that eventually could be applied toward its entire enterprise.

Alexandre De Pol Fernandes, Program manager KC-390, told Leeham News and Comment (LNC) that the airplane, which was contracted with an order for 28 in 2009, will replace aging C-130s and the de Havilland DHC-5 Buffalo. The Brazilian government is underwriting the development. Brazil, which by land mass is the fifth largest country in the world (after Russia, Canada, the US and China), and the fifth largest by population (China, India, US, Indonesia). The vast distances and demographics of the population result in a need for air transport for humanitarian needs, infrastructure, search-and-rescue as well as military. The C-130 is aging and needs to be replaced. The government plans to do so with the KC-390 on a one-for-one basis. The productivity and reliability of the new airplane compared with the C-130 is self-evident. A KC-390 can fly a typical Brazilian mission of 1,540nm (Rio de Janiero to Manaus) with a common 18 tonne payload in 3:35 hrs; the slower C-130 takes six hours.

The drawing shows the KC-390 compared to the larger Airbus A400M and the equal size Super Hercules (C-130J-30):

KC-390 compared with C-130J-30 and A400M. source: Leeham Co.

KC-390 compared with C-130J-30 and A400M.  Source: Leeham Co.

KC-390 has virtually the same payload capability as the C-130. The flat cargo bay area is shorter than the Super Hercules but this is compensated by a ramp area which is considerably longer (5.8m versus 3.1m) and at shallower angle. The KC-390 can carry seven pallets or 80 troops, or 66 paratroopers, or 74 litters plus attendants and medical support equipment, or three Humvees, or one Blackhawk chopper or one LAV25 combat vehicle.

While the number of planes ordered by Brazil is 28, small by commonly thought of Western standards (the USAF plans to buy 179 Boeing KC-46A tankers),  Fernandes points out that the Brazilian Air Force overall is small. A single US aircraft carrier carries more fighters than the Brazilian AF has. Still, there are an additional 32 KC-390s ordered by Chile, Portugal and others. Embraer sees a potential global demand of 728 airplanes from 77 countries, excluding the US, Europe, Russia and China. EMB assumes the US and Europe will likely opt for locally developed airplanes, and Russia and China present all kinds of political and legal issues, including ITAR compliance for US technology on the KC-390.


The aircraft is built in aluminum in a high wing two-engine layout, using the IAE V2500-E5 turbofan at 29.000 lbf thrust, originally developed for Airbus A320. Landing gear is designed to operate from gravel air strips.

Embraer has used its considerable knowledge of digital Fly-By-Wire (FBW) to give an aircraft a very modern and easy to operate control system. This in turn give the pilots a low workload for basic flying. This is essential so that they can then concentrate on the difficult missions the aircraft is designed for. Embraer has done all control laws with normal flying mode which contains protection from stall, over-speed etc. EMB has also designed all the autopilot modes. All flight law software is programmed by Embraer’s FBW development team.

We tested the KC-390 in the company’s flight control law simulator which was similar to the cockpit mock-up pictured below. The difference to this mock-up was that the simulator had outside synthetic vision, real Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion displays and functional flight controls. The difference to a full flight simulator was the missing Head-Up-Displays (HUDs) and there was no motion system moving the cockpit to simulate g-forces.

KC390 cockpit mockup. Source: Embraer

KC-390 cockpit mock-up. Picture: Embraer

We tested normal take off and landing and then performed a take off where one engine went inoperative after lift-off. With one engine climb established, we completed the circuit and landed on one engine. Flight laws are similar to the Airbus FBW but with two distinctions: throttles are back-driven and the side-sticks are electrically inter-connected, meaning a instructor can see on his side-stick and feel what the trainee is doing with his side-stick. The FBW goes in and trims out the yaw imbalance after the loss of an engine after a slight delay. The trim delay is deliberate so that the pilot is fully aware that he has lost an engine and which side is affected. It was easy to fly the KC-390 with all engines operative or when one engine was inoperative.

Reliability and maintainability

Embraer is designing the KC-390 to have a mission reliability of 95%. Service strategy is similar to the company’s E-jets with A checks every 600FH or 12 months and C checks at 6000FH, 3000 Flight Cycles or 60 months, whichever comes first. A C check shall take 10 days to perform.

38 Comments on “Embraer’s big bet on its largest airplane yet

  1. The problem for the C-130 is the restricted cargo bay. Just 3.12 m and 2.75 m heigh. OK for an M113 but to small for LAV + turret or an M2 Bradley. The Bradley is even to width for the KC-390.

    Two solutions for the US:
    A400M or scrap the Bradley

    • Or use (design) a larger aircraft such as the C-17 for that kind of equipment…It’s not like the US doesn’t have a mixed feet.

      • The C-17 needs a runway where a 777 can operate.
        For more details check the answer to kc135topboom.
        The C-17 is a strategical airlifter while C-130, KC-390 and A400M are tactical airlifters.

        • no, the C-17 can operate from 3000 foot expedient runways. it does not need 12,000 feet of 19″ thick concrete.

        • 3000ft ?

          double that.
          ~7700ft at MTOW. Which isn’t bad in relation to a 777-2/300ER

        • “can operate” doesn’t necessarily mean MTOW takeoff. The basic premise is to fly in with a full cargo load, land short using all the blown flaps, thrust reversers etc, dump the junk then scoot out of there almost empty to pick up more stuff.

          From Boeing’s website: “With its 160,000-pound payload, the C-17 can take off from a 7,600-foot airfield, fly 2,400 nautical miles and land on a small, austere airfield in 3,000 feet or less.”


          I’ve watched C-17s practice tactical landings, pretty crazy to watch in person.

    • Hahahah! Scrap the M2 or buy (hahah) the A400M. Good luck with either of those “solutions”, my friend…

    • “Two solutions for the US:
      A400M or scrap the Bradley”

      Really? We have lived with the inability of the C-130 this long, I think a few more days without the ability of a C-130 to carry a Bradly (which it was never desinged to do) will be ok.

      Plenty of C17s, modernized C5s, me thinks we can get along without an A400M just fine.

  2. The US has no need for the A-400M, and no need to scrap the Bradley. In addition the various C-130 models, we have the C-5 and C-17. Bulk and palletized cargo can go aboard the KC-10s, KC-46, and KC-135s if needed.
    The KC-390 is more of a threat to the A-400M than it is to the C-130. The KC-390 costs about 1/3 that of the A-400M, and close to what a new build C-130J-30 costs.
    I would expect an order soon from the SAAF, which canceled their A-400 order and has not ordered the C-130J/J-30). as well as several other Air Forces around the world in need of adding or replacing aged airlift aircraft.

    • Wrong. KC390 is about 1/2 the price of A400M not 1/3. And it’s not a threat to A400M either since it’s so much smaller. It will however kill the C130 except perhaps in the USA to protect jobs there.

    • The SAAF has to move the Rooikat. The KC-390 and the C-130-30J can’t lift that weight.

      The undercarriage of the C-17 is unlike any other military transporter connected to the wing and not to the fuselage. Higher requirement for runway strength than a 777! Well, I have seen pictures from C-17 in Afghanistan operating from dusty runways but I doubt they moved a payload as the Bradley around. US Air Force could do it for sure but how often? “Every ship could be a submarine once.”

      The Bradley is the Army’s F-35 in action. Here the Turkish M113 update: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FNSS_ACV-15

      • um, no. the C-17’s LG is _not_ “connected to the wing” as you describe. nor does it have higher runway strength requirements than a 777 (which is only outclassed by the B-52 and B-36 in terms of structural runway impact)

        The C-17 was specifically designed to be able to operate on short, narrow (3000’x90′), expedient airfields.

        • Looked around for the C-17 MLG design. What’s visible in video sequences and drawings looks intriguing. Decidedly different to the C160 / A400M arrangement.
          But like similar craft the C-17 takes the gear load into the sidewalls and those have to carry cargo floor loads to the wings anyway.

  3. I have one question for the author of this article: Where is the money coming from to develop this aircraft? And how will it affect Embraer’s balance sheet? After all Embraer is already spending a lot of money on the E2 programme and this new model will not enter service for several years.

    I understand the existing ERJ is highly profitable but the business jet sector is rather slow at the moment and Embraer has already invested large sums of money on these smaller aircraft. Embraer is operating like if it had an unlimited amount of cash on hand and no one seems to question its high investment strategy.

    • clearly stated in the article that the Brazilian government is paying for development.

      • Thanks bilbo. That will make it harder in the future for Embraer to sue Bombardier over government subsidies. 😉

        Joking aside, this is a very good strategy. For the civilian side of the business will clearly benefit form all the R&D this aircraft is generating. Here is a good example of this in the article:

        “Embraer has done all control laws with normal flying mode which contains protection from stall, over-speed etc. EMB has also designed all the autopilot modes. All flight law software is programmed by Embraer’s FBW development team.”

        I hope Bombardier is paying attention because this kind of in-house capability is what has been missing for the CSeries.

        • Normand,
          Actually KC-390 is taking profit of all development done in Embraer business aircraft division. The Rockwell Colins were used in Legacy 500 program which was the first full development flight by wire Embraer aircraft. Indeed, it’s the opposite of what you’ve affirmed.

        • @Saint

          What I had in mind is not the avionics suite but the software behind it. As far as I know this is a first at Embraer. For if I remember correctly the software has been outsourced on all the Embraer business jets.

          If I am not mistaken they were doing business with the same vendor as Bombardier for the CSeries. Apparently Embraer has learned its lesson. I hope Bombardier does the same.

  4. Sorry to ask a silly but I am new to the military cargo machine. Can either of these three models carry pallets on their ramps during flight for extra space? john

  5. “The Embraer KC-390 is the largest airplane developed by what has become the world’s number three airplane marker, after Boeing and Airbus. ”
    I was wondering by which metric Embraer can be considered the world’s #3 aircraft maker? Bomarardier’s aerospace revenue was over $9B last year compared to Embraer’s $6B.

      • Sorry for the confusion. Since the KC-390 is not a commercial aircraft I was not clear on why Embraer was being referred to as the #3 largest aircraft maker.So while Embraer may be the #3 Commercial aircraft maker, Bombardier is still the #3 largest overall aircraft maker?

    • It would be more accurate to say that Embraer is the third largest commercial aircraft manufacturer. That being said, Bombardier remains the third largest civilian aircraft manufacturer. And BBD is also the world’s largest business jet manufacturer. But here again we have to be careful because the total value of all the various models most be taken into consideration for proper ranking of the various players. For there are many ways of saying the “truth”.

  6. A carefully specified aircraft. Significantly larger (higher cabin), capable (+15%) faster and versatile (jet refueling) then the C-130 it is meant to replace.

    A good addition for A400/C-17 operators because of its different capability and unit costs. And there is a big market. the C-130 is on low rate production these days.


  7. I really wonder why they exclude Europe as one potential market. There is certainly nothing remotely similar in Europe existing or under development.

  8. Note that the Brazilian AF actually owns the IP — that’s a very interesting point. So they will, I expect, be getting royalties on any sales outside of Brazil.

  9. I believe AV Week did an evaluation. Highly compromised to meet all the missions and cannot do the short field stuff a Herc can.

    Short field and you can’t do the stategic thing.

    Will see if I can find the article.

    Not a bad bird at all, just won’t replace the Herc, those who have more of a need for its type mission profile will like it.

  10. I like the comments sections after a story but get annoyed when readers divert from the subject. In this case it appears a Bombardier shill who seems a little bothered that the competition is putting a dent in their market dominance. This is a story about the KC-390 not the CSeries. It’s sad how someone is trying to conceal or downplay the tarnished record of one program and use it to dull the lustre away from what seems a potentially successful program. Judging by recent successes in their developments, Embraer is poised to be the next player that can possibly compete against the big duopoly. On the other hand, I personally think Bombardier sat on their laurels while their competition leapfrogged them.

  11. I think Embraer has a winner in the KC-390. I am really looking forward to seeing how the Kawasaki C-2 does. Looks really good and I believe it may be more capable than the KC-390.

  12. You are right. I got the 777 triple bogey in mind.

    That doesn’t make the C-17 a tactical transporter for semi prepared landing strips. Just look at the maximum landing weights and the numbers of wheels on the main landing gear.

    MD11F: 222 t / 10 wheels = 22.2 t / tire
    B777F: 260 t / 12 wheels = 21.6 t / tire
    B747-8F: 343 t / 16 wheels = 21.4 t / tire
    A380F: 427 t / 20 wheels = 21.4 t / tire
    C-5M: 315 t / 24 wheels = 13 t / tire
    (315 t = OEW + max. payload + 2 h fuel )

    C-130J-30: 62.5 t / 8 wheels = 7.8 t / tire
    (62.5 t = OEW + max. payload + 2 h fuel )
    KC-390: 72 t (loaded weight) / 8 wheels = 9 t / tire
    A400M: 122 t (MLW) / 12 wheels = 10.2 t / tire

    C-17: 128 t (OEW!) / 12 wheels = 10.6 t / tire
    C-17: 225 t / 12 wheels = 18.75 / tire
    (225 t = OEW + max. payload + 2 h fuel )

    An empty C-17 is close to tactical cargo aircraft but a loaded C-17 is close to a commercial freighter with the need of an equivalent runway strength.

    Fuel burn was calculated according to http://fas.org/man/dod-101/usaf/docs/afpam10-1403.htm. You should read the section “Table 1. Aircraft Airfield Restrictions” according to ACN.

  13. My friends embraer did the most dificout thing , make a military cargo plane looks beautiful and tatical , Embraer never Play to Loose

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