Into the Unknown

Text by Erik Bruijns
In March 2023, the Portuguese Air Force (Força Aérea Portuguesa – FAP) took a big step forward in its pursuit to integrate its newly acquired transport aircraft.
The new KC-390 will run through its paces in Portugal for NATO certification - FAB
The first FAP Embraer KC-390 Millennium multi-mission transport aircraft landed at Beja Air Base on March 5. The KC-390 will undergo a phase of integration of NATO equipment and certifications by the Portuguese National Aeronautical Authority (AAN). The integration phase and AAN certification-related activities in Portugal will be handled by Embraer’s Portuguese subsidiary, OGMA, in collaboration with the FAP. Once equipment integration and certification work are complete, the first aircraft will be officially handed over to the FAP. This is scheduled to be formally received in 2023. The last of five aircraft is scheduled for delivery in 2027.

In August 2019, the Government of Portugal signed an 827 million Euro (894 million USD) contract with Embraer for the acquisition of five KC-390 Millennium aircraft, as part of FAP’s process to modernize capabilities and increase readiness for public interest missions. The contract included a full Rheinmetall flight simulator, maintenance of the fleet, an Elbit systems electronic warfare suite and related support, ground support equipment, maintenance of the V2500-E5 engine, medical evacuation (medevac) kits, the construction of new infrastructure and refurbishing existing infrastructure.

The KC-390 meets all FAP requirements and is capable of performing various civilian missions, including humanitarian support, medical evacuation, search and rescue, and wildfire fighting, adding superior transport and launch capabilities for cargo and troops and in-flight refueling. It also includes NATO standard equipment, such as the Link-16 datalink system, a Mode 4/5 identification friend or foe transponder and communications equipment.
A FAP pilot flying the KC-390 over Brazil - Embraer
Starting up

506 Squadron “Rinocerontes” (Rhinos) at Beja Air Base No 11 was officially activated on May 20, 2023. This is the fourth transport squadron that will be operated by the FAP, next to 501 Squadron “Bisontes” (Bisons) flying the Lockheed C-130H, 502 Squadron “Elefantes” (Elephants) flying the CASA C-295M/MPA and 504 Squadron “Linces” (Lynxes) flying the Dassault Falcon 50/900. The KC-390 was initially acquired to replace the aging C-130H. The latter is set to be replaced in 2028, but this is currently not written in stone. Collins Aerospace is currently working on the C-130H in a modernization effort, which the first fully upgraded airframe to be ready at the end of 2023. Serving as a contractor to OGMA, Collins will provide its Flight2 aftermarket avionics solution, which delivers the most cost-effective and lowest-risk CNS/ATM upgrade solution. Flight2 transforms a federated analog system into a modern digital glass cockpit that provides commonality to commercial aircraft. Included in the avionics upgrade is a full glass cockpit with new primary flight displays, Required Navigation Performance/Area Navigation flight management system with high altitude release point, and computed air release point precision airdrop software. This upgrade would enable the C-130H to work together with the KC-390 and focus on specific missions. Major Pousa, 506 squadron commander, explained, “The KC-390 was initially acquired to be a replacement for the C-130H, but with the capabilities of the KC-390 it is more than that. With the current knowledge, the Hercules is planned to be phased out in 2028. There is, however, currently an upgrade programme ongoing on the Hercules, which is looking at the cockpit and not the engines or airframe. When we take the KC-390 into operations, it can do what two C-130s are currently doing, so the FAP will gain a lot more capabilities. With an ever-growing need to reduce cost, this will be a great advantage for the transport fleet of the FAP. We are planning for Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2024, followed by the Full Operational Capability (FOC) in 2026.”
KC-390 in production - Embraer
Major Pousa went into more detail about the KC-390 programme, “Portugal has always had a close relationship with Brazil and Embraer. We have OGMA, which is a subsidiary of Embraer, so we have close cooperation with our aviation industries. We started the program in 2017 with the procurement process, in which the FAP looked at the capabilities of the new transport plane to come to a final decision. In August 2019, the minister of defense decided to buy the KC-390 to replace the C-130. To replace the C-130 is not easy, because it is a well-proven aircraft which is operated by many other armed forces over the world. This gives advantages to the FAP, not only from a spare parts point of view, but also from pilot and crew experience point of view. Following the decision for the procurement, the FAP started the process of filling in the details. In addition to the number of aircraft and a simulator ordered, this also included how the qualification of the crews and maintenance personnel would be done. The first crew, two pilots and two loadmasters, started their training at the end of 2021. We were integrated within the Brazilian Air Force (FAB), finishing the course and maintained the qualifications in 2022. After finishing the course, we flew missions within the FAB on basic missions from Anapolis, near Brasilia.”
With the presence of the Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, the first KC-390 Millennium was presented in October 2022 at Beja - Embraer
Major Pousa continued on the current status of the programme, “After the first production aircraft arrived at Beja in March of this year, we started a round of certifications. The aircraft is currently still owned by Embraer. On some flights we go onboard to supervise and see the certification of specific equipment that needs to be verified and confirmed by the FAP. We have a team of our own engineers that are doing these certifications, to ensure all the tests are being done as per our standards. The Embraer team, in the meantime, is working on integrating the NATO equipment as this is a completely new integration. Together with the Embraer team each flight is debriefed to check the status and discuss anything that needs to be improved for the next flight. At the moment, we are in a crucial phase. We are trying to keep up with the planning which has been set at the beginning of the programme. So, our main goal is to prevent any delays in the test phase, in order for us to not get behind with the upcoming tests. Currently, we are still aiming to have the first aircraft handed over around September / October of 2023. Pilot and crew training is currently ongoing. We have one course per year with pilots and loadmasters coming from 501 Squadron, previously flying the C-130. This includes four pilots and six loadmasters as well as twelve mechanics who are currently in Brazil. The aim is to have all these new pilots and crew completely qualified to start missions in November of 2023. For the upcoming course, in 2024, we will have six pilots and six loadmasters going to Embraer in Brazil. These upcoming courses will receive pilots that have just graduated from the academy as well as more experienced pilots that have flown on the other transport squadrons. So, we will see, more and more, a mix of pilots that will be joining 506 squadron. The training courses are providing a good learning curve to the new crew as well as Embraer. The FAP is providing the first crew of a foreign armed force, so the feedback we provide is valuable to make the course and training even better.”
The first FAP Millennium touches down at the Gavião Peixoto facility in Sao Paulo region - Embraer
Future operations

With the KC-390 set to be handed over at the end of 2023, the FAP is looking ahead at expanding their transport capabilities. Major Pousa provides more details; “The KC-390 will be able to carry out the same missions as we have been tasked with for many years on the C-130. This will include carrying out strategical and tactical airlift, civil and military operations, from transporting troops, vehicles and cargo, dropping paratroopers and cargo, health evacuations, and search and rescue missions. Going forward we will be able to add onto this, with the possibility to perform air to air refueling missions as both tanker and receiver. In addition to this we are even looking at adding firefighting activities to the mission envelope. At the moment, we see firefighting activities only as a possibility, but it will bring with it a whole different set of challenges. How we use an airplane during such missions will put a lot of additional stress on the airframe. It will be a difficult decision to take on whether we will use the KC-390 for this. We do, however, see that we will gain a lot from operating the KC-390. Yes, we will mainly be performing the same missions, but the biggest difference is the speed of the aircraft. This will enable us to gain a lot of time in two ways. First of all, we can get to our destination in a shorter timeframe. And secondly, we can deliver more payload, saving us a lot of time. As an example, our detachment in Lithuania or Iceland, for instance. With the C-130H we would need two aircraft and two days. We would fly out, stay there overnight due to the flying time before we can return to base. With the KC-390 we can deliver the same payload and return within the day. This will give us way more possibilities and flexibility in how we transport troops and material to places far away. On top of that, the technology is more advanced, and the aircraft will give us more fuel efficiency, which saves Portugal money.”
Inside look of the all glass cockpit of the KC-390 - Embraer
Major Pousa elaborated further on the use of the KC-390 in the air-to-air refueling role, “The possibility to refuel a plane in mid-air will provide the FAP with new possibilities for reaching places that are out of reach for our aircraft with their normal fuel load. With the current setup of the refueling system, we will not be able to provide fuel to our F-16s. Initially, the KC-390 will be configured with a drogue system, which limits the mid-air refueling capabilities to specific types of aircraft. This is being discussed with Embraer and the possibility of adding a boom operated system into the KC-390 is being explored. Our main goal with the new mid-air refueling capabilities will be to sell our service to other armed forces in Europe. Many aircraft in Europe, like the Eurofighter and Rafale, are flying with the probe system for refueling in mid-air, so this will allow us to work closer together with our allies.”
The first FAP KC-390 is still wearing its civil registration as it is still under a certification and verification process - FAP
As the FAP has been the first armed force after the Brazilian Air Force to acquire the KC-390, it is paving the way for other countries to see the advantages of the new aircraft and get onboard. Major Pousa explained, “We have been working closely together with different European armed forces in the last couple of months as there has been a lot of interest into capabilities of the KC-390. We have had a visit from representatives of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, who have a similar contract with Embraer as the FAP. So, they visited Beja to have a look at the new facilities and to get an update on the current status of the programme and what we are focusing on at the moment. In addition to this, we had a ‘C-390 Millennium Users Group’, which was held at the end of March 2023 for interested countries. During this users group, we had representatives from the Netherlands, Hungary, Czech Republic and Austria looking at presentations from ourselves as well as the Brazilian Air Force. This forum was set up to show them the specifics of the aircraft as well as share experience gained on the KC-390 so far. The amount of work we have done so far on the program has been a great achievement. We have been working hard on all the certifications and making sure the new aircraft can be integrated into the FAP and NATO standards. Other countries will benefit from our work as they can start using it with minor adjustments and improvements. When you start using a completely new aircraft it is normal to find some minor issues. These points will be resolved quickly and not be an issue for other operators at a later stage. In addition to the benefits from our initial work, other countries will also benefit from our simulator as the FAP will sell this service and make 506 squadron the main hub for KC-390 users in Europe.”
C-390 Millennium Users group enabling future and potential users of the (K)C-390 to learn more about the new aircraft - FAP