Embraer: 40 years in Australia

written by australianaviation.com.au | November 29, 2018

This story first appeared in the October 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation.

Embraer is optimistic about its future in Australia. (Sid Mitchell)
Embraer is optimistic about its future in Australia. (Sid Mitchell)

A little more than 40 years ago, an on-the-spot decision by a father and son at an airshow 10,000 miles from home proved crucial to the development of Australia’s ongoing relationship with one of the world’s most progressive aircraft manufacturers.

It is a relationship that has embraced multiple incarnations of aircraft types – from 15-seat unpressurised twin turboprops to state-of-the-art twin jet airliners and sleek business jets.

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Turn back the clock to 1977 and two of the most significant names in Australian aviation were Jack Masling and his son Tony. Masling had built up a substantial regional presence after a decision by the Federal Government in 1967 to allow third-tier passenger operators to take over routes unprofitable to the major airlines.

Over a short period they managed to grow Masling Aviation, based in Cootamundra, NSW, into the country’s fourth biggest passenger airline, providing vital regional connections to towns and cities as diverse as Young, Nowra, Canberra, Scone, Sydney and Newcastle, initially running Cessna 402 piston twins.

As the story goes, Jack and Tony were scouting around the displays at the Paris Airshow when they happened upon an aircraft they hadn’t seen before, built by a manufacturer they hadn’t heard of. The design’s robust airframe, seating capacity, twin-turboprop performance and range appeared ideal for their burgeoning company.

Later that year, with a view to the further growth of their business, they travelled halfway around the world in a different direction to the Brazilian city of São José dos Campos, knocked on the door of the headquarters of Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica, pulled out the batch of specs and said: “we want this aircraft”.

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That aircraft was the now famous EMB-110 Bandeirante, affectionately known as the Bandit, built by the now equally famous aviation giant known to everyone as Embraer, the world’s third largest aircraft manufacturer after Boeing and Airbus.

The type had been developed with potential for both military and civilian use and the first aircraft was delivered to the Brazilian military in 1973 while work continued on further military applications and potential for civilian variants.

Ricardo Pesce, now Managing Director of Embraer Asia Pacific based in Singapore, recalled what proved to be a breakthrough for the fledgling commercial aircraft manufacturer into the Australian marketplace.

An aeronautical engineering graduate, Pesce joined Embraer in 1976 when the company was on the cusp of making inroads internationally. “Basically, Embraer was only in Brazil producing Bandeirantes for the Brazilian Air Force,” he said.

The Embraer display at Paris 1977 was the company’s first at an overseas airshow with global significance. Pesce said that while the Maslings didn’t talk about a purchase at the time, he was aware they had taken note of the Bandeirante and regarded it as an ideal aeroplane for Australia.

“When they knocked on our doors in 1977 and said they wanted to bring the Bandeirante to Australia … we were delighted. We were still learning about international certifications and were working with European certification authorities at that time. But then we said, ‘Okay, wow, let’s do it’.”

In a curious twist of fate shortly after, another name familiar to the annals of Australian aviation went looking at the Bandeirante. As Steve Padgett tells it, he was “a young bloke with big ambitions” to develop an aircraft deal. The intuition that has been a hallmark of his aviation career had tuned in to the Bandeirante and he wanted to offer himself as sole distributor to the wider Australian marketplace.

“I thought it was a great aeroplane,” he said.

“I went just after Masling did and they (Embraer) said ‘well we like Mr Masling because he is going to buy our aeroplanes, and we like you because we think you can sell those aeroplanes’.

“So to cut a long story short we put together a company. Mr Masling was a very experienced negotiator and I was a young fella, and I’m not sure I got the right end of the deal, but anyway we formed a company to sell Embraer – just Bandeirantes at that time.”

“We used the facilities I had at Sydney airport, and away we went.”

In an editorial last year celebrating – co-incidentally – the 40th anniversary of the launch of Australian Aviation magazine, founder Jim Thorn reminisced: “One interesting memory I have of that time (1978) was seeing the first Embraer Bandeirantes imported into Australia … and wondering how they would be accepted.

“At the time the Brazilian government was already stating to anyone who would listen that Embraer was to be taken seriously and was the beginning of something big.”

Padgett’s link with Masling soon quelled Thorn’s curiosity and validated Embraer’s confidence: “We were very successful in selling about 20 aeroplanes across Australia. The Bandeirante was ideally suited to the market at the time – just perfect,” he said.

But it is fair to say the true beginning of the continuing, 40‑year association between Embraer and Australia came when that first Bandeirante, VH-MMW, touched down in-country in 1978.

The Bandeirante has been a part of Australian aviation for 40 years.

Embraer: Australia discovered us before we discovered Australia

For Ricardo Pesce, that first delivery marked a milestone in understanding between nation and manufacturer.

“In my personal opinion, Australians were the ones who realised that our type of airplanes were (suited) to the Australian environment. It has proven to be the case that Australia discovered us before we discovered Australia as a market,” he said.

Padgett recalls some halcyon days linked to Masling and Embraer: “I had a wonderful time in the 1980s going to Brazil. We were so involved. They were very interesting people to do business with. We did Bandeirante tours from Australia up through Asia through Indonesia. We had wonderful events.”

When tragedy rocked Masling, first the death of Jack and then the loss of son Tony in a helicopter accident, yet another name that resonates with the development of modern aviation in Australia entered the fray.

Flight West Airlines was established by Sir Dennis Buchanan, ostensibly to serve regional Queensland from its base in Brisbane. According to Padgett, Buchanan, who had a rich history as an air operator in Papua New Guinea and Melanesia, bought the Masling Bandeirantes and, subsequently, EMB-120 Brasilias he sold to them direct.

The Brasilia, which at the time represented Embraer’s first true focus on development of an aircraft pitched directly at airlines, became an instant hit after entering service in the United States in 1985. A pressurised 30-seater with a range of more than 1,000 nautical miles, it appeared to be an ideal fit for many of Australia’s regional routes, particularly in Queensland and Western Australia.

Sir Dennis was quick to recognise its potential.

Padgett has fond memories of those days and still retains an historical record: “I still have a video of launching Brasilias in Port Macquarie in the 1980s with Sir Dennis there and most of the people who ended up buying them.”

Pesce has equal regard for the Buchanans: “We had a very long and good relationship with Sir Dennis and his family. He had models of all our airplanes in his fleet at once. The Bandeirante, the Brasilia …,” he said.

At its peak, Flight West operated to more than 30 destinations across Queensland, parts of NSW and the Northern Territory and employed more than 400.

Such was the versatility of the Bandeirante that Australian Army Aviation dry leased four aircraft from Flight West for a period of nine months to cover for the grounding of its twin-engine Nomads.

By the mid-90s, Flight West had disposed of its Bandits but retained its Brasilias and had seven extended range variants on its books when it was forced into liquidation in 2001.

It is not lost on Steve Padgett that Flight West was subsequently sold to Queensland Aviation Holdings, parent company of Alliance Airlines of which he is the current non-executive chairman: “The Brasilia was a great aeroplane and was what really got Sir Dennis going in Australia with Flight West.

“Of course it was me and some associates who took over the Flight West Brasilias to start Alliance Airlines,” he said.

“I have always had great respect for the product and the people in particular. Now of course they are a multi-national with really nice people and a great product.”

It is a testament to the enduring nature of both the Bandeirantes and Brasilias that both still have a presence in Australia.

The Brasilia remains hard at work on mine charter and regional airline flying across Western Australia and the Northern Territory. (Sid Mitchell)
The Brasilia remains hard at work on mine charter and regional airline flying across Western Australia and the Northern Territory. (Sid Mitchell)

There are still a handful of Bandeirantes, manufactured between 1979 and 1982, flying in Australia including two working with charter operator Aerolink Air Services out of Bankstown, and a third used for skydiving out of Goulburn, NSW.

The Brasilia, meanwhile, remains hard at work on mine charter and regional airline flying across  Western Australia and the Northern Territory, with regional airlines Skippers Aviation and Airnorth operating six each.

Skippers works a combined jet and turboprop fleet out of Perth to destinations as far north as the Kimberley, the popular reef holiday centre of Broome, west to Laverton and south to Ravensthorpe. It has 25 years’ experience in fly-in/fly-out mining operations and the Brasilia is regarded as ideal for remote airfield operations.

Airnorth, meanwhile, boasts an even greater level of relationship with Embraer.

Australia’s second oldest airline, based in Darwin, flies the Brasilia to destinations in Arnhem Land and the Gulf of Carpentaria, but it is a different generation of aircraft in the Airnorth fleet, flying nationally and internationally, that represents Embraer’s next giant step forward: the E-Jet.

The E170 is the backbone of the Airnorth fleet. (Sid Mitchell)
The E170 is the backbone of the Airnorth fleet. (Sid Mitchell)

Enter the E-Jets

In the mid-90s Embraer began work on an aircraft to fill a gap between small regional turboprops and jets and mainline jet airliners. The prototype of what is now known worldwide as the E170 took to the air in 2002 with the first customer, LOT of Poland, taking delivery in 2004.

It proved an immediate success.

What Embraer now describes as the “first generation” of E-Jets spawned several variants seating from 70 to 130 passengers: the E170, E175, E190 and E195. Each was recognised as setting a standard in its category for advanced engineering, efficiency, spacious, ergonomic cabins with two-by-two seating, and attractive operating economics.

In Australia, Airnorth was a key early customer in 2007, but it was a 20-plus E170 and E190 order by Virgin Australia that really made the region sit up and take notice.

VIDEO: The handover party for Virgin Blue’s first Embraer E170 in 2007, from Rogerio Naccache’s YouTube channel.

Captain Manfred Baudzus is now the Senior Sales Director, Asia Pacific, for Embraer Executive Jets, but his first job when he joined the company in 2001 was to promote the new E-Jet airliners. He was already aware through his flight experience in Australia that the Embraer brand had been well received through its Bandeirantes and Brasilias. Initial attempts to introduce the E-Jet proved the value of connections.

“The E-Jets were coming on line by 2005, but Australia didn’t think it needed them,” he said.

Baudzus set out to prove the operators wrong: “I had some fairly long term connections there with Virgin Blue – guys there I had known for quite some years.

“They were, at that stage, an out and out low-cost operator and the low-cost model in those days was based around only one type. They didn’t think about having multiple types … but when they looked into it further they found that once you have a sub fleet of more than five it was going to work.

“We were talking to both Virgin and Qantas about trying to get things going. Virgin in the end saw a good possibility with the aeroplane – it fitted in with what they wanted to do with their expansion. It ended up taking about four years … but in the end we finally did it. I think it was 26 aeroplanes primarily E190s and then some E170s.”

For Virgin at the time, the E-Jets proved particularly useful on routes on which it was difficult to fill a Boeing 737 such as Brisbane-Adelaide or Canberra-Melbourne, for example, though they were also deployed to great effect on more popular routes such as Brisbane-Cairns and Canberra-Sydney.

CEO Brett Godfrey was quoted as saying the E-Jet provided efficiency, a faster flying time than competing turbo-props, a smooth and comfortable ride, and a level of passenger satisfaction in terms of the cabin interior. He said that “having a generous height in the cabin as well as 2+2 seating that gives the aircraft an ‘executive jet’ feel” was an important element in choosing the E-Jet.

Subsequent changes to the Virgin model led to decisions to divest itself of the E-Jets as part of a fleet-type rationalisation to help cut costs, and Virgin’s final E190 service flew the Newcastle-Brisbane sector in February.

For many Virgin Australia passengers, the E-Jet is fondly remembered and sorely missed.

E190 VH-ZPH taxis at Brisbane after operating the type’s last revenue flight with Virgin Australia. (James Baxter)
E190 VH-ZPH taxis at Brisbane after operating the type’s last revenue flight with Virgin Australia. (James Baxter)

But there have been no such rationalisation issues at Airnorth which has developed from flying Cessna charters through the Territory to a full RPT airline headquartered in Darwin. It now serves 20 destinations across two countries, with more than 220 scheduled weekly departures to ports as far south as Melbourne, west to Perth and overseas to Dili, Timor Este. Its five E170s are the longer-range backbone of Airnorth operations with capacity for 76 passengers.

A year after its first E170 acquisition in 2007, the airline said it had chosen the E-Jet based on its “superior cabin spaciousness, generous under-floor cargo capacity, state-of the-art avionics, fly-by-wire technology and uncompromising performance” – all-important in the top end’s harsh environment.”

General Manager, Commercial, Luke Fisher says in the Airnorth corporate profile: “The introduction of that jet into our fleet transformed our business. Every market it operates in has grown. We now have five E170 jets across our network.”

Despite the Virgin decision and a further minor blow with the move into voluntary administration by regional operator JetGo, which operated Embraer ERJ-135 and ERJ-140 regional jets, the Brazilian company has great confidence in the future of its role in the Australian commercial marketplace – not only through continuity of the first generation E-Jets but through the development of the second generation E2 family.

Jetgo operated the ERJ-135 and ERJ-140 regional jets before it collapsed. (Christopher Coppard)
Jetgo operated the ERJ-135 and ERJ-140 regional jets before it collapsed. (Christopher Coppard)

Worldwide there is no doubting E-Jet popularity with Embraer now the leading manufacturer of commercial jets seating up to 150 and a customer base of 100 operators in 60 countries. It has delivered more than 1,400 E-Jets with orders for a further 400.

Australia is recognised for its potential for both new and pre‑owned aircraft. Embraer is well aware that there are more than 100 jets in the 100-seat segment flying in Australia – Fokker 70s and 100s, BAe 146s and Boeing 717s – and sees itself as poised to offer alternatives if serviceability and fuel costs on older aircraft start to prove prohibitive.

The second generation E2 series offers a new aerodynamically advanced profile, improved systems and avionics, including fourth generation full fly-by-wire flight controls.

Environmentally, the new aircraft produces fewer emissions and less noise, and figures from Embraer during flight tests showed the E190-E2’s fuel consumption was 17.3 per cent better than the current generation E190.

Ricardo Pesce said he was very excited about the E2 – “the most economical airplane in its class, even more than the (Airbus) A220” – and his confidence was backed by a combined 300 orders emerging from the Farnborough Airshow in July.  Construction of the E2 family is in addition to first generation E-Jet variants which will continue to be built while there is market demand.

There is also likely to be further competitive impetus from a joint venture with Boeing which will take effect in 2019 subject to shareholder and government approval.

“We think that our products are very appropriate for the Australian environment and the Australian flying public,” Pesce said. “So we think our greater presence in Australia will come back; maybe with Boeing it will come back big-time. Let’s see. We are very optimistic.”

In the meantime, while it waits on developments in Australian RPT, Embraer is seeing growth in an entirely different market: the business jet.

Embraer Commercial Aircraft chief executive John Slattery in front of the E190-E2. (Embraer/Twitter)
Embraer Commercial Aircraft chief executive John Slattery in front of the E190-E2. (Embraer/Twitter)

A new legacy

History has a habit of repeating.

The on-the-spot decision by the Maslings in 1977 that paved the way for Embraer entry into Australia was duplicated more than 30 years later with a subsequent breakthrough for the executive jet arm of the Brazilian manufacturer.

The company changed its structure in 2005, moving from a single manufacturing stream to a multi-faceted operation: defence, commercial and executive.

At the time, Captain Baudzus was covering both commercial and executive for Australia before his previous association with business jet operations pushed him, and the company, into taking responsibility for the development of executive jet potential in the Asia Pacific.

The initial focus was on the 13-passenger Embraer Legacy, an executive derivative of the ERJ‑135 regional jet. A developing market overseas compared with an established market in Australia meant there was greater interest from India, Indonesia and other parts of Asia. “There just seemed to be more money in that area,” he said.

Embraer then turned to the potential of its newly-developed Phenom light jet for the Australian market but interest was limited until – just like the Maslings – another purchase by yet another duo at yet another airshow paved the way for what is now another ongoing relationship between the nation and Embraer.

The company described the Phenom as a high performance entry level jet with room for seven and the economics of a turbo-prop. Baudzus takes up the story:  “In Australia the Phenoms were still being developed – they were coming out in about 2010  and we were trying to market the planes throughout Australia.

“We went and saw various people but there was a little bit of slowness before the first buyer went to an airshow in the USA and he and a friend bought one Phenom each.

“Those aeroplanes were finally delivered in 2010 and we went from there – first a flying school in the west (WA) that had been operating Citations nearing the end of their economic life. They went for a Phenom 100 and a second about 18 months later.”

About the same time, the company sold its first Legacy 600 to an operation based in Melbourne with a further Legacy 500 in 2015, and three Phenom 300s (with seating for up to 10) between 2016 and the year to date.

“So we have got six Phenoms in‑country, three 100s and three 300s, one Legacy 500 and a Legacy 600,” Baudzus said.

Impetus has now built to the point where there is a lot more interest in the Phenoms in particular: “A lot more people are calling us about pre-owned aircraft,” Baudzus said.

“Australia tends to be a pre-owned market, and while there are a lot more in the market generally, there aren’t a lot for sale. It is still a very popular aeroplane and we expect to see more of these over the next year or so.”

Baudzus said the key issue of support for the Legacy and Phenom series has been handled superbly by the Sydney-based MRO Execujet and also Airflite based in Perth. “They have done a great job for the 100 and the Legacy. Everyone who has the aeroplane is delighted. They are very customer-focused. I don’t think we have any unhappy customers.”

Embraer business jet the Phenom 100 aircraft in Australia (Dave Soderstrom)
Embraer business jet the Phenom 100 aircraft in Australia (Dave Soderstrom)
A January 2017 supplied image of the first Embraer Executive Jets Phenom 300 for Australia. (Embraer)
A January 2017 supplied image of the first Embraer Executive Jets Phenom 300 for Australia. (Embraer)

Pioneers together

In something of an echo of Ricardo Pesce, who acknowledged Australia’s perception in recognising the fledgling Embraer’s suitability for the Australian market, Baudzus pointed to the importance of Australian input into the future of his company’s global operations.

“When Embraer designs and develops an aircraft we call in people from around the world. When we are working on the design we start discussing an aircraft and what pilots, engineers and others would like to see.

“Truth is that if you design an aeroplane that fits Australia, you will actually get an aeroplane that will work anywhere,” he said.

VIDEO: A look at the 50-year anniversary celebrations for the Bandeirante held in early November from the Embraer YouTube channel.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories like this, subscribe here.

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