Air Transport

Pacific Operations > Air Transport 


As we have seen the NZ Airforce has bought itself two Boeing 757s and is extending the life of the C-130H Hercules a little longer than its already venerable 30 years.

New Zealand's extreme distance from the rest of the world places a lower limit on the type of strategic aircraft we might reasonably consider acquiring.

The EADSC212 is a handy little twin-engined cargo aircraft used in Australia, Europe and South America useful for carrying loads on to tiny dirt airstrips. It can carry 2.9 tonnes of cargo or 18 passengers and it is relatively inexpensive. But with a range of only 1,000 nautical miles it could barely make an unrefueled return mission to the Chathams. As such this aircraft, in a New Zealand context, must be regarded as  operations, not strategic transport.

 A curious Russian option is the Antonov An-74T which was designed as a STOL jet freighter for the Soviet military.  The Russians took their lead from the YC-17 STOL jet being developed by the Americans in the 1970s but while the American aircraft fell foul of budget politics the Antonov went into production. As with all Soviet jets the aircraft is not the most fuel efficient although latterly Antonov has been working on this.  The jet can carry 7.5 tonnes to 1,200 nautical miles which is not quite far enough to warrant consideration.

Another aircraft warranting  mention is the Boeing 737, known to us all as a commercial airliner. There are basically two kinds of 737s: old ones and new ones. There are literally thousands of old 737s in the world - which like any popular model makes the aircraft relatively cheap to maintain. Second-hand ones are relatively cheap and readily found on the international market. They can also be leased. The advantage of leasing is that costs are operationalised rather than capitalised and as the defence force, like all Government departments has to pay a capital charges this flexibility may have advantages when demand is reduced. New 737s cost up to US$80 million but boast all the latest in aircraft management mod-cons. While 737s can land in more places in the Pacific than larger aircraft and fly at a reasonable 500 knots they are built for operations into commercial airports where one might reasonably expect to buy some fuel. Military aircraft don't always have that luxury so the 737s 2,200 nautical mile range is something of a short-coming.

EADS makes two larger aircraft, the C235 (left) and the C295 (right). Both are fine aircraft with very long customer lists. They could just about reach Raratonga with a payload of three tonnes and return home again. However flying at an economic speed of 250 knots it would take six and a half hours to travel 1,600 nautical miles and the same time back again. That is a very long dull flight by any stretch of the imagination. The larger C295 can carry a maximum of 9 tonnes while the C235 can carry 7 tonnes - but not over this range.

The aircraft can land and take-off on a 750m long dirt strip. In many ways this aircraft, which costs around US$26 million a unit is the best fit for carrying smaller payloads to outlying islands. This makes the aircraft cost-effective for delivering aid or platoon sized teams around New Zealand and the Pacific.

The same applies to the Lockheed C-27 Spartan (originally the Elenia G222 built in Italy). Although this aeroplane has similar specifications to the C-235 it is notable that most of its sales have been to Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece while EADS has triumphed elsewhere, including the United States where it won a contract for the US Coastguard Deepwater programme. The C27 is the the smaller brother of the more famous

Lockheed C-130 "Hercules" is the most popular tactical transport aircraft in the world. To a certain extent it sets the standard for military air loads. It can carry a maximum cargo of 20 tonnes at 250 knots to a range of 2,250 nautical miles. In theory that could include the NZ Army LAV-III, but it would be at the very limit of both the internal dimensions of the C-130 and its capabilities. While the C-130 is an excellent aircraft Lockheed has been irritating military buyers the world over by pumping up the unit price of its latest C-130J model from US$40m to US$60 million. More worrying is that Pentagon 2006 appropriations average out at US$117 million per unit.

With such a monopoly there is inevitably been talk of competition. There are four challengers to the C-130 on the drawing board.

The Airbus A-400M, which has now collected enough signed orders to warrant a start to construction and the Antonov An-70. The An-70 (above) was a 1994 design ahead of its time. Designed in the Ukraine it was, however, a geo-political non-starter. The time the plane spent on the drawing board meant that it became obsolete even before it was produced with both the Russians and the Germans ultimately disowning it for a home-grown solution. The only An-70 ever built crashed in a test-flight and no other examples have been made.

The big challenge to the Lockheed C-130 is supposedly from EADS (Airbus Military) with its A400M. The specs are impressive and the aircraft outclasses the C-130 with hold dimensions: 17.71m L x 3.85m W x 4.0m; Carrying capacity: max payload 37t (max takeoff weight 110t); Maximum range: 2522nm (with 30t payload), 3653nm (20t) Speed: max cruise Mach 0.68 to Mach 0.72.

The Airbus A-400M is a more powerful aircraft than the C-130. It will carry more, fly further, and be easier to operate. Unfortunately cost escalations mean that the aircraft is currently carrying an US$80 million price tag with rumours up to US$120 million. It has also yet to enter production and the delays have led the German Government to withdraw support for the aircraft. EADS has conceded that the programme is badly behind schedule. So at the moment it is impossible to kick the tyres of one, even if you have the spare cash to be allowed to do so.

Not impressed by the A400M the Japanese Defence Agency has contracted Kawasaki Heavy Industries to build a replacement transport aircraft designated C-X.  This aircraft will have commercial jet like flying qualities although may be somewhat lacking (compared to the A400M) on the unpreprepared airstrips front. Its carrying capacity is closer to the A400M than the C-130 but it is expected to be a good deal cheaper at around US$80 million a unit. Once again the main problem is the Japanese Constitution which (currently) forbids Japan to sell military equipment. Kawasaki is however interested in producing a civilian version.

Another organisation not impressed with the A400M is the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer.  Noting that Lockheed and EADS are effectively pricing themselves out of the market Embraer is planning to do what it does best. Build an economical and efficient aircraft that meets the market specification. The Embraer C-390 is not as well advanced as either the A400M or the C-X but is closer in specification to the C-130 though with better speed and economy. This is definitely an aircraft to watch with a target price of US$50 million. However as yet it does not exist and as the AN-70 showed there are many potential slips between announcement and production.

 Another possibility is the Irkut Corporation Tactical Transport Aircraft. The aircraft is very similar to the Embraer but is being built by Irkut, a joint venture of Hindustan Aircraft Corporation and Beriev. Both firms have the engineering capability to develop such an aircraft but do not have the market credibility of Embraer.

Perhaps the most important jet aircraft of modern times is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This aircraft has racked up an enormous number of orders including three from Air New Zealand. The Dreamliner's main claim to fame is that it is incredibly economical. It can fly 7,500 nautical miles with up to 250 passengers and use 20% less fuel than any comparable aircraft.  Even more important the list price is the same as the less efficient B767 with similar specifications. While this is a high US$160 million it is hard to see why the RNZAF spent US$125 million on two old 757s with shorter ranges and much higher operating costs. Howver like the A400M the Dreamliner is seriously behind schedule and there is growing disquiet about its future. 

The Dreamliner is not a military airlifter but is certainly a potentially useful aircraft for getting our people to international hot-spots or disaster areas quickly and economically.

When it comes to airlifters capable of carrying a serious load (like a tank or field hospital) there are five large jet transports in the world to consider. The American C-141 Starlifter - often seen at Christchurch airport, and the even bigger C-5a Galaxy are giant American aircraft which are coming to the ends of their useful lives. They are no longer being produced and are being replaced by the incredibly powerful and incredibly expensive Boeing C-17A Globemaster. At a nominal US$250 million (yes, that's quarter of a billion US dollars, and more scary 2006 appropriations average out at US$328 million ) per unit few can seriously contemplate buying one. That said the Australians announced in March they would spend US$1.49 billion to buy four (unit price US$373 million).

There are, of course, a huge number of Boeing B747 jetliners in the world which having served as passenger aircraft are now being converted to freighters. The 747 can carry a lot of cargo but from an emergency/military mission point of view it has some serious drawbacks: It can't paradrop and it has very extensive runway requirements; also it can't carry most military armoured vehicles due to internal dimensions. Thus while the B747 is cheap it can also be considered somewhat nasty.

The other two transports are Russian. Russia has been quietly making something of a name for itself in recent years by leasing out capacity on its giant jet transports to western commercial interests, the United Nations and NGOs. 

 The An-124 Ruslan is the largest aircraft in the world and is often used by western companies to transport over-sized cargoes such as dam turbines to unusual and distant locations. The Ruslan is a peculiar product of Russian giganticism which while it does have a place in the world is not well suited to servicing small Pacific nations.

Far more significant is the Ilyushin IL-76MF. The aircraft is assembled in Tashkent, Khazakhstan but 90% of the components are Russian but constitutes an important part of that nation's industry. There are more than 300 Il-76's in service to a wide number of nations. India is an important customer as are many non-aligned nations. Jordan is the most recent customer of the stretched, quieter version the IL-76MF which it reportedly bought for US$50 million a copy. This makes it significantly cheaper than Lockheed's C-130J and less risk than the C-X, A400M and C-390.

The IL-76 is a big jet but it can take off from airfields as short as one mile (1.6km) long. This includes any runway built for a Boeing 747 and includes runways in Honiara, Nuku'alofa and most other main Pacific islands. It is also right at home on the ice where it services Russian bases in Siberia and on the polar ice cap. The aircraft can carry 40 tonnes to 6,000 nautical miles or 60 tonnes to 4000 nautical miles. When it comes to delivering lots fast for least the IL76MF is just about unbeatable.

The old Ilyushin IL-76 was banned from many European Union airfields due to its high noise levels but the latest generation aircraft have more powerful and quieter engines which not only mean the aircraft can use EU airports but that the fuselage has been stretched because the aircraft can carry a heavier payload. 

The IL-76 was the subject of some consternation in the United States in recent years because it can be converted to a fire-bomber aircraft in about half an hour. With huge forest fires raging some in the US Forest Service said the US should rent Russian lL-76 waterbomber aircraft because they carry three times more water than the C-130 Hercules and make a more concentrated drop which is more effective at extinguishing very hot fires that might otherwise flare up again. Australian bushfires could probably use the same treatment.

IL-76s delivered aid from the Russian Federation to disaster victims in new Orleans, Louisiana following Cyclone Katrina - a move which doubtless amused the President.