May 24. 2024. 7:03

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The Role of Aviation Support to Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief Operations


Carla Salleron is the Director, Business Development, Europe at Embraer Defense & Security.

Transport aircraft have evolved significantly since the first biplanes began delivering mail and freight more than a century ago. Since then, the demands and level of performance of these aircraft have increased, but the fundamental role remains broadly similar. What has changed is the demands and range of missions asked of these aircraft, extending beyond cargo and personnel to include specialist missions, including medical evacuation, aerial firefighting, and precision airborne cargo delivery.

One essential role for these aircraft is the rapid delivery of humanitarian aid and an effective response to provide immediate and enduring relief to both natural and man-made disasters. The mounting body of evidence suggests that the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing as the world begins to experience the effects of global warming. In turn, we are seeing a more hostile natural environment whose immediate and long-term effects include loss of life and habitat, food shortages, social conflicts, and disease and epidemics. These natural disasters neither respect nor recognise borders and can often overwhelm the capabilities of a single country. At the same time, human conflict continues to contribute to instability across the globe. Geopolitical tensions and terrorism have created the demand for mass evacuations from hostile, unpredictable, and deteriorating security situations. Modern governments are charged with protecting their citizens in this ever more complex environment and on a global scale. The demands on aircraft operating in these challenging environments are now truly unique and require specialist capabilities.

Aircraft committed to these type of operations cannot always rely on fully functioning airports, they must therefore be able to operate on unpaved runways, as well as handle cargo or personnel without ground equipment such as air bridges and other cargo handling devices. Loadmasters and crew must be able to load and unload heavy cargo without external (or human) support; on-board winches, ramps and rapidly reconfigurable cargo holds are thus critical to effective operations in this environment. Rapid reconfiguration is also important for an aircraft that is optimized for disaster relief, as the same aircraft may need to deliver essential supplies on the inward leg and evacuate casualties or personnel on return. The same aircraft must also be able to evacuate the critically ill in Intensive Care Units or provide medical isolation for the treatment and transport of those infected with dangerous and contagious diseases.

Perhaps the most important requirement is the combination of speed and availability. An aircraft that flies fast expedites the delivery of aid and support; it also hastens the evacuation of those that need it most. Speed through the air also generates increased productivity, allowing less crews to fly more missions, more quickly; for example, the C-390 can carry 23 tons for 1,520 nautical miles. Over the period of days and weeks, speed delivers exponential benefits in supporting disaster relief and humanitarian aid operations. Finally, availability is the defining metric for aviation operations; capability, capacity and speed are irrelevant if the aircraft suffers from poor reliability and low availability.

In September 2021, C-390s operated by the Brazilian Air Force participated in the joint exercise Ángel de los Andes that, over two weeks, simulated a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief response in multiple locations throughout Colombia. Supported by forces from Colombia, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Honduras, the training covered responses to earthquake and tsunami scenarios. The C-390s flew 170 training sorties over 175.5 hours. It transported 172,000 pounds of cargo, over 1,600 personnel and conducted aeromedical evacuation for 95 simulated patients. The C-390 demonstrated exceptional level of reliability achieving 100% availability throughout the exercise.

Embraer has been responding to these needs by drawing upon its 50-year heritage of aircraft design and manufacturing. It has built its reputation for quality through the constant evolution of its commercial, executive, and defence portfolio. Its experience in supporting commercial aviation operations has created an ethos of high availability and maintainability; this has been incorporated into the C-390, Embraer’s most modern and sophisticated transport aircraft. It entered service with the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) in 2019 and has already secured orders from multiple European air forces. The entry into service of the C-390 comes at a crucial moment when air forces and governments are looking to update their air transport fleet with modern, reliable, and cost-effective solutions.

The aircraft was designed to meet the very demanding specifications for the Brazilian Air Force. These included remote and austere operating conditions, from the Antarctic to the Amazon. The Brazilian Air Force also demanded multi-mission configurations, including personnel, cargo, air deliverable cargo, medevac, and aerial firefighting, all reconfigurable in a few short hours. With a capacity of 26 tons and a maximum speed of Mach 0.8, the C-390 can deliver more payload much faster than any other aircraft in the segment. All this is underpinned by exceptional reliability and maintainability, generating outstanding availability.

So far, the Brazilian Air Force has fully exploited the capabilities of the C-390. It played a pivotal role in the Brazilian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic delivering critical medical supplies across the length and breadth of the country. The Brazilian Air Force also deployed the C-390 to support the Republic of Lebanon and Haiti following the disasters in both countries. More recently, the C-390 evacuated Brazilian nationals affected by the events in Ukraine and delivered humanitarian aid into the region. These are just a few examples of how effective air support can help deal with the demands and unpredictability of today’s global environment.

The C-390 incorporates the very best of Embraer’s design and manufacturing ethos. It does so by drawing from the best in the global supply chain, including in Europe. Nine European countries and more than 40 European companies are part of the C-390 value chain. European suppliers also contribute 50% of structural parts for the C-390. The simulators are provided by Rheinmetall Group, from Germany.

What is not in doubt is that the availability of versatile and capable aircraft like the C-390 will continue to play a key role in ensuring the adequate handling of humanitarian aid and relief operations, whenever and wherever these disasters and crises continue to unfold.