With the crash of a SAAF C-130BZ Hercules in Goma in early January, South Africa’s search and rescue mission capability is also woefully inadequate, particularly since the retirement of the SAAF 35 Squadron C-47TP turbine Dakota ‘Dakeltons’.

Meanwhile across the south Atlantic, the industrious Brazilians got on with building the aerospace industry South Africa could have had on the back of the former government’s massive investment in armaments self-sufficiency. One of the more interesting products to come out of the now massive Embraer factories is the C-390 airlifter, now called the C-390 Millennium.

Is this not the aircraft that the SAAF should be replacing its C-130 Hercs with? And in retrospect, the Embraer programme was probably the one Denel should have partnered with, rather than Airbus on the A400M.

And what of the venerable Herc? After dominating the medium-lift military tactical market for decades, Lockheed Martin might have good reason to feel uneasy about the C-390’s threat to its C-130J. With Embraer’s tie-up with Boeing, the Brazilians have said that they will sell the C-390 through a joint venture with the Americans. Embraer also plans to use the American company’s leverage to procure parts and services at keener prices – which should get the C-390 price down.

The C-390 won’t be the first aircraft to try beat the Herc. “The C-130 has always been there. People have been afraid to challenge it. People have tried to nibble away at it and gotten beaten down,” says Richard Aboulafia, writing for FlightGlobal.

Other notable contenders have been Airbus with its overengineered, overpriced and underperforming A400M, and the Russians with their old IL-76 and An-124, and the still in development Antonov An-77. Compared with the hundreds of fighters and helicopters that roll off assembly lines each year, the military transport market is not big. Nonetheless, Embraer is determined to get a piece of it. The South American firm may have a chance. “You are getting a lot of cargo box for the money. It’s a lot of lift and a lot of box,” says Aboulafia. “It’s probably the best single design in its class.”

Here in southern Africa, loyalty to the Herc remains strong. Safair was at one time the biggest single private operator of the C-130 in the world. In 2014 Safair signed a letter of intent for the purchase of 10 L-100Js, the civilian version of the C-130J. I asked their Kirby Gordon whether they would consider the C-390 as a replacement for their C-130s. He reckons that despite their earlier intent, “Safair now have no specific intention or instruction to take delivery of any C-130J or L-100J as the immediate issue is that neither is presently commercially certified.” But he also said that “given the choice we would take the Herc”.

Medium-lift transports are tasked with carrying out a wide variety of missions, including troop transport, medical evacuation, cargo air drop, fire bombing, paratrooper air drop, aerial refuelling, maritime patrol, and search and rescue. The C-130 has also been modified to fill several niche roles as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, an electronic warfare platform and even a gunship called Spooky – that was genuinely shock and awe inspiring.

Embraer reckons its swept wing makes its C-390 jet the most efficient in the market. According to Embraer, a fleet of six C-390s flying 1,350nm (2,500km) round trips were able to deliver 500t and 1,000 passengers in less than two days. The company claims that’s 40% faster than the C-130J.

The C-390 also comes with the lowest life cycle cost in the medium airlift market, says Embraer. Much of that comes from systems and know-how integrated into the military transport from the Brazilian manufacturer’s commercial airline business, such as the V2500-E5 engine from IAE and the ProLine Fusion Avionics from Collins.

For its part, Lockheed Martin VP Tony Frese doesn’t argue about the advantages of the C-390’s speed and altitude. Rather, he argues that those capabilities are irrelevant. He says that most customers want a tactical aircraft that can fly low, slow and heavy – characteristics which require a turboprop. “These are just the physics behind the mission that really drive you to a four-engine, turboprop, straight-wing aircraft,” he says. “People ask me, if you designed an aircraft in 2019 that was a tactical airlifter, what would it look like? I tell them it would look a lot like a C-130. The advantage of a turboprop on a C-130 is that it’s a constant speed engine. You are just changing the pitch of the propeller in order to get more thrust,” says Frese. “So that pitch could be changed very rapidly.” He says turbofans – such as the C-390’s– can’t keep up due to the extra time it takes to spool-up. And that is important for getting out of tight spaces while air dropping fire retardant or cargo or evading enemy ground fire. “You need thrust to climb out. You need thrust to turn sharply and maintain speed,” says Frese. “Any time you can do that more quickly you are going to be more manoeuvrable.”

Embraer counters that the C-390 is more than capable at low speeds, thanks to its nimble fly-by-wire system and huge flaps. They point out that it can perform in-flight refuelling for helicopters at 120kt. This is a feat that Airbus struggled for years to get right with its A400M, so all the more credit to the Brazilians.

Lockheed Martin doesn’t take those claims lying down and says that a turbofan will be vulnerable on dirt (austere) landing strips if debris is sucked into its engines, especially when using reverse thrust. For its part, Embraer says that is irrelevant because of the high position of its engines. In turn, it criticises Lockheed Martin’s turboprop configuration by saying that the six-blade composite propellers found on the C-130J are expensive to replace if damaged. The Embraer uses just two readily available commercial jet engines, versus the four turboprop engines so C-390 maintenance will be significantly cheaper.

The C-390 may not be quite as go-anywhere as the C-130 Herc but very few situations call for the full bush plane capability of the Herc. FlightGlobal points out that the US uses the C-130 as a real battlefield truck that can land in hot conditions. But very few flights call for austere runway operations. It’s notable that the SAAF Hercs operate on long tarred runways. Yet the only accident to a C-390 to date is of all things – a runway overrun of one of the longest runways in the world – at Gavião Peixoto.

Embraer’s biggest C-390 customer is naturally the Brazilian Air Force, which has placed 27 firm orders according to Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer. The service received its first production aircraft in September last year. There are also 38 letters of intent (LoI) from international customers, including six from Argentina, six from Chile, 12 from Colombia, two from the Czech Republic, six from Portugal, and six from Lisbon-based SkyTech.

If South Africa so desperately needs a Herc replacement – why doesn’t it get in line for the C-390? The truth is it has tried a number of times to fulfil its transport and maritime patrol needs – but no

longer has the money. Our Defence columnist Darren Olivier explains that they have had a number of projects to fund this requirement: “Project Metsi was for Maritime Patrol and surveillance, replacing the C-47TPs in the maritime role but introducing a real intervention capability which includes the ability to drop sonobuoys or even torpedoes. Project Kiepie was for a light/medium transport to replace Casa 212s and C-47TPs. And project Kanfer was for a multi-engine medium transport, to replace the C-130BZs.

The earlier Project Saucepan was specifically for maritime patrol a function the C-390 is unarguably better at than the Herc due to its Mach 0.8 cruise speed and range. Embraer points out that in a search and rescue mission with a typical 1,250 nautical mile radius, a C-390 could cover the ground two hours faster than even the fastest turboprop. However, it would be interesting to know what the C-390’s loiter time is at 1250 nm compared to a SC-130J.

Given the catastrophe of the mismanagement and looting of state- owned enterprises, particularly Eskom and SAA, there is no money left for anything. So, there will be no long range search and rescue for missing airliners over the ocean – and the Chinese trawlers can rape South Africa’s territorial waters with impunity. The right aircraft for the job is the C-390, but it is further out of reach than ever before.