Alenia Aermacchi is reorganizing the layout of its Venegono plant in Italy in preparation for the start of serial production of its M-346 lead-in fighter trainer. Its contract with the Italian government for six aircraft and simulation equipment (nine more aircraft are to follow) is technically ready and awaits signatures by all the ministries involved.
Meanwhile, the company said it is close to signing a contract with the United Arab Emirates for 48 aircraft, an event that could occur this week during the Dubai Airshow.
Alenia Aermacchi also is finalizing development of the jet trainer, with the two prototypes and the preproduction aircraft having completed more than 1,000 flights. By the end of next month, the company should open up the flight envelope to a 35-degree angle of attack. It is using the preproduction unit as well as the other aircraft to draw comparisons between the two configurations, which feature similar aerodynamics but a different structure.
While static tests continue, the aircraft are flying with increasing load factors and tests have comfortably exceeded 7 gs; the 8-g limit should be reached shortly. The static test rig is soon to be replaced by a fatigue test rig. Aermacchi (Stand C420) plans to start fatigue testing early next year and intends to conclude it by year-end. The software version that should allow the program to achieve its promised carefree handling is being validated.
Customers’ and potential customers’ operational pilots now flying the M-346 are providing some valuable feedback especially as to man-machine interface. The preproduction M-346 was deployed for further tests at Pratica di Mare air base, the home of the Italian air force’s experimental wing; Singapore air force test and operational pilots also flew the aircraft at Venegono last June.
In preparation for production, an entire hangar has been refurbished as it initially is to host the fuselage assembly line and then the outer-wing assembly. The final assembly line will be set up in an adjoining hangar.
The fuselage assembly line is designed with one fixed work station and a moving assembly line, similar to that used for the Joint Strike Fighter. The first production aircraft is to be manufactured using the rigs employed for assembling existing aircraft.
The first M-346 assembled on the new line is planned to be completed in early 2011. The Alenia Aermacchi line will have a potential output of up to 3.5 aircraft per month with two working shifts, yielding 42 aircraft per year. The digital design process used for the M-346 allows the company to simulate assembly operations to establish the most efficient procedures from the start of the program.
The trainer order for the UAE is to include three different roles for the M-346, although the exact split has not been announced. One version is to be used for training future UAE air force fighter pilots, while another is to equip the UAE aerobatic team. The third version, the light combat model, will be equipped with a multi-role radar and full self-defense suite.
The aircraft’s 6,600-pound payload allows for numerous configurations. In mid-September the company discussed the details of such applications with the customer, which opened the way to the final discussions on the contract.
According to Alenia Aermacchi estimates, in the next 20 years worldwide demand for advanced trainers will be about 2,000 aircraft. “We believe we can get at least a 30-percent share; that is, 600 to 700 aircraft,” company CEO Carmelo Cosentino told AIN earlier this year.
The UAE decision to develop the light combat version is welcomed by Aermacchi. “The marketing of that version will be more complex and challenging, so we have not made a market forecast for it, but those aircraft will be added to the numbers
previously mentioned,” Cosentino said. According to company officials, the areas where the M-346 armed version has the greater chance of success are the Middle East, the Far East and Latin America.