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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Czech Republic spearheads EU project to conceive next-gen airplane

Local plane manufacturers are leaving the gutter and looking for their place in the sky. The aviation industry has experienced some lean years since 1989, with many firms adhering to one imperative: Make smaller planes or perish. A portion of the industry is now staging a full-fledged recovery that builds off this downsizing, turning its small aircraft focus into an asset: Last year, local companies produced nearly one-third of the ultralight planes bought in the United States.Evidencing this specialization, 11 Czech companies are playing a significant role in a 1 billion Kč ($49 million) research and development project sponsored by the European Union, called CESAR, which is tasked with conceiving a new direction for aircraft manufacturing.“The CESAR project is going to bring about a new concept for a cost-effective small aircraft with five to 15 seats,” said Milan Holl, head of the Czech Aeronautical Research and Test Institute (VZLÚ), which leads and coordinates the 40 companies and research institutes involved in the venture.While the research and development of large aircraft is backed by companies such as Boeing and Airbus, smaller aircraft development is hardly moving ahead, shackling small planes with outdated equipment and systems.The EU’s three-year CESAR project — short for Cost-Effective Small Aircraft — launched last fall. It should ultimately give birth to a concept for a small commuter plane with low development and maintenance costs and reduced environmental impact, Holl said.Half of the project’s budget comes from the EU and the other half is provided by participants. Approximately one-quarter of the EU grant — some 140 million Kč — is distributed among domestic companies.For Aero Vodochody, the country’s largest plane manufacturer, the project has been an opportunity to gain valuable experience with the small and prestigious club that leads Europe’s aviation industry, said Aero spokesman Vítězslav Kulich.Vlastimil Havelka, head of the Association of Aviation Manufacturers (AVL), agrees that the project is invaluable for connecting local companies to the West.“My experience is that face-to-face contacts are crucial in this business,” he said. “Moreover, Czech companies can learn a lot from partners in the West.”Go smallWhile Czech ultralight planes — which, befitting their name, are lighter, tinier and slower than normal small planes — are increasingly cluttering European and U.S. skies, the country’s larger commuter and military planes are now produced only in small numbers by a handful of firms, such as Aero and Letov. And even these firms depend largely on cooperation programs, supplying plane parts to big foreign makers.“After 1989, Czech makers’ close ties to the Soviet Union were cut,” Holl said, and while this reaped many rewards for the country, the aviation industry was decimated. During the communist era, Aero Vodochody alone produced 37 percent of all the military-training aircrafts sold worldwide, Havelka said. “Wherever Russians supplied their fighters, Aero supplied training planes.”That golden age is gone. Now, the industry employs only about 10,000 people. “There’s no way we can compete with, say, the British aviation industry, which has more than 100,000 workers and has been undisturbed by large economic and political changes,” Havelka said.After the 1989 revolution, a large number of aviation experts became unemployed. However, several of these experts had an entrepreneurial bent, which ultimately led them to develop smaller aircraft.Today, domestic aircraft manufacturers have a 30 percent share of the United States small but growing ultralight plane market, according to the AVL; they hold a similarly strong position in Europe. In 2006, the Czech Republic produced about 500 ultralight planes, though this production accounted for only a small fraction of the overall revenue in the aviation sector, which amounted to some 7 billion Kč.One manufacturer, Evektor, produced 130 ultralight planes in 2006. This year, production should rise to 180 planes. “The demand for ultralight planes is on the constant rise,” said Evektor development engineer Václav Zajíc.The booming ultralight plane market notwithstanding, Evektor wants to move further, planning to manufacture the Cobra, a four-seat plane. However, it’s not cheap to develop a new plane type.“The development of the Cobra has already cost us hundreds of millions of crowns,” Zajíc said. “Preparing its production will require us to swallow at least the same amount.” The company is now looking for a strategic partner willing to finance the project, while it continues to develop an even larger project: an aircraft with room for 14 passengers.The foremost objective for the domestic aviation industry is to become a powerhouse in the production of small commuter planes like this, to be used for regional transport, according to an industry development strategy being prepared by the AVL.However, some local aviation experts are aiming higher, beyond the firmament.“In the near future, we want to focus more on the space industry,” Holl said.

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