Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Visit to Embraer Phenom Plant in Brazil - Part 1

I strongly considered the Embraer Phenom 100 (P100) before committing to purchasing two Mustangs, but the delay was too long and there were more unknowns.

One friend is an early P100 position holder and gave design input and feedback to Embraer while still in concept stage. Two other friends have agreed to purchase four P100s with an option for an additional four.

I personally needed to learn more about P100 – to touch it, speak to the engineers, to visit the factory – before making a purchase decision.

To visit the Phenom plant, you must have a visa, vaccinations for yellow fever, and plan at least 4 working days including travel. You must also meet at least two of the following three criteria:

  • be a complete aviation nut
  • have a strong sense of adventure, like flying in a Seneca with visible lightning in all quadrants
  • be forced to by your employer (but at least you may be able to expense the Brazil’s seedy side – no details on that – there are some aspects I wasn’t interested in experiencing).

From the time I left my office at 3pm on Monday Feb. 11, it took 45 hours of travel to meet my first Brazilian Embraer employee. There was a short hop from Boston to JFK, where I met Henry Yandle, the Embraer sales rep and my host on this trip. We woke at 4am on Tue to catch the 7:30am departure for Sao Paulo. Of course the departure was delayed, but we did finagle an upgrade to First Class and lay flat seats for the 10 hour flight. Brazil is a sea of green blanketed by towering cumulus convection, stretching from the equator to the Tropic of Capricorn. The summertime bulging of the troposphere pushed many clouds above our cruising 41,000’ altitude. We circled for an hour over Sao Paulo waiting for the latest thunderstorm to dissipate. Getting low on fuel, we diverted for a 45 minute flight to Rio de Janeiro along with at least 5 other jets.

The plane refueled while we sat on the ground for 2 more hours. There was a clearly sick older Brazilian woman, who tried staying comfortable in business class only to be constantly disturbed by all the chatter around the exit door. I gave her my lay flat seat and gathered some pillows before an ambulance came to provide some care. Since Henry and I were going by private plane to the Phenom plant the next morning, we were happy to stay in Rio rather spend another hour flying back to Sao Paulo and waiting with the rest of the herd to clear customs. We asked two flight attendants who would not let us down the ramp to walk across the taxiway even though we fortunately had no checked luggage. In desperation, I even whipped out my FAA Pilot Certificate – "We’re both pilots – we know how to walk around planes". Finally, after discussing it directly with the Captain, we were set free by bus. The plane eventually made it back to Sao Paulo without us. Amazing that the crew didn’t time out.

We breezed through customs only to be flailed at by four young women each in a tiny booth offering cab services. There didn’t seem to be any differentiation of cabs or services and of course none spoke passable English or any other language besides Portuguese. By passing the Henry’s cell phone around with his contact on the ground at Embraer, we sorted out the destination and fixed price. En route to the Marriott in Copacabana, Henry’s phone rang with the second diversion of the night. We had to re-route to the Cesar hotel in Ipanema because the Marriot was now full. Finally, we dropped into a dumpy room, with a terrible view in the beautiful location of Ipanema. After all the hassles, Embraer picked up the hotel tab at the desperate sucker rate of $500 per night.

I started the next day with a training run along the beach. The only girls from Ipanema I saw running at 8am on a weekday morning were forty-somethings like me trying to stay in shape. The natural beauty of the place is clear once you peek through the overbuilt cement buildings and ignore the dense traffic. Twenty, maybe forty years ago, it must been have spectacular.

Getting from Rio (SBRJ) to the factory in Gaviao Peixoto, (SBGP, map) was by chartered, normally aspirated Seneca with two pilots and minimal avionics. Our passports were held for review by the pilot and we passed through normal security. Somehow, the metal detector failed to notice my bulky watch and digital camera. This GA airport had two uncommon aspects: the two parallel runways were less than one runway width apart, and a nasty gondola cable only 2 miles from and 1320’ above the departure. Take off and turn left.

We sat on the ground for 10 minutes with one engine running waiting for ATC. At 27 dC outside, of course the engine was cooking and the plugs were fouling. We received clearance, taxied into position, then did the run up on the single active runway, found the fouled plug, taxied back, ran up the poor engines to yellow RPM arc for a full minute, and then finally took off and turned left. We were erroneously told to expect a 1:20 flight, which turned out to be 2:20 in the noisy, uncomfortable Seneca. At least my GPS watch was accurate.

When we finally arrived at the factory, we were greeted by a lovely woman named Karen (or maybe it was Kathy – I’ll have to ask Henry). The factory is 30 minutes outside of the small town, surrounded by orange and sugar cane fields (and plenty of gnats and mosquitoes – bring high DEET bug repellent and don’t forget the vaccinations including yellow fever).

The field is owned exclusively by Embraer for Phenom production, Brazilian Military F5 maintenance and some other random maintenance. The Phenom painting and interior is done here as well. Amazingly, it has a staffed control tower even though during the hours I was there the only traffic was our transport Seneca.

On the ramp was s/n 001 getting ready for a test flight. I was allowed to take pictures from the ramp only at great distance, even though I had signed an NDA. S/n 001 taxied out to an intersection departure, which this case it would use only 3 km of the 5km long runway. It took the runway, spooled up, moved about 100', spooled down and then taxied back for maintenance. Oops! It did eventually make it out while we were touring the factory.

Since our arrival was again delayed, the cafeteria was already closed. Karen provided some boxed ham and cheese sandwiches. Can anyone explain why Brazilians eat so much ham and cheese? On the commercial flight down in first class, we were served an appetizer platter of ham and cheese slices followed by a main course choice of (surprise!) a ham and cheese sandwich. If I did eat ham, I would have had it available at every meal at every location including breakfast. Fortunately, there were fantastic, delicious other choices everywhere else.

The production plant can contain 4-6 planes in various stages of construction. With help from Toyota, a single line will be used for both the 100 and the 300. S/n 002 had already flown and was receiving further modifications. S/n 003 would be the first with the full interior was getting ready for first flight in a couple of weeks. S/n 004 was just a fuselage on the side. Phenom 300 s/n 000 was a fuselage waiting for wings while the Williams engines sat on the side.

I was given free reign to examine the airplanes currently in production.

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