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Aviation News Sabca still surfing on the Sale of the century

Sabca still surfing on the Sale of the century

Léo Barnier at Charleroi
14 FEB 2019 | 1279 words
Sabca still surfing on the Sale of the century
© Sabca
While the Belgian industry is getting ready to receive the F-35 from 2023, Sabca is continuing to capitalise on the "Sale of the century", signed in 1977 for the purchase of 166 F-16 combat aircraft (followed by an extra 44 in 1983). After having been a stakeholder in the licensed production of aircraft for Belgium and Denmark, the Société anonyme belge de constructions aéronautiques currently provides maintenance for part of the F-16 fleet in Europe and is even facing an increase in demand while different air forces are preparing to withdraw their fleet.

Like other Belgian industrial companies - such as Sonaca - Sabca has been been able to take advantage of the Sale of the century to structure and diversify its activities and so cope with the end of F-16 assembly at the beginning of the 1990s. One of the solutions adopted was to develop support for military planes and helicopters, with maintenance but also upgrade projects (MRO-U). This activity is mainly carried out at the Charleroi site, next to Brussels Charleroi South airport, which has nearly 300 employees.

"Our vision is to supply support solutions", explains Gautier Hucorne, Defence Business Development Manager. "We don't just want to provide maintenance, we want to offer adapted solutions too". He defines three strategic axes for this: to continue to be a centre of excellence for F-16s in Europe, to develop expertise on other platforms such as MALE drones or the F-35 and to start to have MRO outsources away from Europe as close as possible to potential customers.

F-16s still at the heart of activities

As for the F-16s, the Charleroi facilities can accommodate up to 40 of them. "We are limited more by human resources" concedes Arnaud de Patoul, MRO-U Business Unit Director. The on-site activities cover both structure and components. "Because we have assembled the plane we have considerable knowledge and technical expertise", says Gautier Hucorne. "Excluding engines and avionics, we can process and repair 95% of the plane. This is absolutely essential for our customers, as we control the whole supply chain and therefore prices and deadlines. We also provide more and more spare parts management and obsolescence management".

Much of the activity is of course dedicated to the domestic market. "The Belgian defence sector is our bread and butter", says Gautier Hucorne. Sabca manages depot maintenance for the Belgian Air Component's 53 F-16s.

While the market is a relatively captive one, the company still needs to make efforts in terms of competitiveness and qualifications. "Previously we could carry out aviation maintenance for the defence sector without any external certification", details Gautier Hucorne. "This is starting to change in Belgium. We now need to be EMAR 145 for all new platforms with qualified technicians. This is a major transformation which we have already launched and we are already recognised by the Dutch according to their own certification". His point of view is shared by Arnaud de Patoul, who explains that this is a general trend in Europe.

American confidence

This work goes far beyond Belgium's borders. Today, Sabca is seeking to be one of the three maintenance depots selected by the US Air Force for its F-16s, in its Charleroi facilities, alongside Korean Air Lines at Gimhae (South Korea) and the Ogden Air Logistics Complex, located at the Hill base in Utah (United States). The company is therefore providing maintenance for aircraft based in Europe and is carrying out retrofit and repair work for plans which come back damaged from external theatres of operation.

"We have been carrying out maintenance for the US Air Force since 2001, first of all on A-10s, then on F-16s. It's a customer with major demands in terms of price and quality, who launches new public calls for tender regularly", explains Gautier Hucorne. At the moment, there aren't any A-10s in Europe, but we'd be ready to accommodate them if they were to come back".

Sabca also takes care of maintenance for Danish and Dutch F-16s. As for the Dutch planes, "we're even prouder of this", admits Gautier Hucorne. "We won the contract over our shareholder Fokker, and what's more the Dutch pay especially close attention to prices. They have just signed a new agreement with us to provide maintenance until the end of service of their F-16s". In particular, this includes the phase inspections scheduled every 300 flying hours.

While it is currently centralised at Charleroi (Belgium), Sabca's defence MRO activity is intended to be exported to be close to new customers. © Sabca

Transition opportunities

"The end of service for for the F-16 in Europe is quite interesting for us", declares Gautier Hucorne. "It provides us with a certain number of opportunities. We are carrying out the phase-out management for the F-16 to move towards the F-35. Our current customer countries don't have enough technicians to manage these transitions and work on both planes".

In particular, he takes the example of the Belgian armed forces. The first F-35s are expected from 2023, while the last F-16s will remain in service at least until 2030. At the same time, the number of staff of the Air Component is expected to decrease from 30,000 to 23,000. This is also the case for the Dutch: "We are picking up their base maintenance so that they can concentrate on the F-35. We are going to have to help the Netherlands and Belgium more and more with activities that until now they had been carrying out themselves".

It's not happened for Belgium yet, but Arnaud de Patoul is convinced that base interventions will increase over the coming years, providing Sabca with growth opportunities despite the reduction in European fleets. He estimates that MRO activities around F-16s will continue beyond 2040.

Diversification requirements

As mentioned by Gautier Hucorne, one other opportunity for growth will be to develop outside Europe to reach more distant fleets. This is already the case in Morocco, where Sabca has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Sabena Aerospace to develop a local MRO centre, initially for the C-130s. In time, this activity could be extended to other platforms, such as the F-16 (Morocco should be strengthening its fleet with twelve new F-16Vs), the Mirage F1 or the Alphajet. These are all platforms that the Belgian company knows well.

And it should be extended to other countries. "We are starting with Morocco because there is demand from the customer and we have a very good partner with Sabena Aerospace, with whom we have complementary skills, but we are studying the possibility of doing the same thing in other areas around the world", declares Gautier Hucorne.

Finally, Sabca is positioning itself on new platforms. It has become a partner of General Atomics for the maintenance of the future MALE MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones (two systems and four aircraft) purchased by Belgium and which should be delivered within the next few years.

Without doubt, all of these initiatives are necessary for Sabca. While the company means to take part in the maintenance of future European F-35s, it is starting out with a handicap. Belgium is not one of the programme's partner companies, unlike Denmark, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom in Europe. This means that it can't hope to get the same industrial returns as for the "Sale of the century". In particular, this is the case for maintenance, as the Leonardo facilities at Cameri (Italy) have already been designated as the future main F-35 MRO centre in Europe.
Léo Barnier
Specialized journalist
Industry & Technology, Equipments, MRO

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