Regional aircraft with ecological engines – economical

It was supposed to be the beginning of the golden age, almost exactly 20 years ago. In a hangar at the special airport Oberpfaffenhofen, Fairchild Dornier presented the first prototype 728JET, A 70-seat airplane that will revolutionize regional air travel. But a little later, the traditional manufacturer, based on the old Luftfahrt Dornier, went bankrupt. After all, the former test plane never flew and today serves as a test laboratory for the German Space Aviation Center (DLR).

Some of the old halls had long since been torn down, but one hangar remained. And there, 20 years after the last attempt to increase Dornier production, the story could go on. The Dornier’s hull has been standing in the hangar for years 328, founded once by one of the heir companies of an insolvent producer. It should form the basis of a new, old aircraft program, building on the old Dornier know-how while allowing more environmentally friendly flying as one of the first projects.

If everything works out, as the current owner 328-Line, the Deutsche Aircraft that is introducing this old fuselage will soon be sawn. Then, in two places, additional segments are inserted, and finally everything is put back together. The result would then be the first prototype D328eco, The “new” regional propeller-driven aircraft and considered one of the first certified machines to run on synthetic fuel made from eco-friendly hydrogen. The aircraft’s CO2 emissions would be around 95 percent lower than that of fossil kerosene, assuming synthetic fuel would soon be available in sufficient quantities. In connection with the planned new edition, the machine flies to the ILA air show in Berlin, which begins on Wednesday.

Production is located in Leipzig

History of the Dornier 328 it is long and turbulent. The 32-seat turboprop aircraft flew for the first time in 1991, when it was technologically ahead of its time thanks to its comfortable cabin and modern wings. Commercially, it was unsuccessful because it was expensive and too small. After Fairchild took over Dornier, the propeller plane became a jet because it was up to date and people were hoping for more demand. But the old problems remained.

The former Dornier 328 is the basis of the new aircraft program.

(Photo: Franz-Xaver Fuchs / STA)

In 2015, the American aviation company Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) purchased 328 Support Services GmbH, which continued the fleet service activities and held all licenses. Sierra Nevada originally wanted to revive the program with a new final assembly line in Turkey, but after the failed military coup in 2016, the topic was quickly abandoned. In 2019, the company, which has since been renamed Deutsche Aircraft, announced initial plans for D328eco known. The final assembly line was built in Leipzig thanks to the economic incentives of the Free State of Saxony, but the company’s headquarters and development department remain in Oberpfaffenhofen.

this D328eco it will be slightly larger than the old Dornier with 40 seats 328. The plane will be equipped with new Pratt & Whitney PW127XT-S engines, which will also be approved for use with synthetic fuel. German Air Force chief Dave Jackson expects that D328eco it will use up to 25 percent less fuel per seat than the old turbo propellers it will replace, and up to around 40 percent less fuel than the small regional jets. The model also receives new cockpit electronics, which should only support one pilot if permitted by aviation safety authorities such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The chassis and other components are also renewed.

Just over a year ago, there were only about 150 employees in Oberpfaffenhofen, mostly in maintenance, but now there are 320, and according to program manager Nico Neumann, about 20 are added each month, mostly engineers. The project is set to take off in earnest in the next few months, with the start of construction of a prototype and a new factory in Leipzig. First D328eco should be delivered in 2026, after Deutsche Aircraft has just announced that the original date of 2025 will however no longer apply. The process of concluding contracts with suppliers as a new old producer is tedious, the pandemic has complicated everything even more.

The turbo prop market is manageable

The overarching question goes well beyond Deutsche Aircraft and the plane. It’s about the future of regional aviation and what it might look like. The turbo-prop market is de facto a monopoly: ATR, a joint venture between Airbus and the Italian aviation group Leonardo, is currently the only manufacturer, although turbo-props are much more fuel-efficient than regional jets. Embraer, a Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, has been considering developing a new turboprop for years to give ATR some competition. However, the situation is complicated as regional aviation is expected to be a sector where new technologies prevail. Hydrogen planes are expected to be realistic in the up to 100 seat category for one Airbus day A320 or Boeing 737 with 150 to 240 places.

Airbus itself wants to release such a plane in 2035. At the lower end of the scale, many startups work on electrically powered machines that can carry fewer passengers over short distances. Deutsche Aircraft focuses on the classic regional segment where many old aircraft have to be decommissioned, including over 100 Dornieers still flying 328 first generation i 328JET. The only question is: how big is the market and how long will it take for new technologies to replace conventional machines there as well?

Deutsche Aircraft is also working on new concepts, for example with California’s Universal Hydrogen and the Stuttgart-based start-up H2Fly on ideas for a hydrogen propulsion system that could be upgraded in due course. However, the bitter lesson in Fairchild Dornier bankruptcy was that the small company got bogged down in too many projects at once and was eventually overwhelmed both substantively and financially. It shouldn’t happen again.

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