Will there be a factory in Ostend where a new generation of Belgian firefighting aircraft will be built? ‘Our hearts say yes, but everything has to be right from a business point of view’, says the Belgian start-up Roadfour.
We speak to Savineau at the Airshow in Farnborough near London. One of the largest defense and aviation fairs in the world is organized there every two years. Savineau carried a small black briefcase containing a scale model of the Seagle.
“Almost all the companies that you see on the wall of the Belgian Aerospace stand here will participate in the production of this ultra-modern fire-fighting aircraft”, says Savineau. These are well-known names such as ASCO Industries, SABCA, Scioteq and SONACA and newcomers such as Sol.One.
“Our goal is not just to bring a firefighting aircraft to market,” says Savineau. ‘We want to give the Belgian ecosystem a boost with this project.’ He points out that almost all aircraft in the world contain Belgian parts, but that our country does not use them enough. ‘By bringing a genuine Belgian aircraft to the market, the perception of Belgium as an aviation country can get a huge boost.’
Seagle v. Canadair
That Canadianfirefighting aircraft are more than 50 years old. The typical red-yellow aircraft are used all over the world to fight large fires. The Canadian group Bombardier, which bought Canadair in the 1980s, ceased production in 2015. It sold the rights to Viking Air, which is now known as De Havilland Canada. The aircraft fighting forest fires in Europe today are hardly any different than they were 50 years ago.
Roadfour developed with swallow in their own words, the firefighting aircraft of the future. Instead of 6,000 liters of water, the plane can scoop up 12,000 litres. It flies at 210 knots much faster than the Canadairs’ 180 knots. In addition, the aircraft will be equipped with all the latest technological gadgets. Think about technology to better see through clouds of smoke.
Ecosystem in Ostend
Roadfour still has more hurdles to overcome before that boost can be achieved. The most important three at the moment: convincing Europe of the project, finding 850 million euros for the next six years and choosing the ideal place to build a factory.
Let’s start with the last challenge: finding a location for a factory where about 450 people will assemble the Seagle. Ostende is only too happy to receive Roadfour. The city council signed a declaration of intent stating that they want to create ideal conditions for a new factory. ‘The Roadfour file is a priority for our city’, says Kurt Claeys (Open VLD), councilor for Urban Development and acting mayor of Ostend.
According to Claeys, Ostend has several trump cards. ‘There is a whole ecosystem around Ostend Airport that Roadfour can fall back on.’ Among other things, he refers to the newly licensed Ostend Dronehub, the pilot courses at the Ostend Air College, the Vives University of Applied Sciences with its technical courses and the sea. “Roudfour was able to test its firefighting aircraft close to the production site.”
The competition is no less. Saint-Nazaire in France, where Airbus is at home, is also a candidate to win the project. Finally, Nîmes can argue that it houses the French base with Canadair aircraft. “Our heart is of course in Belgium, but for these kinds of decisions everything has to be right”, says Savineau of Roadfour.
This brings us to the second big challenge for the Belgian start-up: finding 850 million euros for the next six years. It will take about three years to complete the aircraft and build the first prototypes. Afterwards, Savineau expects three to four years for certification and industrialization to get production running at full speed.
Roadfour counts on investments from various sides for the amount. “Investment funds, the state and traditional financing through loans must make our plans possible,” says Savineau. By the end of the year, the company hopes to complete a first financing round of 50 million euros. “Hopefully that investment will open doors to public funds.”
And there is. The EU Commission wants to tackle the annual heavy forest fires in Southern Europe by buying twelve new fire-fighting aircraft worth 800 million euros. For this, it looks to De Havilland Canada, formerly Viking Air. The Canadian company bought the rights to Canadairs from Bombardier in 2016. Until recently, De Havilland Canada limited itself to the maintenance and technical improvements of old aircraft. It aims to bring an upgraded version of the iconic Canadair to market by 2025.
At Roadfour, they are not at all satisfied with the EU Commission’s decision. “There has been no bid at all,” says Savineau. At Roadfour, they hope to be able to reverse the decision. ‘That’s why we need the help of governments at all possible levels and organizations like Agoria to give our message power.’
Airlines are looking for raw materials and people
The corona crisis has had a major impact on the aviation sector. Regular visitors note that the highly regarded air show in Farnborough near London is much smaller than in previous years. The restart of the aviation economy is taking off and taking off, the Belgian manufacturing companies that descended on Farnborough also noticed.
On the one hand, orders from global players such as Airbus and Boeing are coming in again. Boeing announced on the stock exchange that it had signed a deal worth $15 billion to supply one hundred planes to Delta Airlines. “On the other hand, our industry is struggling with two issues,” said Alec Detournay, commercial director at ASCO, which specializes in landing gear, among other things.
He refers primarily to unpredictability in the supply chain. “The war in Ukraine has seriously affected the availability of titanium,” said Detournay. In addition, the corona pandemic caused a brain drain in the aviation sector. ‘Many people have retired (before) the past two years, and the young people who were supposed to succeed them have found a new challenge elsewhere.’
According to Nicolas Van Hille from SONACA, that talent is desperately needed. The way the aviation industry looks at the construction of aircraft has changed significantly, he says. “In the past, the goal was to build aircraft as cheaply as possible that could transport people or cargo as cheaply as possible,” says Van Hille. ‘Today the focus is on the search for a device that emits almost nothing. It will take a lot of smart people and innovation to succeed in that mission.’