Belgians build Swiss aircraft in Morocco

Belgian aircraft parts manufacturer Sabca opened its new factory in Casablanca on Wednesday. There it will assemble a Swiss business jet, the first Moroccan aircraft.

In the new 16,000 m2 large factory in Aéropôle de Nouaceur, a stone’s throw from Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport, Sabca will assemble large-scale fuselages and wings for the PC-12 business jet for Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus Aircraft. The first plane – a crude fuselage with unfinished wings – was delivered on Wednesday afternoon. It happened to loud cheers from the 240 employees, who were then allowed to follow the Morocco-Croatia football match on the big screen. Later, the inauguration was officially repeated in the presence of numerous Moroccan politicians.

The Pilatus PC-12 is a single-engine turboprop business jet for up to nine people that can also carry cargo. According to specialists, the PC-12 – which costs between 12 and 15 million euros – can land and take off very shortly. This makes the aircraft suitable for difficult tasks, such as air ambulance.

The jet, which first took to the air in 1994, is a bestseller. More than 1,800 units have already been sold. A new version was launched three years ago. Pilatus was not 100 percent satisfied with its production site in India and was looking for a new ‘fitter’. Last year Sabca won the contract ahead of twelve competitors.

The delivery of the first aircraft is a tour de force for Sabca. The Belgian aircraft parts maker had for years rented a small warehouse nearby where it carried out assembly orders for Dassault and Airbus. But after the contract with Pilatus, Sabca decided to move and build a new community center, an investment of 18 million euros. The hall was completed in just nine months, and a further 150 people were recruited in record time.

“In Belgium it is not easy to find people,” says CEO Stéphane Burton of Orizio, the holding company of Sabca and sister company Sabena Engineering. ‘In Morocco we had 100 well-educated candidates for every ten jobs. Here, people are proud to be able to work for a technological aviation company. Unfortunately, there is a lot of flybashing in Belgium.’

Pilate

“Pilate is an important contract,” says Sabca CEO Thibauld Jongen. “The new factory also enables us to carry out our manual assembly work in Morocco – the hourly wage here is a fifth of that in Belgium. We will keep the activities with high added value – design, engineering, production of composite parts, complex robotic assembly – at our facilities in Lummen and Brussels.’

More work in Morocco means more work in Belgium, according to Jongen. ‘We hope to be able to convince Pilatus to also buy our actuators – cylinders that move the flaps on the wings – in a sector where we are specialists.’

Final assembly of the PC-12 – motorization, layout and final wiring – takes place in Stans, Switzerland. Transport from Casablanca to Switzerland takes place by truck. Pilatus will build at least 100 aircraft next year. The demand is greater than the supply. “We have a contract for about half,” says Jongen. ‘But in the longer term, there may be even more gatherings here.’ From India, but possibly also from the Portuguese branch of Pilatus. Sabca recently took an option on another site next to its new Moroccan factory. “There are conversations with other customers,” says Jongen.

Airbus

The brand new factory also continues to manufacture parts for Airbus, a major customer. This year, Sabca signed a multi-year contract – value: half a billion euros – with the European aircraft manufacturer. In addition to the extension of the contract for the supply of parts for the wings of the A350-900, it has also won a new order for the A350-1000.

Sabca will develop a new electromechanical actuator for Airbus’ largest aircraft, which is much lighter and means savings in petroleum consumption. Actuators make an airplane more aerodynamic. It is the first time that Sabca supplies actuators to Airbus. The development and series production will for the most part take place at Sabca in Haren, Brussels. Sabca has extensive experience with electromechanical actuators in European aerospace.

In the spring, Sabca Lummen also won the contract for the production of 400 empennage aircraft for the Belgian army’s future F-35 fighter aircraft. Production will start in 2025. In a first phase, 10 million euros will be invested in a new production hall in Lummen. The contract is executed together with Asco in Zaventem and Sonaca in Gosselies.

Sabena Engineering

The sister company Sabena Engineering also has Moroccan ambitions. The former maintenance company of the defunct Sabena – which maintains the Moroccan C130 Hercules aircraft – entered into a joint venture with the Moroccan government and the US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin to build a new site in Morocco for the maintenance of the Moroccan military aircraft and helicopters. “It should provide work for 250 people over the next three years,” says Orizio CEO Stéphane Burton. ‘This will make Morocco – with 500 employees in the long term – an important second pillar in the group.’

Orizio is owned by Stéphane Burton. He acquired Sabena Aerospace (now Sabena Engineering) in 2014. In 2020, he also incorporated Sabca with the support of the Federal Participation and Investment Company (FPIM), the holding company of the federal government that also helped finance the new factory in Morocco. FPIM owns 49.9 percent of Orizio. Orizio has a turnover of 250 million euros and has 1,500 employees in 15 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Sabca

Sabca, founded in 1920, is the oldest airline in our country. It has factories in Lummen, Haren and Morocco. It specializes in the production of composite parts such as wings and flaps (cavity flaps that create positive and negative pressure) of aircraft, fuselage assembly and development of actuators. The main customers are Airbus, Dassault and Gulfstream, Boeing and the European Space Agency ESA.

Sabca also develops drones for professional purposes and has carried out several tests for, among others, DEME, in the port of Antwerp and for the transport of medicine between two Antwerp hospitals.

Sabca also developed actuators for the 600 meter airship of the French Flying Whales. This helium-filled ‘zeppelin’, which can carry 60 tonnes, can be used to transport goods to hard-to-reach places – such as transporting timber in the French Alps or transporting wind turbine blades. We are currently awaiting certification of such flights.

Sabca has approximately 1,000 employees and last year had a turnover of 120 million euros. This excludes the €30 million turnover of the maintenance division of Gosselies, which was brought under the umbrella of sister company Sabena Engineering this year.

Sabca and Sabena Engineering are owned by the holding company Orizio. It is owned by Walloon businessman Stéphane Burton, who is also a shareholder in Air Belgium and vice president of Liège Airport.

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