Embraer [ERJ] will start assembling its A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft for the Air Force’s Light Air Support (LAS) program in January, according to a Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) official in charge of the program.

Sierra Nevada Vice President of Integrated Tactical Solutions for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Taco Gilbert told

Defense Daily in November Embraer in January will start assembling avionics and everything other than basic metal components at its facility near Jacksonville, Fla., international airport. Gilbert said modifications to the Jacksonville facility, which Embraer formally opened in March, were “right on track” and that the facility is on schedule. Sierra Nevada is contracted to deliver its first of 20 Super Tucanos by September.

Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft. Photo: Embraer.

The Light Air Support program is to deliver 20 light attack aircraft to Afghanistan’s nascent air force starting in September. Sierra Nevada in 2011 and 2013 beat out Beechcraft for the $427 million Air Force contract, offering Embraer’s Super Tucano. After the Air Force threw out its 2011 award for “documentation issues,” which were rife with accusations of bias and interference with federal investigators, and held another competition, Sierra Nevada again prevailed over Beechcraft and its AT-6 (Defense Daily, Dec. 7).

Gilbert said Super Tucanos are being assembled in two locations: Brazil and Jacksonville. Structural components like basic hull fuselage, hollow wings, rudder and other large metal pieces are being assembled in Brazil for logistical purposes as it was “not economically viable,” he said, to move the big metal jigs required to produce those parts of the aircraft. Gilbert said once the basic, empty metal shell of the airplane is put together in Brazil, it is shipped to Jacksonville to have avionics and everything other than basic metal components, like fuel pumps, wiring, black boxes and ejection seats, assembled.

Scott Miller, the head of Wichita State University’s aerospace engineering department, told Defense Daily in November he thought it would be a close call for SNC to deliver its first Super Tucano to Afghanistan by September unless it was getting its tooling, or infrastructure needed to build airplanes, directly from Embraer. But Miller said yesterday it is good news for the LAS program that Embraer is putting together the major “subassemblies” in Brazil and completing installation of avionics and missions-specific equipment in Jacksonville because that’s a big part of the process already completed.

“Setting up an assembly line takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, but they’ve already made that investment down in Brazil and it’s a huge investment for a major airframe company,” Miller said yesterday. “If you try to do that again, it’s going to take a long time, a lot of effort and a lot of training, and the fact they are using that already is going to save them some time in the U.S.”

Air Force leadership is confident that SNC and Embraer will deliver on their agreement. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Defense Daily in November, though he doesn’t guarantee the first Super Tucano for Afghanistan will arrive by September, he’s “pretty confident” that it will be ready, even if at the last minute.

“We think this thing is progressing pretty well and that it will be delivered on time,” Welsh said. “The decision was made late enough after the re-do that it put us right up against the timeline required to get there.”

Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning told Defense Daily in November the service believes SNC will be able to deliver the Super Tucanos on time and that the contract will stay on-time through the end.

“We’re not anticipating any delays,” Fanning said. “But if there are any problems, it really is just making sure that the Afghan air force is up and running and ready to sustain the planes as they arrive. But we believe that contract is on schedule and looking good.”

Embraer is responsible for aircraft assembly, Gilbert said, while SNC is responsible for program management. Gilbert said SNC also performs training for both maintainers and flight crews involved with the LAS program as well as logistics support, which means providing spares as well as flight line maintenance and on-the-job training for Afghan maintainers in theater.

“Embraer’s responsibility literally (ends) the second the aircraft rolls off the assembly line,” Gilbert said. “We take it from there and we do the rest of the program.”

Though SNC will be providing much of the Super Tucano’s original stock, Gilbert said some minor adjustments are being made to the aircraft at Afghanistan’s request. Gilbert said Afghanistan specifically requested that armor protecting the engine and cockpit be included, a first, he believed, though the Super Tucano comes standard with armor protecting those two portions of the aircraft. Afghanistan will also be receiving Super Tucanos with Hobbes meters, which Gilbert described as a clock that tells you how long the aircraft’s engine has been running. Gilbert said though these are common on civilian planes, this is also the first time, he believes, a Hobbes meter will be installed on a military aircraft.

Gilbert said Embraer’s manufacturing setup with subcontractors based in the United States will help make shipping quicker and easier. Doing the work in the United States, Gilbert said, simplifies production because so many of the parts to be installed on the Super Tucano have always been made in the United States and shipped to Brazil or other locations. “Drop shipping” components from their U.S.-based manufacturers, Gilbert said, will improve part production.

Embraer in a September press release highlighted numerous developments since the contract was awarded for the final time on Feb. 27. The company marked the opening of the 40,000-square foot Jacksonville facility March 26 and added Daniel Culleton, who Embraer called a seasoned professional with extensive experience in aircraft production and delivery of complex integrated structures, as general manager. Embraer also said it added David Hall as director of contracts and started hiring at an accelerated pace, filling 40 critical positions for areas including production engineering, quality engineering and logistics, to name a few.