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Orlik Reaches to the Sky

Airbus provides strong training capability to the Polish Air Force

Manuel Heredia Ortiz, CEO, Airbus Poland S.A, outlines the progress in the modernization of the PZL-130 Orlik trainer aircraft for the Polish Air Force and presents vision of future export contracts.


What is the current state of the Orlik programme for the Polish Air Force?

The upgrade of the Orlik is basically structured in three different contracts. A few years ago, what the Polish Air Force had was sixteen aircraft in the TC-II configuration. Between 2016-2017 what we signed was three contracts. First, to upgrade the fleet that was already in operation to a new version, which we call TC-II Advanced. It is basically an upgrade of the avionics to make it compatible with Western aircraft.

In the second step the Polish Air Force ordered a full flight simulator in this configuration. They had some quite unique requirements, e.g. this simulator has the possibility to do formation flights. So, there is a station for a student and a second one for the flight instructor, who flies a second aircraft. They can fly together in the simulation and you can also generate additional, artificial aircraft, so you can several aircraft in formation. This is going quite well. The installation of the simulator has already started.

The third contract was related to the twelve aircraft that were in storage and they were in a very old version, the TC-I. They’ve not been used for some time. The contract called to take those twelve aircraft and make a full retrofit from TC-I to TC-II Advanced. This means assembling new wings, engines, propellers and of course all the new avionics that come with the TC-II Advanced.

All this is going quite well. For the sixteen aircraft, we’ve already delivered eleven. At the end of the year there will be only one aircraft remaining.

We have a good, positive feedback from the Polish Air Force. They are very happy with the new version.

In regards to the dozen of more legacy Orlik, the first of them is already in the final stage of the modernization and we plan to commence deliveries in the Q4 2019. The goal is to provide this strong training capability to the Polish Air Force as soon as possible. At the end of the process, they will have 28 aircraft, which will constitute a quite significant fleet as well as the full flight simulator.

What are the major improvements in the TC-II Advanced version in comparison to the standard TC-II configuration?

The difference between the TC-II Advanced and the TC-II is mainly the cockpit, which is compatible with Western aircraft. The second thing is that until now the Orlik had a fully analogical cockpit and now we have a mix of analogical and digital indicators. I think that now we have the right balance, because you can always have a number of more fancy systems, but this increases the cost [of the platform]. We can say that we developed this version together with the Polish Air Force to make sure, that this is what they needed for the initial phase of training of the pilots.

We ended up with a very robust and proven platform, which is also very cost effective in terms of maintenance and has the right level of technological complication. That was a challenge to have this balance and to include everything that was necessary, nothing more, and I think that we’ve done it.

What was the scope of work in the upgrade of the TC-I version to the TC-II Advanced standard?

TC-II has completely new wings. So, the old wing is scrapped and we manufacture a new one. There is a new, turboprop engine. Everything that goes around the powerplant is updated as well. These are the main elements.

What was the reason for the simulator to be delivered to the Polish Air Force only after a number of upgraded aircraft have been already handed over?

It was logistics. The original contract called for the delivery in 2019. However, in the meantime the customer decided to change the location, of where the simulator will be installed. Originally it was supposed to be installed in Radom, but then the Air Force decided to install it in Deblin instead. The Air Force needed some time to prepare the infrastructure, and asked us to postpone the delivery until 2020.

Actually, we were ready in advanced and delivered a part of the system in 2018, and we’ve been ready for some months to deliver the second part.

Did the feedback from the Polish Air Force, aside from their positive experience of using the upgraded version, include any suggestions, of what still needs to be modified or improved?

It is very important that we’ve started to have a very close collaboration with the Polish Air Force to take care not only of the present of this programme but also of its future. There’s always something, that you can do. The challenge here is to make sure that we’re not on our own thinking of what the customer wants, because we may not interpret correctly what he needs. We have a very regular contact with the Polish Air Force and we’re constantly working on improvements or different packages. What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we’re working in line with the needs.

Another direction, in which we’re working as well, is to anticipate the path of evolution of this project for the next 20 years. We need to take care of the obsolescence [of the equipment].

What was the reason for the Polish Air Force to decide to modernize both variants of the Orlik trainer?

I assume that the Polish Air Force needed to have a bigger fleet [of trainer aircraft]. I think that this is not unusual. If you look at fleets other Air Forces comparable in terms of size, this is nothing unusual to have around 30 of such aircraft. Poland has big ambitions in terms of growing its fleet and replacing the older aircraft, and it needs to have pilots to do that.

What is the scope of involvement of the Polish industry in the upgrade of the Orlik platform?

I don’t think that we do anything outside of Poland. Of course, some of the equipment we do buy outside, but this is normal in this industry. However, anything, that is manufactured [for the project], is manufactured in Poland. Significant part of the work is done in house, here in our facility in Warsaw. But then we’re also working with local suppliers, like the Polish Armaments Group [PGZ, Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa]. It still is totally a Polish product.

Who is, according to the contracts, responsible for maintenance, overhaul and repair of the upgraded aircraft?

At the beginning of 2019 we signed a frame contract for the next four years, under which we provide spare parts, technical support, when the customer alone does not have the capability to support the aircraft. But also, there’s an expectation that for longer maintenance stops, like the ones, which happen every 10 years, we will be supporting the customer. However, each time it will be the Polish Air Force to make the decision, depending on their own capabilities and how they will organize the logistics.

What is the expected service life of the aircraft?

This is 12 thousand hours.

What are the export opportunities for the Orlik trainer?

The export market is very important for us, as the manufacturer, but also, as we believe, for the current operator. When you’re the single customer, you have to finance all of the developments to the programme. On the one hand, this is good, because you can steer the programme in the way you want, but you have no one to share the cost with. I think this is very well understood by the Polish Air Force.

It is a very good moment, because this upgrade programme has been a perfect excuse to re-establish the final assembly line. Basically, 80% of the final assembly line had to be put back into operation. For the last 5-6 years, all this tooling was in storage, and now it’s back in use.

All this, the will of the customer to invest for the next 10-20 years in a big fleet of trainer aircraft and simulator systems, as well as the fact that we have an active final assembly line, are important signals to the market. The message which we received from our prospective customers is that this [Orlik] is a European product, it’s not a paper aircraft and it provides a lot of certainty and a lot of confidence to prospective customers.

We have plans to go with the Orlik to the market and at the same time we are contacted by the customers, who approach us. For the next 5 years we see some prospects in Europe as well as in South Asia.

What are the numbers of aircraft, which you expect to sale on export markets?

When we’re making our projections for the next 5 years, we see that the market has potential for big numbers [of aircraft], but at the moment we’re a bit conservative. We need to understand that there is a significant effort needed on our side to move from a local programme to an export contract.

Will signing of the first few export contracts lead to any modification, or even build-up of your assembly line or even the whole manufacturing facility?

I think this will depend on the volume and the ramp up. It depends if the customer is requesting big volumes in the short period of time. We’re too early in the process to know that. At least one of the prospective customers has already signalled that if this opportunity matures, they would like us to accelerate, so if this goes forward, we will have to do it. However, my preference is to use the systems as it is today, because it’s already tested and proven.


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