The C-27J Spartan represents a true benchmark in the multi-mission tactical airlifters market. To offer customers an aircraft capable of facing all operational challenges even more effectively – from the most demanding theatres in crisis areas to humanitarian support operations in extreme conditions – Leonardo's Aircraft Division has launched the new C-27J Spartan Next Generation, equipped with state-of-the-art avionics and winglets to further improve performance.
To learn more about the characteristics of the new "Next Generation" and the operational efficiency and performance of the C-27J, we spoke with our test pilot Matteo Maurizio, Leonardo's Head of Project Test Pilot Airlifters, Special Versions and UAS, who has been involved in the development of the new variant of the Spartan since its first test flights.
The innovations introduced with the new C-27J Spartan Next Generation variant, improved distinctive features of the aircraft. What are the main differences between this and the previous configuration of the aircraft, of which over 85 are already flying around the world?
The main differences relate to the aircraft’s flying qualities and performance. In terms of quality, I must stress that the new state-of-the-art avionics technology fully complies with the most up-to-date international standard, called Performance Based Navigation and to have in the cockpit new features as FANS1/A+ Datalink, TCAS 7.1, ILS Cat II and Enhanced Video TAWS. This enables us to exploit all the capabilities offered by the operation in civil air spaces with no limitations and to enhance interoperability in tactical military scenarios with the integration of Mode 5 IFF/ADS-B out, tactical VNAV and Search and Rescue.
The new cockpit layout includes five new Colour Multipurpose Display Units – featuring new and enhanced LED lighting and panels that increase pilots’ efficiency during a flight – a dual redundant Flight Management System, two Digital Autopilot-Flight Director Systems with auto-throttle capabilities, and a comprehensive communications suite. For intra-theatre operations, these features, coupled with the many large cockpit windows typical of the Spartan, full cockpit compatibility with NVIS/NVG night vision systems and Head-Up Display availability help to minimise pilot workload while increasing the ability to manage the mission effectively in day, night and adverse weather conditions.
In terms of performance, the new winglets offer us several advantages in terms of aircraft controllability, in particular flying at slow speeds, as well as better payload capability also in hot and high conditions.
Thanks to its exceptional structural strength, systems redundancy and autonomous operations capability, the Spartan offers unique qualities, not found in other aircraft of the same class or derived from commercial turboprops. Are the new features introduced further enhancing the already good performance?
For sure. While its cruising speed of 325 KTAS (602 km/h) and service ceiling of 30,000 ft (9,144 m) will not change with the new configuration, the winglets will improve the aircraft’s climb capabilities in terms of climb gradients or MTOW of approximately 1,000 kg. This will allow us to operate from those airports with particularly steep climb gradients, which are normally served by four-engine aircraft.
Matteo, you have over 6,000 hours of flight experience on several aircraft types, from bi-sonic fighters to much slower maritime patrols aircraft, as well as around 1,000 hours on the Spartan. How do you assess the C-27J in terms of operations in theatre, and how it behaves in more benign but still challenging humanitarian support operations?
The Spartan is an excellent tactical airlifter for operational theatres. It displays great controllability in every flight condition, pilot’s situational awareness and external field of view, while the aircraft has high power engines. Collectively, these attributes are very important in the operational theatres. Furthermore, the Spartan has excellent maneuverability at low altitude, an essential characteristic for operating in full safety during marginal and critical conditions.
Compared with other military transport aircraft in its class, the C-27J has the best descent and climb rate, and can also perform 3g tactical manoeuvers, minimising its approach phase and reaching a safe altitude more quickly in high threat scenarios. Combining these elements with the self-defence system, DASS – which is available as an option and has already been adopted by several C-27J customers – provides the capability to perform evasive manoeuvers at low altitude, operate safely and exploit the terrain as protection against ground-based threats. Whatever the conditions, the Spartan is a forgiving aircraft, easy to pilot even at low speed and low altitude, and with generous stall performances for an aircraft of this class.
Speaking about humanitarian operations, I think the key phrase here is ‘autonomous operations’. The aircraft is equipped with an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), which is fundamental for operations in unprepared and unequipped strips, or in situations where the ground support, for some reason, is unable to ensure its services.
The aircraft’s long range allows it to operate without the need to refuel at the airfield destination. Furthermore, for humanitarian operations, the C-27J is the only aircraft in its class with the capability to adjust the cargo floor, both in height and inclination, to facilitate the loading/unloading operations where no external support, such as a forklift or cargo loader, is available. Finally, since the Spartan is qualified to perform short take-offs and landings (STOL) on snowy, sandy and unprepared airfields, we can reach a wide range of airfields around the world, as we’ve done over many years.