Korea’s trainer jet exports take off

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Korea’s trainer jet exports take off


Two T-50i trainer jets take off for Indonesia from a runway in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang, yesterday. [NEWSIS]

SACHEON, South Gyeongsang - Yesterday morning, two aircraft painted blue and yellow roared into the sky above Sacheon and turned south.

It’s not uncommon to see planes and helicopters above Sacheon, where an aviation industry cluster has been built around Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the nation’s sole aircraft manufacturer.

But yesterday, history was made for both KAI and Korea when the two jet planes took off for Indonesia, the first exports of supersonic jets by the nation.

Korea is now the sixth country in the world after the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and Sweden to sell supersonic jets to a foreign nation.

In May 2011, KAI signed a $400 million contract with Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense to deliver 16 T-50s, advanced supersonic trainer jets developed in association with the American company Lockheed Martin. Since then, KAI has been working to make the T-50i, which is modified slightly for the Indonesian Air Force’s needs.

KAI announced yesterday that the 16 T-50is will be delivered to Indonesia through the end of this year, two aircraft at a time.

The delivery will be done via “ferry flights,” meaning the aircraft will fly directly to the buyer, the first time local aircraft have been delivered in such a way.

Previously aircraft exports were disassembled and shipped by vessel or large aircraft to the buyer. They were reassembled at their destinations and went through test flights again.

KAI said ferry flight deliveries save time and cost. The company was originally scheduled to deliver the 16 T-50is through April of next year.

The first two T-50is will fly a total of 5,600 kilometers (3,480 miles) to arrive at their final destination, Iswahyudi Air Force Base near the city of Madiun on the island of Java in Indonesia. En route they refueled in Taiwan and Cebu in the Philippines. They will land in Indonesia today.

“Originally, we were about to transport the T-50is via cargo jets but the plan changed,” KAI said in a release. “We want to thank government officials in Taiwan and the Philippines for helping make the ferry flight happen.” The remaining T-50is are in the final phases of production.

In a facility about three times larger than a football field, some 370 employees were busy working to assemble aircraft in the T-50 family, which include the T-50B, TA-50 and FA-50. Almost every process is done manually. Robots and machines are only used to transport parts.

“The production cycle differs by aircraft and schedule, but currently we are moving at a speed in which one-and-a-half aircraft can be done in a month,” said Lee Eun-kyoon, who heads the aircraft manufacturing management team.

Employees usually work around eight hours a day, although overtime work is done on some lines. KAI employees are ready to produce more - they hope the company wins more orders. According to the company, exports of T-50 training jets are being discussed with five to six countries, including the Philippines and Iraq.

KAI was shocked when one of its T-50 trainer jets crashed near an Air Force base in Gwangju last month, killing two pilots on a training mission. After examining the flight data recorder, the Korea Air Force said the accident wasn’t the result of a mechanical problem.

KAI said that although its image was potentially harmed by the crash, it doesn’t expect it to affect exports of the two-seater supersonic jets.

KAI estimates that the economic benefits of T-50 exports to Indonesia will be $802 million nationwide, with the creation of 7,700 jobs in Korea. More than 70 small- and medium-sized business partners are involved in the production. “In the production phase, we do outsourcing and grow together with other small companies,” said Roh Dong-woo, head of KAI’s strategic planning division.

BY JOO KYUNG-DON [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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