Medium transport airplanes have long since become excellent platforms for maritime patrolling and control of the marine environment throughout the world. A review of the Latin American reality allows us to know its present and perspectives.
By Santiago Rivas
The vast majority of Latin American countries have large coastal areas and an important maritime space. In all of them, the need to protect their resources, the activities that man carries out at sea and fight crime requires a great effort to maintain effective control. It can be said, very broadly, that, beyond the protection of navigation, through search and rescue systems, which is carried out equally by all countries, there is a division in the focus on the other issues, between the southernmost countries in Latin America and those in the north. While in the coasts of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil the focus is on the protection of natural resources, in the other nations this is more towards the prevention and combat of illegal activities, mainly drug trafficking.
In this scenario, the maritime patrol is essential, but the resources are almost never enough to cover spaces that, in some cases, are really immense. While in the countries of Central America there is a lack of aircraft forces and specific maritime patrol aircraft, both Mexico and those of South America do have a varied fleet in this regard, which can be divided between coastal patrol aircraft, medium and large. In the first case there are examples such as the Cessna O-2 of the Uruguayan Navy, the Tecnam P2006T in the Dominican Air Force or the Vulcanair P68 of the Chilean Navy, which are small aircraft that allow surveillance of the coasts and the adjacent sea, but without being able to fly offshore and without sensors that allow expanding the search capacity beyond the visual. In the case of larger aircraft, the P-3 Orion are in service in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the Airbus CN235 and C295 Persuader in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Mexico and the Fokker 60 MPA in Peru. Although they are airplanes with large capacities, in all cases there are few units, which does not cover all the needs of each country. Thus, most of the forces have medium-sized airplanes, with lower purchase and operation costs, which require fewer crew members but at the same time allow, in some extent, the protection of the seas and the activities carried out there. However, in many cases they are outdated aircraft that require replacement.
The operating models
In the segment of medium-sized aircraft for maritime patrol, in the region, three models have been highlighted in the last 40 years: the Embraer Emb-111 Bandeirulha, the Airbus CASA C-212 and the Beechcraft Super King Air.
The Emb-111 has been employed by Força Aérea Brasileira for four decades, currently having eight examples, while it is still used by the Chilean Navy. Although both forces have modernized their airplanes, in both cases they are already near the end of their operational life and a replacement will be necessary in a few years. In turn, the quantity in service in Chile (three units) is insufficient to cover one of the largest territorial seas in the world, including the Antarctic projection.
The CASA C-212, although it has been extremely successful in the region, today almost all units in maritime patrol service are reaching the end of their operational life. In Argentina, the Coast Guard has three units dedicated to this mission, but one of them has already been retired from service and the others are expected to be replaced in the short or medium term. While a Beechcraft 350ER MPA Super King Air equipped for this mission was already received, no new orders were placed.
The Uruguayan Air Force has two CASA C-212M-200 and two C-212M-300 equipped for maritime patrol, while the Navy has the first Beech B-200 Super King Air that was modified for that mission, which is distinguished by having the ability to carry weapons.
The Naval Aviation of Venezuela also has, as its only maritime patrol aircraft, three CASA C-212S-43, although one of them is in storage, which configures a rather insufficient capacity to control the entire maritime space of the nation over the Caribbean.
In Mexico, the Air Force is the only operator of the maritime patrol version of the Embraer EMB-145, the 145MP, while the Navy received six Beech 350i Super King Air for maritime patrol and intelligence, which replaced the CASA C- 212-100s.
The Super King Air is also used by the Argentine Navy in its B200 version, with four units modified for maritime patrol, as well as the Ecuadorian Naval Aviation, which has two B200s with that task, while the National Aeronaval Service of Panama has a 350.
Currently, Emb-111, Casa 212 and Beech B200 fleets are all reaching the end of their operational life, while an increase in criminal activities in the seas implies a greater demand for equipment to be able to exercise effective control. At the moment, the Beech 350 Super King Air has been the most demanded model as a replacement, but in very small and insufficient quantities.
Today, the product offer is not very large, although interesting. In addition to the aforementioned Beechcraft product, Viking Air offers the Guardian 400, a patrol version of the DHC-6-400 Twin Otter, and RUAG does so with the new generation Dornier 228. In addition, PT Dirgantara Indonesia (Persero) is offering House 212-400, now as NC-212i, with support from Airbus.
Among the four models there are several differences in performance and capabilities that are worth analyzing.
One of them is speed. The 350ER Super King Air is the fastest of the four, with 312 knots of cruise speed, against 223 of the Dornier 228, 195 of the NC212i and 182 of the Guardian, although the Beechcraft model cannot comfortably fly at speeds as low as the other three, which can maintain a safe operation up to about 90 knots, which is an advantage for search operations.
The speed amplitude of the Dornier 228, given by the special design of its wing, gives it the advantage, against the other planes, of being able to fly from its base to the area of operations at high speed, but then keep on patrol at a very low speed. At cruising height, flying at 220 knots, the fuel consumption is almost equal to that of the Super King Air, at about 220 liters per hour. For its part, the NC212i uses about 320 liters per hour at its lowest consumption level.
Another advantage of the Guardian and the Dornier 228 is that they have low fuel consumption at low altitude, which is important in this type of operations, in which the exploration is generally done at low altitude. The pressurized cabin of the Super King Air, while offering a more comfortable flight above 12,000 feet, is rarely necessary for maritime surveillance and generates a higher maintenance cost.
To this is added that the other three models have more spacious cabins, which makes them more comfortable to work during very long flights, also allowing them to be easily prepared to transport cargo or passengers, giving the aircraft greater flexibility. Also, a high-wing design gives much better visibility for searching. The lack of mounts in the case of the wing of the Dornier 228 and the NC212i is an additional advantage, since its bubble windows on each side of the cabin give a 180º view without obstacles.
The four models have an endurance normally around 8 hours (the NC212i reaches it with auxiliary tanks, without them is 6 hours), although the Guardian and the Super King Air can reach 12 hours with auxiliary tanks.
In terms of equipment, the four can carry sensor turrets, with all types of cameras, laser pointer or rangefinder, although the Guardian 400 has not yet integrated a search radar (the possibility of doing so with the Leonardo Osprey 30 is offered). The Dornier 228, in addition, can carry a side looking airborne radar (SLAR) mounted on the sides of the fuselage. On the other hand, since the NC212i has the radar in the nose, its coverage is only 270º and not 360º as in the Super King Air and the Dornier 228.
Currently, while the Guardian 400 has not yet been sold, the other models are being used by several operators in the world (in the case of NC212i, there are few units of the new version delivered, but many of those that were produced in Spain previously). Although the Dornier 228 for maritime patrol does not have a presence in Latin America, it does in Europe and Asia, and also the model is very well known on its transport version.