Only the second aircraft in Embraer’s commercial range, the EMB 120 Brasillia truly did take this South American builder out of obscurity, and put its aircraft on the runways of some of the world’s largest airports.
Embraer was founded in 1969 in São Paulo, Brazil in an attempt to provide the nation with its own national aircraft manufacturer. At the time, Brazil, both in terms of commercial and military aviation, relied heavily on hand-me-downs from the United States, comprised largely of either old World War II fighters or Douglas DC-3’s. By the mid-1960’s, the nation was determined to create its own fleet of military and commercial aircraft to suit its own needs, and thus Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica (Embraer) was born.
The company’s first aircraft was introduced in 1973 after four years of development, the EMB 110 Bandeirante. The 110 was designed by the French engineer Max Holste
following the specifications of the IPD-6504 program set by the Brazilian Ministry of Aeronautics in 1965. The goal was to create a general purpose aircraft, suitable for both civilian and military roles with a low operational cost and high reliability, all of which the 110 passed with flying colours. At first, the 110 was not expected to be a success, but, after some clever marketing, the aircraft found its way into many important airlines, even in the United States.
Considerations for the EMB 120 actually spawned within the first year of the EMB 110’s launch, in around 1974. The plan called for the Embraer 12X family, a group of three designs consisting of the EMB 120 Araguaia, EMB 123 Tapajós and EMB 121 Xingu. These aircraft differed in terms of size and design, but generally followed the same principles. Eventually, the only one of these designs to make it to the drawing board was the EMB 121 Xingu. The Xingu would eventually be introduced in 1977 as a short-range utility aircraft, but the basic design principles behind it were placed onto what was designated in 1979 the EMB 120 Brasilia, followed by an official launch at the CAAA (Commuter Airline Association of America) convention.
Embraer were audacious in attempting to compete against well established aircraft builders such as Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, but at the time they did have something of a unique selling point. Prior to the EMB 120, regional aircraft based on its smaller dimensions (and those of the preceding 110) didn’t really exist. There was a prominent gap in the market between general aviation, such as the Beechcraft King Air, and small regional jets such as the Fokker F28 Fellowship or turboprops like the Hawker Siddeley HS 748.
As such, Embraer had to advertise the prospect of STOL operations from airports with uneven runways, while also providing a reasonable capacity based on demand, high efficiency compared to regional jets, and rugged reliability. As such, the EMB 121 design from the preceding 12X family was enlarged from 24 to 30, and the design was altered to include the new Pratt & Whitney Canada PW115 turboprop.
Embraer’s audacious plan paid off however, and almost immediately the Brasillia was able to attract interest from many US-based regional airlines. The size, speed and ceiling were particularly praised, allowing for faster and more direct services around the US and Europe, compared to similar aircraft.
The design of the EMB 120 consists of a 65ft long fuselage, a 64ft wingspan and an overall capacity of 30 passengers. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW118/118A/118B turboprops producing 1,800 horsepower each, the aircraft can fly at a top speed of 378mph, with an operational ceiling of 29,800ft and a range of 1,088 miles. An extended range version of the EMB 120, the 120ER, was an upgrade made available to allow the basic 120 to fly a distance of 1,300 miles.
This was later expanded to several variants and conversions suitable for all walks of life. These included the 120FC (Full Cargo), the 120QC (Quick-Change), a convertible passenger/freight variant, the 120RT (Regional Transport) and the VC-97, a VIP transport for the Brazilian Air Force.
The first EMB 120 took to the skies on July 27th, 1983, with delivery to launch customer Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) in October 1985. This was followed by pretty much every small airline in the US and Europe, as well as several larger ones, including Continental Express, Skywest, Air Midwest, Westair Commuter Airlines, Danish Air Transport, Europe Air Charter, Nordic Aviation Capital, Trans States Airlines and International Business Air.
The aircraft also found its way into the hands of several military operators, mostly across South America, including the Brazilian Air Force, the Ecuadorian Air Force and the Uruguayan Air Force, with some examples being sold to the National Air Force of Angola.
Full production of the EMB 120 lasted until 2001, with around 340 examples produced. However, it has never actually left the product list, with individual examples still being tailor made for customers. The National Air Force of Angola for instance received a new EMB 120 in 2007, six years after production was thought to have ended. The reason for this is that the 120 shares many components with the ERJ-145 regional jet, and thus can be constructed if and when is necessary. Whether or not the EMB 120 is still available for sale as of 2017 is a matter of debate.
The EMB 120 however has not been immune to crashes and accidents. The aircraft has suffered 17 incidents in its life, resulting in 158 fatalities.
The first crash occurred on September 19th, 1986, during a delivery flight to Atlantic Southeast Airlines. The aircraft crashed into a mountain near Mantiqueira, Brazil, killing all 5 aboard.
The first major crash involving passengers was on April 5th, 1991, when Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 2311 crashed near Brunswick, Georgia, killing all 23 aboard including former U.S. Senator John Tower of Texas (one of the investigators in the Iran-Contra scandal) and astronaut Sonny Carter. The cause of the accident was found to be a loss of control following a malfunction of the left engine propeller control unit which allowed the propeller blade angles to go below the flight idle position, resulting in an uncommanded and uncorrectable movement of the blades of the airplane’s left propeller below the flight idle position. It did however also cite ASA’s policy of overworking pilots, who only received 5 to 6 hours sleep, a direct violation of Federal Aviation Regulations.
1991 saw yet another crash, this time on September 11th, when Continental Express Flight 2574, broke up in flight and crashed at Eagle Lake, Texas, killing all 14 passengers and crew members. The NTSB determined that missing screws on the horizontal stabilizer led to the crash. It was maintenance error instead of manufacturing failure.
Among the most controversial crashes for the EMB 120, and one that nearly doomed the entire fleet, was on August 21st, 1995, when, in similar fashion to the previous ASA crash, a faulty port-side propeller resulted in Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 crashing in a field near Carrollton, Georgia. While all passengers and crew survived the initial crash, a post-crash fire erupted shortly thereafter, killing 10 of the 29 people aboard (one casualty was from a heart attack nearly 8 weeks post-accident). The cause of the accident was found to be due to failure of a propeller blade and subsequent severe engine vibration and breakup.
The worst incident involving the EMB 120 was Rico Linhas Aéreas Flight 4815 en route from São Paulo de Olivença and Tefé to Manaus. While descending towards its destination at Manaus, the aircraft crashed in the forest around 21 miles from the runway, killing all 33 passengers and crew aboard. While witness reports suggest the aircraft was on fire before it crashed, no cause has ever been determined.
The latest crash of the EMB 120 occurred on August 5th, 2015, when a RusLine flight from Ulyanovsk to Domodedovo crashed upon landing after its front wheels had failed to descend. No serious injuries were reported amongst the 27 passengers and 3 crew.
Today, while most EMB 120’s no longer operate in service with major airlines, the aircraft still finds itself regular and useful work for airlines across the globe. As other aircraft manufacturers such as Bombardier began to build regional jets of similar size and performance such as the CRJ series, as well as Embraer’s own ERJ series, the EMB 120 became surplus to requirement, and many were phased out during the mid-2000’s. While some have found new homes with other airlines, the vast majority have been either scrapped or languish in storage.
Either way, the Embraer EMB 120 Brasillia is another one of those fantastic aircraft that seemed to come from nowhere. It mixed a perfect formula of performance and size to make it a highly competitive and reliable little airliner, and one that put Brazil on the map as one of the prime builders of commercial aircraft.