This 25th of April, I had the honour to be invited for private tour of the Sonaca Aircraft plant. The aim was to introduce the Sonaca 200, a new Belgian 2-seat aircraft for the training of pilots and for leisure.
Sonaca has been for a long time a manufacturer of structural parts for jet airliners, most notably the slats of all Airbus models. It employs 4,000 people worldwide (Belgium, Brasil, USA, Romania), of which 1,700 at its plant in Gosselies near Charleroi.
The company wanted to build on that experience to produce its own plane. The initial idea was to manufacture a glider with an electric engine to make it independent of an aircraft to pull it at the right altitude. However, it appeared soon that the market badly wanted something else, a need that was not fulfilled in a satisfactory way: a small aircraft for the training of young pilots.
In order not to start from a clean sheet, Sonaca contacted a company in South Africa that offered a similar concept: The Airplane Factory (TAF). That was indeed a nice starting point for Sonaca, which wanted to buy the design of this model. However, TAF preferred to become a shareholder and participate in the development of the new company created to build the plane: Sonaca Aircraft. Besides Sonaca (62.5%) and TAF (25%), three private shareholders own 12.5% of the shares: the three co-founders of the company, Pierre Van Wetter, Carl Mengdhel, Sophie Lancerau.
From the very beginning of the construction two years ago, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) participated in the project by giving guidance for the certification at three levels from design to final testing.
From the initial TAF design, Sonaca Aircraft kept the outside of the aircraft with its advanced aerodynamics, but completely changed the inside. An 115 HP unleaded gasoline engine was acquired from Austrian small aircraft engine manufacturer Rotax (a company that is more famous for the engines used in snowmobiles and personal watercraft).
A first prototype (OO-SON) built with amateur technologies took to the air a few months ago to validate the concept, as reported here.
The first test aircraft assembled on Sonaca’s site in Belgium has been entirely dedicated to ground tests.
The second test aircraft which is now being assembled (OO-NEW) has the same outer design, but is manufactured on a more elaborate basis. It was rolled out on 3 April 2017 in a private ceremony. It is still being completed now, with the aim to have first flight before the end of May.
The structure is essentially made of aluminium. The canopy is in Plexiglas with a carbon fibre structure. The French-made propeller is in carbon fibre reinforced epoxy resin. Altogether, the weight was reduced to some 430 kg, which provides for important fuel savings and low operational costs. Most pieces are manufactured in various Sonaca plants and assembled in Gosselies, right next to the runways of Charleroi Airport.
Twenty engineers and technicians are currently working on the project, but when the line assembly will start, the number of workers will increase to 50. Thirty aeroplanes have already been ordered, before certification, mainly by pilot schools.
The Sonaca 200 can sit two persons: the pilot and the instructor (or passenger). There is also room for 35 kg of baggage. If the model is successful, the Sonaca Aircraft offer could be extended to larger models. The programme is expected to become profitable in 2021.
I would like to extend my thanks to Pierre Van Wetter, pilot, chief commercial officer and co-founder of Sonaca Aircraft, for guiding me during the visit, and Frédérique Jacobs, responsible for communication, for arranging the visit.
Some more pictures (click on picture to enlarge).
Pictures © Jeff Bauche (Sonaca), André Orban
Text © André Orban