Published in October 2015 issue

For SkyWest Airlines and the Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia, the road has come to an end. After 30 years of constant service, the world’s largest operator of the aircraft type announced its imminent retirement. SkyWest, a feeder airline for major carriers, grew up together with the Brasilia. In the evening of May 5, 2015, aircraft N567SW, operating as United Express Flight 5165 from Santa Maria, California (SMX) to Los Angeles (LAX), had the distinction of flying the last revenue flight. It’s time to say, Later ‘Bro!

By Ben Wang

Truth to be told, the Brasilia was an unsung hero. Not particularly photogenic and unloved by the flying public because it was small and propeller-driven, it could be best described as a utility van or a commuter bus that did its job day in and day out without fail.

If you live in California, Brasilias were everywhere. You’d see them at all airports throughout the west, performing their duties by serving small towns and communities, providing important links to major airline hubs and connecting them to the rest of the world, buzzing in and out all day long like so many insects.

From the way employees pronounced ‘Brasilia’, the crews, lovingly, gave the plane the nickname, ‘Bro.

A second successful airliner

Embraer had started developing the EMB-120 in 1974 as an evolution of the EMB-110 Bandeirante—the manufacturer’s first successful commercial airliner. The lessons learned from the Bandeirante gave Embraer both the resources and expertise to develop a larger, pressurized aircraft, equipped with the newly available Pratt & Whitney 115 1500-HP turbine engine (lately upgraded to the 1800-HP PW118B).

Originally named ‘Araguaia’, after a river in Central Brazil, the EMB-120 was renamed Brasilia—after Brazil’s capital city—at launch in 1979. At the time, the EMB-120 was a step up from competitors such as the Fairchild Metroliner family aircraft. Passengers flew in ‘cabin class’ comfort: a pressurized and stand-up cabin, a lavatory, overhead bins, and service provided by Flight Attendants (FA).

The Bandeirante’s success positioned the Brazil-based company on the world stage as a serious contender in regional aircraft manufacturing. Bandeirante operator Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA), a Delta Connection carrier in the US, became the launch customer for the EMB-120. All of that led the international media to follow the July 1983 rollout and maiden flight of the Brasilia with great interest.

The early 1980s were crowded with new commuter aircraft entrants, including the French-Italian ATR 42 and the de Havilland Canada Dash 8, both motorized by the same power plant as the EMB-120. To earn a market share, Embraer designed the Brasilia with a view to the future. As the company’s founder Ozires Silva puts it, the Brasilia was a “technical challenge for the future… (it) incorporates all the new advances of the international aviation industry.”

In fact, the initial development of the Embraer Regional Jets (ERJ) family in the 1990s started by stretching the EMB-120’s fuselage and adding turbofans to it. However, the initial wind tunnel results were unsatisfactory, and the commonality with the turboprop progressively disappeared as the model evolved. In the end, the ERJs retained just a few of the original features of the EMB-120, such as the three abreast seating (2×1) configuration.

The Brasilia was developed at a cost of US$230 million (more than $550 million today). Its low drag airframe configuration, coupled with its newly-designed turboprop power plant, made it faster than its competitors. The fuselage was made of a lightweight alloy, and 7% of the airframe (elevators, rudders, ailerons, and fly-by-wire flaps) consisted of lightweight composite materials. Embraer was one of the first aircraft manufacturers to use composites—a common industry practice today.

Production began at São Jose dos Campos at the end of 1984. By September 1985, the Brasilia made its maiden passenger voyage: an ASA flight from Gainesville (GNV) to Atlanta (ATL). By the time serial production of the Brasilia ended, in 2001, 357 aircraft had been built.

Most of the Brasilias ended up in the United States. SkyWest was, by far, the largest customer, operating 92 units after its final delivery in 1999. Comair (OH) also operated EMB-120s for Delta Connection, while those operated by commuter airline Britt Airways (RU) displayed the Continental Express livery.

The Brasilia was designed for missions between US hub cities and small communities, which involved high-frequency routes shorter than 300 miles. With a capacity of 30 passengers, the plane was perfect for cities where demand couldn’t justify larger aircraft.

For similar reasons, the Brasilia had become a good fit for Essential Air Service (EAS) flights. EAS is a US federal program that subsidizes airlines to serve those small or rural communities that had lost air service due to airline deregulation. The EAS guarantees a minimal level of access to the national air transportation system for those communities.

ASA retired its last Brasilia in 2003, leaving SkyWest as the sole remaining major civilian operator. Flying for both United Express and Delta Connection, SkyWest’s EMB-120 Brasilias were a common sight throughout the western US, linking small cities with hubs in San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City (SLC).

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Growing up together

Embraer’s partnership with SkyWest had begun with an initial order for five EMB- 120s. On December 24, 1986, the first aircraft had left the São Jose dos Campos production plant bound to the US. After a 25-hour flight, pilots Ken Brooks and Earl Snow landed at St. George Municipal Airport (SGU) in Utah. About a month later, on February 1, 1987, the aircraft began operating revenue service.

“Nearly 30 years ago, in 1986, we chose the Brasilia not only for its price but also for its size, speed, reliability, and product support,” remembers Jerry C Atkin, president and CEO of SkyWest.

SkyWest is now the largest regional airline group in the world, controlling SkyWest Airlines and Express Je Airlines. Both carriers, long associated with Embraer, were among the first customers of the Brasilia. The aircraft was essential to SkyWest becoming a market leader.

“The Brasilia played an important role in SkyWest’s growth strategy and it’s noteworthy how everyone in the company loved this airplane,” says Paulo Cesar Silva, president and CEO of Embraer Commercial Aviation. “We are happy to know that this commercial cooperation with SkyWest, now 28 years old, will continue for many, many more years, with the E175 and, later, with the E175-E2, which will begin deliveries in 2020. This is one of the most successful partnerships in commercial aviation.”

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A double-edged sword retirement

In November 2014, several months after placing orders for the E175, citing increased operating costs, SkyWest announced that—after nearly three decades of service—all Brasilias would be retired by the second quarter of 2015.

Suddenly, the EMB-120s began to vanish, as evidenced by the flight schedule from April through the last day of service in May: Just 10 flights in and out of Los Angeles and four at San Francisco. With the retirement of the Brasilia, SkyWest has now become an all-jet airline. The good news is that most cities are now receiving regional jet service. However, other ones, notably the EAS communities of Crescent City (CEC), California, Moab (CNY), Utah, Vernal (VEL), Utah, and Pueblo (PUB), Colorado, will no longer be receiving flights.

The Brasilia’s retirement was not without complications. In order to ensure continuous air service for the least-served communities, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) had mandated SkyWest to continue flying beyond the original 90-day termination notice until a replacement carrier could be found. However, citing lack of aircraft to operate short runways at CEC, CNY, VEL, the airline opted to end service to those cities as originally planned. Flights continued at PUB, with Bombardier CRJ-200s, until SkyWest abruptly cut service in early June 2015.

At CEC, PenAir (KS) has stepped up, offering flights to Portland (PDX) with 30-seat Saab 340s. Ironically, at VEL and CNY, Great Lakes Airlines (ZK) will offer flights to Denver (DEN) using its diminutive fleet of five Brasilias, standing as the last US carrier to offer scheduled flights with this aircraft type. Unfortunately, however, these communities will experience a gap in service until the new airlines complete their infrastructure and support network. At press time, no airline has been selected for PUB.

Without a newly designed aircraft in the 30- seat airliner category, the Brasilia could be the last of its kind. Higher-capability and more cost-effective regional jets, such as the E170 and the CRJ-700, as well as large turboprops, like the Q400, have taken over former routes. However, some small airports could be left without air service altogether unless significant infrastructure improvements are made to accommodate larger jet aircraft (and assuming there are enough passengers to warrant their use).

As the EAS saga has shown, demand for 30-seat airliners still exists but, as time progresses, these communities run a continuing risk of losing air service, federal mandate notwithstanding. The reality is that, as the existing 30-seaters get older and the cost of maintenance gets higher, there will come a time when they will no longer be practical to operate. To preserve service to EAS communities, smaller aircraft types must be considered in the future.

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The life of the ´bro goes on

Hoping to keep the Brasilia relevant by putting it to use as a freighter, Embraer started offering full cargo and quick-change conversion kits in 2002. The International Airline Support Group (IASG) of Atlanta, Georgia, was the launch customer, ordering 10 kits with 10 options. With many aircraft stored and many more becoming available, there was no shortage of EMB-120s ready for conversion. However, unlike the passenger version, demand for EMB-120 Freighters has been lukewarm. The largest Brasilia freighter fleet can be found in Spain, with 10 aircraft flying for Swiftair (WT). Ameriflight (A8), in the US, has eight.

In South America, the Brazilian Air Force still flies a sizable fleet of 20 Brasilias. Other than that, the EMB-120s have been relegated to small operators with fleet size in the single digits around the globe.

My personal farewell to ´bro

Feeling melancholy for the ‘Bro, I wanted to bid my farewell to SkyWest’s EMB-120. I found award seats available from SFO to Bakersfield (BFL) and back on a Sunday two weeks before the final flight. They cost me 20,000 miles plus US$85.60. Sure, for two one-hour flights, that was expensive, but it beat the more than US$700 I would have had to pay in straight-up dollars.

I was dropped off at SFO’s recently refurbished Terminal 3 East, known as T3E, and checked in at one of the many available kiosks. After a swift security clearance, I met up with a couple of friends, who were joining me in this personal farewell flight, at gate 76A.

Boarding started about 25 minutes before departure time. We went through the jet bridge and down a ramp to the apron. Once on board, Tiffany, the sole FA, greeted us warmly. We told her we were flying on the ‘Bro just for fun, and she told us that she too was rather sad about its imminent retirement.

I made my way to seat 8A on the single-seat side, across from the behind-wing emergency exit. Thankfully, in view of the tight legroom, the seats did not recline; at least, my knee space wouldn’t be further encroached. One of the things I love about flying the smaller Embraers is the single seats—you get the enjoyment and the flexibility of a window and aisle seat at the same time.

Captain Jason and First Officer Ethan introduced our flight. Flying time: an expected 51 minutes, with an altitude of 23,000 feet. Visibility was good in Bakersfield, with clear skies and a temperature of 51°F—a beautiful day for flying!

The door closed a few minutes ahead of our 08:40 departure and, with that familiar twirling and propeller whooshing sound, the Pratt and Whitney Canada PW118 turboprops came to life for a long 15-minute taxi around the corner to Runway 01R, amidst a bevy of 09:00 departures. We took-off from 01R sandwiched between transcon competitors American (AA) and JetBlue (B6) Airbus A321s departing ahead and behind us.

Once airborne, we continued eastbound over the East Bay Area cities of Oakland and Livermore before heading south down the arid Central Valley to BFL. About 15 minutes after takeoff, we reached our cruising altitude of 23,000 feet. The Captain delivered his standard ‘sit back and relax’ message, but added a surprising shoutout for me and my friends over the PA. That was nice!

Sooner than we thought, we started our descent and the seat belt light came on. It was interesting to see the vast oil fields on the eastern side of Bakersfield. Our downwind approach over the oil field, however, was turbulent and bumpy. After making a tight right base for Runway 30R, we touched down at Meadows Field 49 minutes after departing SFO. Four minutes later, we parked at the gate. Thirty seconds or so after parking, the props stopped spinning and the boarding door opened.

After wishing a temporary goodbye to Tiffany, we went down the ramp and across the apron, making our way into BFL’s modern terminal to wait for the short turnaround to San Francisco.

Departing from Gate 6, the same crew flew us back to SFO. On this return trip, I decided to try a seat on the right hand side of the aircraft, the two-seat side, in the very last row, in front of the lavatory.

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Captain Jason briefed us that it was still a beautiful day for flying. Flying time was expected to be one hour, with a cruising altitude of 22,000 feet.

Minutes later, the PW power plants revved up again for a short taxi to Runway 30R and, in no time, we were once more airborne, bound for SFO. The route was different from that of the outbound flight. We headed west across the Central Valley, over Paso Robles to the coast at Monterey, before approaching San Francisco from Santa Cruz, along with arrivals from the Los Angeles area. The pilots once again gave us a shoutout on the PA; I had a big grin on my face, and the person seated next to me had no idea why.

On approach, we made sweeping wide turns over the Santa Cruz Mountains—not an uncharacteristic maneuver for landings at SFO, due to spacing considerations.

Less than an hour after taking off from BFL, we touched down at SFO’s Runway 28R. Unlike the outbound flight, the distance from Runway 28 to Terminal 3 was short and we quickly taxied to the same gate from where we had departed earlier that morning.

Before bidding my final farewell, I thanked our crew for a memorable flight and had them sign my ticket receipt. Since she had seen us leave earlier that morning, the gate agent inside the terminal thought that the flight had turned back. “No,” we explained, “we were just flying on the Brasilia for fun before its retirement.” The agent laughed and agreed: She was going to miss it as well. Needless to say, it was one of the anecdotes of the day. A great way to say: Later, ‘Bro!