A little-known airline has been producing impressive results for nearly two years. But it has no network, its airplanes have no fancy livery and you can’t buy a ticket on it.

It’s an international airline that carries no passengers or cargo. It flies no scheduled routes, earns no revenue and doesn’t participate in any frequent flyer program. Yet Pioneer Airlines employs over one hundred engineers, pilots, technicians and administrative personnel that support a fleet of Embraer E-Jets E2s from São José dos Campos and Gavião Peixoto, in the state of São Paulo.

Embraer set up Pioneer Airlines to ensure there were no teething problems with its new-generation E-Jets, the first of which was delivered to Widerøe Airlines of Norway last month. Three prototype E2s were dedicated to flying a rigorous airline schedule to identify potential problem areas so they could be corrected early in the development of the new aircraft program.

Marcelo Tocci, of Embraer’s E-Jets E2 Program Management division, says that “we’re looking at the operation of the airplane from an airline’s perspective, as an airline would see the jet, following all the airline’s procedures.”

Gathering Data

Embraer learned a lot from reviewing performance data from some two million flight hours accumulated on a worldwide fleet of 1,300 first-generation E-Jets. That information, and direct customer feedback, helped engineers design a more efficient and cost-effective aircraft – the E2. But the company went one step further by operating a mock airline in its quest to deliver a fully-mature airplane at service entry.

“We studied the product’s history by looking at all the flight hours, identifying what were the problems, and developed specific tests to run on the new aircraft. “Pioneer was conceived to duplicate real customer operations inside Embraer, with a test campaign that follows the same day-to-day rhythm as a functioning airline.”

International Flying

In May 2016, a Pioneer Airlines E190-E2 took off on its first flight from Embraer’s facility at nearby Gavião Peixoto. Fifty days later, the same airplane crossed the Atlantic to make its debut at the Farnborough Air Show. Since then, the Pioneer fleet has visited cities across Brazil and even flown to the USA.

At each stop, the aircraft was subject to normal airline ground handling activities and turnaround procedures. The support team measured servicing time, evaluated systems performance against expected standards, recorded any deficiencies and irregularities and fed all the information back to the engineering group for follow up.

Cold Climate Tests

In a real airline environment, aircraft fly in all types of weather, not just the semi-tropical climate like that of Brazil. Manufacturers routinely conduct a static cold soak test for their new aircraft to determine the effect of extreme temperature on the functionality of systems, aircraft parts and flight controls. The airplane is often flown to an airfield in Alaska or Northern Canada in the middle of winter. Every door is opened and the airplane sits for hours while cold air penetrates every section of the structure.

A Pioneer Airlines E2 spent a week at the world’s largest climate laboratory, a hangar at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Florida. The temperature in the building can be lowered to a frigid -45˚C.  For one week in the hangar, a team of 30 Embraer engineers checked for leaks caused by low temperatures, verified the response of cockpit-commanded actions and examined all the functional parts of the airplane, including the wastewater system.

Real Winter Operations

Embraer then took the tests to the next level.  “We went far beyond just the basic requirement to certify the airplane,” explains Cecilia Dias Lima, who works in the Flight Operations Support group. “It’s our company’s quality policy to test the airplane in more limiting conditions, precisely so that we’re able to deliver a product of the highest quality to our customers.”

The winter operations test campaign included airline-environment flying. The E2 accumulated more than 100 hours flying to 17 cities across the USA in the harshest weeks of winter. It flew to three or four destinations every day and was de-iced regularly to study the effect of fluid on the wing surfaces and fuselage.

Going Beyond

The creation of Pioneer Airlines is a first for Embraer. It’s an initiative that has produced data from some 600 tests beyond those required for certification. The information gathered over the last two years was used to perfect E2 systems, components and procedures so that the manufacturer could deliver on its promise of a mature airplane, ready for airline service from day one.

While Pioneer aircraft may not have been very visible at many airports, its performance helped the E190-E2 receive simultaneous certification from the USA, European and Brazilian regulatory authorities.

Watch the five-part series about Pioneer Airlines at YouTube.com/Embraer.