Imagine building a plane from scratch, only to be betrayed by your airline customer, go bankrupt and destroy the prototype weeks before your first flight … this is the biggest what-if in regional aviation, the story of the Fairchild Dornier 728.
You see, the regional jet market is a vicious place, and back in early 2000s, many firms were competing to be the equivalent of the 737 of the sub 100-seater market. In one corner was Canadian Bombardier, with their CRJ program, and in the south, Brazilian Embraer with its ERJ and E-Jet series.
But there was one underdog firm smack bang in the middle that wanted to rise up and take it all – Fairchild Dornier, with a completely new family of aircraft – the 728 series. This plane would have filled the entire 50 to 130 range market, beaten the Airbus A220-100 to the market, and taken the rival Embraer head on.
Today, we will see what the 728 was like, which airline betrayed the builders and ultimately, why was it never built. Let’s explore.
Turboprop Dornier 328
The story of the Fairchild Dornier 728 doesn’t start with Fairchild at all. In fact, it starts with another plane entirely, the Turboprop Dornier 328. This regional jet had twin propellers and was considered not a bad aircraft, but just not very exciting. It was originally created as modern answer to the 30-seater market in Europe, and was considered the most advantage turboprop of the early 90s. Thanks to its high altitude and cruise speed, it was just as efficient as jet-engines and burned significantly less fuel.
It was perfectly suited for point-to-point regional travel, and marketed across Europe and to Western USA. In 1991, it secured a huge order with Horizon Air for 35 aircraft, the biggest that year for any Turboprop of that caliber.
So why did I say it wasn’t exciting? Well in the early 90s, the latest hot thing was a regional jet, not a regional turbo prop. That, plus a crowded turboprop market, with many more seats, pushed the company to lose a ton of money. How much? The German Dornier lost $337 million (DM499 million) in 1995 alone.
So, what was the solution? How could they make their superior turboprop sexy? By slapping some turbojet engines on it! This new version, called the imaginative title of 328JET, would be faster than any other regional jet, and outperform even the turboprop. Also, because Dornier had completely overengineered the original plane, very little design work had to be performed to the original turboprop model – they were even able to put engines on it and begin selling it right away.
At the same time enters our hero of the Story, Fairchild Aircraft. This American firm had created the A-10 Warthog that had huge success in the gulf war with its signature sound.
The firm acquired the lagging Dornier and its 328JET program with some ambitious programs indeed. After all, why focus on just the 30-seater market when what airlines really wanted was a 100-seater profit machine.
This is what they came up with.
The 728 series
The 728 series would take what worked with the 328JET program and improve on it dramatically. The new family of regional jets, the 528JET, 728JET and 928JET, seating from 55 to 100 passengers, was launched at the ILA Berlin Aerospace Show (International Aviation and Space Flight Exhibition) in Berlin on 19 May 1998.
The 728 model would be first. Officially, the 728-100 was to have a passenger capacity of 70 to 85 seats. The 728 had the largest cabin in its class, being 0.51 m wider than the Embraer 170/190, and 0.70 m wider than the CRJ-700 with five-abreast seating.
Interestingly, this five-seating arrangement was at the request of Lufthansa who didn’t want a low-cost carrier to come in with the same plane, slap in 6 seats, and beat them in their own market; which you will see later, was one of the choices that contributed to the downfall of the type.
There would be a follow-up -200 version that would have an increased MTOW of 3,000 kg (6615 lbs.) different engines, and a 750 km (400 NM) increase in range up to 3,300 km (1,781 nm)
But why stop there? Why not stretch the 728 further into the 928?
The 928 had a stretched fuselage that would have enabled the aircraft to achieve a passenger capacity of 95 to 110 seats. The 928 featured an increased wing span and more powerful engines. A 928-100 version, as well as a 928-200 version that had an increased maximum takeoff weight (MTOW), was planned, with a range of 3,565 km 1,925 nautical miles.
Lastly, the team also proposed a shrink of the 728 into the 528, to bridge the gap between the currently-under-development-328. The 528 was to have a shortened 23.38 m (76 feet 9 inches) fuselage length with a passenger capacity of 55 to 65 seats to a range of 2,963 km (1,600 nautical miles).
But that’s not all
There were also tentative plans, after they had dominated this sub-100 market, to move up to a 2nd stretch called the 1128, seating up to 120 passengers and biting at the lower end of the Boeing 737 market. There was also a business jet version called the Envoy 7, that could fly from Europe to the USA without refueling! Lastly, Fairchild Dornier shopped the aircraft around the military as an early-warning aircraft and airtanker for mid-air refueling.
It was a big success, and by June 2001, it was reported that leasing firm GECAS placed a firm order for 50 aircraft, as well as additional options up to 100 aircraft. By early 2002, a total of eight customers, among them Lufthansa CityLine, GECAS, Bavaria Leasing, CSA-Czech Airlines, Atlantic Coast Airlines, and SolAir, had reportedly placed a cumulative 125 firm orders for the type, as well as signed options for an additional 164 aircraft. Almost the 200 needed to make a profit!
So … what the hell happened to this impressive lineup and all these orders?
Flash forward to March 2002, and only two days before the 728 would taxi around the airport for the first time under its own power, the firm revealed that the program would have a pause for two months as it found additional funds. However, that extra money would never come and by April the same year the aerospace builder had to file for bankruptcy.
Instead of their miracle plane taking to the skies, the company would be flying into the ground.
In a huge blow to finding additional capital, both Lufthansa and the air leasing firm, GECAS pulled out, making the program far from profitable. Low-cost carriers who had been interested at the time pulled out, as the cabin was not reconfigurable for high-density seating – thanks Lufthansa. The engineers tried unsuccessfully to sell the program onwards and by 2004, had to give up everything entirely, including the three-prototype aircraft that had never flown – but for all intents and purposes, were ready to take off.
In the end, the three prototypes were scrapped, or used for other engineering purposes – not for their maiden mission of flying passengers but rather serving as a warning to anyone else willing to try and enter the regional market.
As for the 328 version?
The program would be picked up by multiple firms over the years, ending up in the hands of the Turkish government, who eventually abandoned the project in 2017 – the final end of the once ambitious dream to become the next Boeing or Airbus.
If these planes had been flown and successful in the market, you could have imagined that this firm would have gone on to dominate in the regional space, pushing out the A220 and perhaps even biting at Airbus and Boeing. Due to its close relationship with DASA, one of the firms that worked with Airbus, it’s possible it would have eventually been bought by the firm and become part of the greater international network. Or, in my mind, they struck on their own and created their own small jet taking on the world.
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