From history: Fairchild Dornier 728 – the plane that never took off

An aircraft that few people know about, which is not surprising considering that it was intended to be produced by an almost unknown manufacturer today, in addition to the fact that the same aircraft never took off, not even on its first test flight.

But what exactly is a Fairchild Dornier and why are we talking about their Project 728? The answer is very simple. If the project had succeeded, the Fairchild Dornier 728 would probably have been the flagship of the “short to medium haul” fleet of almost every airline today, precisely because it was, in a way, an aircraft ahead of its time.

The German company Dornier is best known for its two products, the Do228 and Do328 turboprop aircraft. Although they did not experience the popularity enjoyed today by the ATR or the Dash family of aircraft, they flew and still fly mainly in European skies. The Dornier 228 is a small-capacity aircraft, with up to 19 passenger seats, and is more often used in the cargo version. The Do328 is a better-known turboprop aircraft in a configuration of 30-40 passenger seats. In the 90s, when the Do328 was introduced, it was a revolution in the regional aircraft market. At that time, it competed with the SAAB 340 and DeHavilland DHC8-300 aircraft, and compared to them, it brought a fully digitized glass cockpit, a pressurized cabin that enabled flights at higher altitudes, more space for passengers, and simpler maintenance and crew training. This was also recognized by the biggest players in regional air traffic, such as the American Horizont, which ordered an incredible 60 copies of that aircraft at the time. In Europe, it was mostly operated by Sun Air, which was in the colors of British Airways, FlyBe, and SkyWork Airlines. However, despite a relatively good response from airlines and a moderately good number of orders, Dornier found itself in financial trouble. Then the American Fairchild, known back then for the production of Warthog fighter planes, jumps into the story. To save Dornier from almost certain financial collapse, they founded the Fairchild Dornier Consortium (FAD). Shortly after, FAD announces a new aircraft model – the 328JET, that is, an aircraft on the 328 platform with only jet engines. Compared to the classic 328, the JET version offered higher speeds and altitudes, quieter operation, and a longer range. After the instant success of the 328JET, FAD decided to develop a completely new model of a regional jet, and thus the 728 project was born.

The 728 was intended to be a family of jet regional aircraft, with configurations ranging from 50 to 120 passengers, and was intended to be a direct competitor to Embraer’s E-Jet family of aircraft and Canada’s CRJ regional jets, while offering better performance, greater passenger comfort, and allegedly lower aircraft utilization costs.

A total of 6 types of aircraft were planned to be developed:

528 – with a capacity of 55-65 passengers

728 – with a capacity of 70-85 passengers

928 – with a capacity of 95-110 passengers

1128 – with a capacity of 110-120 passengers

Envoy 7 – a concept aircraft in a VIP business configuration with improvements on the wings (winglets) and additional fuel tanks that would enable a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Additional Envoy 5 and Envoy 9 options were also planned.

Airborne Early Warning – A version of the aircraft for military purposes, equipped with radars and IR cameras, with the possible option of an “Air Tanker”

All aircraft would be based on the same platform and the same cockpits, with the aim of the commonality principle in crew training.

Compared to its main competitors, the E-Jet and CRJ, the 728 family of aircraft offered a more spacious cabin with a 3+2 configuration, such as we recognize today in, for example, the A220 family of aircraft. The project resonated well with engine manufacturers, so General Electric soon supported the 728 projects with a contract with FAD on engine deliveries.

All of the above delighted the operators, so even before the first flight, the 728 collected 125 orders and 164 order options, with Lufthansa CityLine as the launch customer with an order of 60 aircraft with an additional 60 order options. It was Lufthansa that took part in the development of the aircraft and insisted on a configuration of 3+2 seats in the passenger cabin and encouraged FAD to reduce the volume of the cabin so that it would not be possible to add a row of seats (3+3). If not, this would allow the low-cost carriers with the same planes to carry significantly more passengers and thus represent Lufthansa’s competition.

Lufthansa was soon joined by the leasing company GECAS, which ordered 60 aircraft, with the Czech ČSA ordering an unknown number of aircraft. A total of 8 customers participated in creating the first orders for the 728.

But, as it usually happens, everything that is beautiful is short-lived. Despite a large number of orders and the initial success of the program, Fairchild Dornier filed for bankruptcy shortly after the rollout of the 728 on March 21, 2001. At the same time, Lufthansa cancels orders, followed by GECAS. As the last straw, FAD presents the aircraft to low-cost airlines, but they are not interested in the aircraft because it cannot offer the so-called high-density seat configuration. Thus, the order book soon swelled to a negligible 30 or so orders, which drove the Fairchild Dornier company into bankruptcy.

Interestingly, the 728 never flew, and a total of 3 prototypes were made, of which only one was “flight ready”. After the bankruptcy of FAD, a new company was founded to take over the 728 aircraft program – Fairchild Dornier Aeroindustries, but this did not encourage big players like Lufthansa to win their approval again, and the company could not continue its business without orders.

But why did the plane that was supposed to conquer the European skies fail ingloriously? There are two main factors, one of which is the poor financial performance of the company.

Another reason is that FAD was competing in a saturated regional aircraft market where there were enough products, both jet and turboprop, to meet all the requirements of regional air traffic.

Along with the aforementioned E-Jet aircraft that were more advanced in development compared to the 728, the CRJ had been flying for years and airlines relied on a proven product. In addition, the BAe 146/Avro RJ aircraft were already established and held their position despite ceasing production in 2001. Furthermore, in 2001, Bombardier presented the turboprop version of the Dash 8 Q400 in addition to the CRJ aircraft family, and the SAAB 340/2000 was also present at the airlines. ATR was already conquering the market with its ATR72 and ATR 42 turboprop aircraft that competed with the 728 and 528 versions. In 2001, Airbus introduced the A318 – a model that directly competed with the 928 and 1128 versions, and airlines also had the choice of the Boeing 717 with the same capacity, which was put into use back in 1999, and offered a direct replacement for the fleet of DC-9 and MD80 aircraft that were largely present with mostly American airlines. After all, the production of the Fokker 70/100 aircraft ended only in 1997, and some carriers (Austrian, for example) renewed their fleet with Fokker aircraft only 3-4 years before the introduction of the 728 aircraft.

In short, the Fairchild Dornier jumped into the shark pool. Airlines like Lufthansa had enough choices with other aircraft manufacturers not to take any chances but to pull out at the first sign of FAD’s poor financial performance, which might have been saved by orders that were eventually canceled. If, for example, Lufthansa had no choice, and if FAD 728 was their only option, things would have played out differently, and probably in favor of FAD.

As an epilogue to this story, Fairchild Dornier Aeroindustries eventually failed, and the German government did not make an effort to save the company because FAD did not have a competitive product and because Germany actively participated in the development of Airbus aircraft. The Do 328 and Do328JET aircraft brand was taken over by the new company Deutsche Aircraft, which today operates in the area of ​​support for the existing operators of the 328 and 328JET aircraft. In addition, Deutsche Aircraft is working on the development of a redesign of the 328 aircraft as the 328eco, which should fly on sustainable fuels, with a significant redesign of the cockpit and performance, which, among other things, would enable landing on non-asphalt surfaces.

Photo: Phillip Boec; TAC02 on it’s auction day

Today, all 3 prototypes of the 728 aircraft are preserved, with serial numbers TAC (Test Aircraft) 01-03.

TAC 01 is located at the German Aviation Center, but without wings, since the disassembly and subsequent assembly of the wings for transport were too expensive, so it was decided to irreversibly cut the wings from the rest of the aircraft. TAC01 was sold for €19,000. The aircraft was used for experimental structural testing, after which all use was discontinued.

TAC02 is housed in the German Technical Museum in Berlin where it is conserved and preserved and available for viewing, while TAC03 is located in the Technical Museum in Speyer.