Yesterday's Farnborough air show saw a long-awaited and welcome boost for the UK Royal Air Force, with the confirmation of a production order for 12 of BAE Systems' new generation Nimrod MRA4 maritime reconnaisance and attack aircraft. Announced by UK secretary of state for defence Des Browne and BAE chief executive Mike Turner, the milestone ceremony was followed by the first public appearance of an MRA4, with prototype aircraft PA03 taking time out of its busy test programme to conduct two fly-bys. The contract's confirmation had been expected this week, as reported in the latest issue of Flight International.
I've been lucky enough to see the MRA4 up close at BAE's Warton site in Lancashire twice over the last year or so, but this was my first opportunity to see the RAF's future version of the Mighty Hunter airborne. Already easily distinguished from the service's current Nimrod MR2 by its increased size and by the range of exotic lumps and bumps which are set about its fuselage, the MRA4 is also markedly different from its predecessor by its engine characteristics. The most striking thing about the new aircraft is that it sounds like a large business jet on the wing, and gone too are the plumes of black smoke that betray the presence of the MR2's Rolls-Royce Speys.
My last visit to Warton on 4 July threw up a unique opportunity to get inside the belly of the RAF's largest intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance beast of the future, and to talk to the joint BAE and RAF flight test team which is assessing the type's capabilities. The aircraft features a new glass cockpit, with "the office" now to accomodate a flight crew of just two pilots.
Down the back, the MRA4's seven onboard operator stations bring a sophisticated look and deliver improved ergonomics for the weapon system's tactical operators.
But the tiny size of the platform's galley is a cause of concern to the test team, which could one day be called upon to demonstrate the aircraft's maximum 14h endurance. As one RAF officer notes with alarm: "How are you supposed to prepare a decent curry using this?" Unless this is sorted by 2009, the Nimrod community's reputation as a "formation eating club" could be in danger!
BAE will freeze the external design of the MRA4 late this year, and the programme's three prototypes - which will later be modified to the final production configuration - will complete flight test activities during 2008. The RAF will have to wait until 2010 to form its first squadron of new Nimrods at its Kinloss base in Scotland's Morayshire, but you know what they say about good things...