USAF seeks tenders to build composite cargo X-plane

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Demonstrator will prove materials and processes for a future STOL transport aircraft

Bids to build a composite-airframe cargo X-plane were submitted to the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) last week, with the demonstrator aircraft planned to fly within 17 months of contract award. The $51 million Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft flight demonstrator will prove materials and processes for production of affordable, lightweight structures for a future short take-off and landing (STOL) transport.

The demonstrator will support the Advanced Joint Air Combat System (AJACS) now in requirements definition within the USAF's Air Mobility Command. Formerly called AMC-X, AJACS is envisaged as a future replacement for the Lockheed Martin C-130 tactical transport. Other AFRL efforts are looking at embedded aero-propulsion concepts for extreme STOL capability.

Companies that registered interest in bidding for the demonstrator contract include Alenia North America, Lockheed, Piasecki Aircraft and Voyager Aerospace. The latter was formed by Dick Rutan, who says he has been working with brother Burt on a twin-engined light cargo aircraft "for 15-plus years", but could not provide details of the design or its status.

Calling for proposals, the AFRL outlined a notional advanced STOL light transport capable of 400kt (740km/h), pressurised and carrying three cargo pallets, 20 troops or a light-wheeled vehicle. While not representative of the AJACS, the notional flight profile and cargo volume "require the demonstrator to be built like a transport", says programme manager Barth Shenck.

"We want to demonstrate production-ready materials and manufacturing methods that attack the cost and weight issues," says Shenck. He describes the X-plane as a "capstone" programme that builds on component demonstrations under the AFRL's composites affordability initiative by integrating the technologies and testing them in a relevant environment.