Airframer Boeing says it is ready to deliver the first example of its next-generation jet trainer – the T-7A Red Hawk – to the US Air Force (USAF).

Speaking at the 2023 Air and Space Forces Association (AFA) conference near Washington, DC on 12 September, Boeing’s T-7 programme manager said the turnover could be accomplished by the end of the same day.

T-7A taxi trial

Source: Boeing

Boeing completed the first EMD-phase test flight of the T-7A in June

“We are targeting today to deliver,” says Evelyn Moore. “We are loading the paperwork into their delivery system for acceptance.”

The first jet, designated APT-2, is a “production representative” airframe that will be used by the USAF for the T-7 flight test programme. Boeing plans to deliver four more test-model T-7s by end-of-year, with jets APT-1 and APT-3 to be turned over to the USAF in October.

“It’s like being handed the keys to a new car,” says Colonel Kirt Cassell, the USAF’s T-7 programme manager.

A USAF test pilot took off in APT-2 in June for the first official test flight of the T-7 prorgamme’s engineering and manufacturing development phase. However, Moore says Boeing has been flying two of the production representative jets for some time.

”They’ve actually been flying for several years,” she notes. “We’ve completed our 500th test flight.”

Once the USAF officially signs the paperwork to take possesion of the trainer, air force test pilots will converge upon Boeing’s production and test centre in St Louis, Missouri in “a matter of days” to begin training with Boeing test pilots, Cassell says.

Uniformed officers could be flying the two-seat jet trainer within a week of arriving in St Louis. Tail numbers APT-1 and APT-3 will be ready to fly test missions within a month, Boeing says, while APT-4 and APT-5 are in the last stages of manufacturing and delivery.

The T-7 flight test programme will cover approximately 12 months, according to Boeing and the USAF, with ground and aerial events at Edwards AFB in California, Eglin AFB in Florida and the facility in St Louis. Boeing will oversee maintenance of the five jets during flight testing.

The delivery of the first T-7 is a significant milestone for the programme, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. Boeing has absorbed billions of dollars in penalty charges related to engineering and schedule problems.

However, Moore says the company is poised to turn the corner and begin rapidly advancing T-7 production.

Assuming flight testing proceeds smoothly, Boeing plans to begin assembling production-model T-7 airframes in the second quarter of 2024. The St Louis plant will boast annual production capacity of 60 Red Hawks, Moore notes.

T-7A Red Hawk

Source: Boeing

Boeing hopes to begin assembling production-model T-7A jet trainers in St Louis, Missouri in the second quarter of 2024

Aft fuselages for the jet are produced by Saab in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Boeing is currently targeting the early months of 2025 for so-called “Milestone C”, the point in a military procurement programme in which the equipment manufacturer is approved for low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the new system.

Moore says Boeing plans to have completed aircraft ready for delivery when the USAF approves LRIP on the T-7 design and production process.

That will eventually transition into full-rate production, which Moore describes as “completely different” from the assembly process of Boeing’s legacy F-15 and F-18 fighter types.

The all-digital engineering and fabrication techniques employed on the T-7 are intended to create such a high level of precision that the main sections of the aircraft can snap together like Lego toys.

Moore notes that final assembly on the F-18 requires 24 hours, or three work shifts, to splice the forward and aft sections of the jet together.

“With T-7, they were able to splice the aircraft in 30 minutes,” she says, describing that figure as “unheard of” in the aerospace industry.

The USAF plans to acquire up to 350 T-7s to replace the service’s aged fleet of Northrop T-38 Talon trainers, which are now plagued by maintenance issues after some 60 years in service.

Challenges in keeping the Talon airborne, and correspondingly limited flight hours, have become a constraining factor of the USAF’s ability to train new pilots, according to the service.

The programme has similarly been a financial weight on Boeing, as the company absorbed the repeated penalty charges.

But with a production decision now in sight, the T-7 is now poised to become one of Boeing’s marquee product lines – representing the first type in a new wave of clean sheet fighter aircraft designs the company has under development.

The T-7 will be joined in the coming years by two autonomous Boeing jets – the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-capable refueller and the MQ-28 Ghost Bat fighter, which the company is developing in partnership with the Australian government.

Boeing and the USAF are targeting 2026 to reach initial operational capability on the planned T-7A fleet.