There was no turning back from my maiden trainer voyage aboard a Lockheed Martin T-50A once the glass canopy closed down above my head.
As we slowly taxied down the runway, I mentally prepared myself for the moment I would flatten into my seat upon takeoff. But the afterburner helped lift the T-50 off at 124 knots in 1200 feet for such a smooth departure that I would be disappointed with my commercial flight back home later that evening.
With TX-1 by my side, I cruised in TX-2 over the Smokey Mountains and shimmering lakes outside of Greenville, South Carolina. On my display, MiG-23s and 29s popped up against the mountains and when we dropped a laser guided bomb over a bridge, I half expected to see it explode on the ground. While my pilot, Elliott “Hemo” Clemence, assured me we could continue our laid-back flight, I pulled at least 4.5Gs before I saw a gray frame close in around the blue landscape below me.
Lockheed was willing to accept a novice pilot like myself, along with half a dozen other reporters this week, to fly their T-50 trainer. Although respect for journalists has hit a new low in the US, America remains a litigious country where aircraft manufacturers are not yet in the habit of sending reporters on experimental flights.
Instead, Lockheed spearheaded the T-50 media flights to prove their aircraft is ready enough that it can be flown today. That’s a direct hit to their T-X trainer competitor, Boeing, which rolled out a clean-sheet design aircraft with Saab last September.
When Boeing revealed their new trainer, there were still four competitors for the US Air Force’s trainer recapitalisation contract. But in January, both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman bit the dust, leaving Boeing, Lockheed and Leonardo as only three announced competitors. Analysts have posited that Northrop, which already sunk investment in the B-21 bomber programme, bowed out once the company saw the competition was turning into a price shoot-out. If that’s the case, an off-the-shelf trainer with few modifications needed like the T-50 could go from a practical solution to a serious contender.
Even before contract award, Lockheed has done much of its legwork over in Korea with its partner, Korean Aerospace Industries. Pilots completed some testing on the proven T-50 but cleared an addition to the T-X1, the Dorsal Air Refueling Tank (DART), in Korea. The DART adds about 350 lbs to the aircraft and close to no drag. The company claims that with the testing it has completed, it could push the replacement programme’s timeline to the left.
All that remains to test the DART is a tanker clearance, which Lockheed had planned to do before contract award but decided was cost prohibitive without a contract in hand, says says T-50 pilot Mark “Red” Ward. In its request for proposal, the USAF offered incentives to contractors who could bring objective capabilities, such as aerial refueling.
“We did all of the refueling testing up to that point, even so much as having the air force fully get their plan for how they would certify us on the tanker, that’s all been done,” Ward says. “So that is sitting on the shelf and as soon as we get contract award, all we have to do is pick up the phone and call the USAF tanker command and we’re ready to do that testing.”
Sitting in the T-50A today, the aircraft will have a similar look and feel as the USAF’s trainer, though a few improvements will make the ride more comfortable. The T-50 still has older leg restraints which buckle around your shins, but the air force has stipulated the trainer includes built-in leg restraints like those designed on the F-35. Lockheed will also change the cumbersome pinch fittings that connect over your shoulder, another holdover from the F-16.
The proposal aircraft will also include a different ejection seat, which will simplify some of the straps and lap belt, says Ward. The ejection seat is part of the trainer contract, but Lockheed has competed the seat the drive down costs, he says. Lockheed uses a Martin-Baker ejection seat for the F-35, but the company doesn’t know which manufacturer they’ll use for the trainer, he adds.
The T-50 inherited its basic shape, flight controls and wing from the F-16, but Lockheed and KAI downsized the frame to create a lighter aircraft with the same technology. Its flight controls are similar, though not identical, to the Falcon, with smoother G-onset and roll that shaped the rough fighter into a comfortable trainer.
Though T-50 owes much of its lineage to Lockheed’s F-16, the trainer doesn’t come with the Falcon’s infamous bouncy landing. T-50 uses almost identical flight control laws as the legacy F-16, but because it combines a lighter aircraft with larger wings, it takes less runway to land. A hard landing would spell trouble for inexperienced pilots, so Lockheed has used a different manufacturer for the T-50’s landing gear, Ward says.
“The airplane lands really smoothly and it also gives us the opportunity if a student lands really hard, then that gear can take it,” he says. “We can go all the way up to 13 feet per second, which is carrier landings speeds, which we would never intentionally do, but it’s nice to know that the gear can handle that.”
The T-50’s easy landing leaves plenty of room for novices to make mistakes on the ground. It also gave a smooth performance in the air, with a responsive stick that allowed me to bank with just a slight turn of the wrist that makes a barrel roll feel like a pleasant somersault. That handling mimics the F-35, which has similar roll rates, Ward says.
When Clemence realized during my flight that I probably couldn’t stand 5 Gs, we opted for alternate maneuvers. Flying at about 100 to 120 knots, he approached 25 degrees angle of attack. Clemence, a former US Navy pilot, says other aircraft he’s flown such as the F/A-18 gently fall at maximum AOA because the thrust weight is not high enough. In a F-16 or a F/A-18, the flight controls would clamp down on the roll rate at maximum AOA in order to control side slip, he says.
“With the thrust in this airplane, you can go to maximum AOA, slowest speed it can fly and you can actually climb away,” he says. “You can fly as slow as the flight controls will let you but you have enough thrust that you can actually have a rate of ascent, you can climb away, which not many aircraft I’ve flown can do that.”