When it comes to Textron AirLand’s Scorpion, “seeing really is believing”, and more and more people are getting that opportunity, as the company scours the globe in search of a launch customer for the subsonic, multirole jet.
The current, lone prototype went from initial design to first flight in two years, all at the company’s expense. A second, improved model is in production, which the company tells Flight International should be airborne by the second quarter of 2016.
The prototype was first flown in December 2013, and seven months later, it appeared at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough air show in the UK. Now, less than 12 months later, Scorpion is making its debut at the Paris air show.
It will travel through Europe immediately afterwards, visiting the UK and several undisclosed NATO nations that have particular interest in the design, either as a maritime patrol asset or advanced jet trainer.
The low-cost jet tends to make headlines wherever it goes, and has received praise from US Air Force officials, including Secretary Deborah Lee James – who saw the Scorpion at an air show and was briefed on its capabilities.
“I give Textron a lot of credit,” James said at event in Washington DC last December. “They saw a need on the world market, and they made the investment. Who knows, for us in the future I’m thinking about our T-X [trainer] requirement.”
But unfortunately, praise doesn’t pay bills, and how long the joint venture with AirLand Enterprises can continue without a launch customer is the multi-million-dollar question.
Textron chief executive Scott Donnelly, whose staunch support has kept the Scorpion programme funded, says that many potential customers are keenly interested in it. In fact, Paris would be the perfect place to sign a deal.
USAF student test pilots recently trialled the Scorpion and Textron partner company Beechcraft’s AT-6 light-attack turboprop from Wichita, Kansas, conducting 12 flights with the former and seven with the latter during a week-long visit. Textron says the Scorpion completed three flights per day and successfully completed all of its missions. The aircraft was returned to the air after a sortie within an average of 31min, with a best turn time of 20min, the company says.
In April, it was self-deployed to South America, to visit at least one local air force. Its more than 6,600nm (12,200km), 10-day trip included 17 sorties and 28h of flight time. It conducted six demonstration flights along the way and then participated in static displays at the US military's Southern Command and Central Command headquarters, both in Florida, before returning home on 5 May.
The Scorpion will be ferried across the North Atlantic to Paris in the first week of June.
Dale Tutt, Scorpion programme manager and chief engineer, says displaying the aircraft at such events makes the twin-engined "hunter-killer" more “tangible and real” to potential customers. “Seeing really is believing,” he notes. “The airplane is a lot bigger than they expect. A lot of folks think about the T-37 and the other aircraft Cessna’s built in the past. This is a much larger, tactical aircraft and it’s more [Lockheed Martin] F-16ish in size than some of the smaller trainers.”
The prototype was manufactured at Textron’s Cessna plant in Wichita, where the second aircraft is now moving down the assembly line. The company is discussing building a third, but that could depend on signing a launch customer.
Tutt says governments in South America particularly want an affordable aircraft that can provide armed, persistent surveillance in a counter-insurgency role, whereas European governments tend to need a maritime patrol aircraft or advanced trainer.
Scorpion can carry many different payloads, and its flight-critical systems are segregated so that integrating new sensors takes months, not years.
Based on feedback, the company has reconfigured the production design to include a deeper internal payload bay to accommodate larger sensors. Some possible buyers have suggested a signals intelligence payload, and in Europe there is interest in integrating missile and radar warning receivers, says Tutt.
“There are some internal changes that make it a little easier to build, and easier to maintain,” he says. “We are planning to switch from a fixed, horizontal tail to a trimmable horizontal tail that will give us the full speed envelope that we’re seeking. We’ve always expected we’d need to do that, but we wanted to get the airplane out in front of people and get that customer feedback. The airplane has flown fairly close to what we want it to be from the windtunnel testing.”
Whether the first batch of Scorpions emerge in a tactical surveillance-and-strike configuration or as advanced jet trainers depends on which customer “pulls the trigger first”, Tutt explains.
“We have several active pursuits that I think we will see movement on hopefully sooner rather than later,” he says. “We don’t really have to do very much tailoring of the aircraft to make it satisfy either role.”
The USAF wants a next-generation trainer, or T-X, to replace its Northrop T-38 Talons, but as a request for proposals for that requirement is still a year away, a foreign buyer will likely come first. Some reports have suggested Nigeria or the United Arab Emirates as potential customers.
Scorpion can carry up to 2,810kg (6,200lb) of ordnance and has a 1,360lb-capacity internal payload bay for surveillance and targeting equipment. It has a top cruise speed of 450kt (833km/h) and a ferry range of 2,400nm. Its operational cost per flight hour has been validated at $3,000, including spare parts, or $1,000 per hour when only accounting for fuel and maintenance.