Last Friday, Northrop Grumman’s T-X ‘clean sheet’ design broke cover at the Scaled Composites test site at Mojave, California. Either a prototype or technology demonstrator, photos were taken ‘inside the wire’, and allowed a clear perspective of the Model 400, N400NT as it is registered. On initial inspection, the new aircraft has clear lineage in the Northrop Grumman-designed T-38, which it is designed to replace, and the F-20 Tigershark.
The Model 400 appears to be slightly shorter in overall length to the T-38, at approx’ 44ft. It has a recess for forward-retracting nosegear and the main gear wheelwells appear to be in the fuselage, inboard of the wingroots. The canopy has miniature detonating cord (MDC) and appears to be sideways-hinged. There is no evidence of a receptacle for in-flight refuelling training, one of the requirements for T-X (either dry or plumbed).
The design configuration suggests an aircraft capable of flying at high Angles of Attack (AoA) and high-speed — suggesting that Northrop Grumman is looking to hit all the parameters when it comes to T-X performance requirements. Being manufactured by Scaled Composites also suggests the aircraft will be based on modern manufacturing techniques.
The problem comes when comparing the Model 400 to the Lockheed Martin T-50A or the Raytheon T-100 T-X candidates — begging the question: is this ‘clean sheet’ aircraft credible? Would it be credible regardless of its looks? Will either of the ‘clean sheet’ designs be credible? Boeing will roll out its T-X contender on September 13 and is thought to be at least 12-months ahead of Northrop Grumman on its work timeline for a ‘clean sheet’ T-X aircraft.
Both the T-50 and the T-100 (M-346) are proven in service, with synthetic training systems, pilots having earned their wings on them, hours of flight time and not to mention a complete program of flight testing and certification. Does the Northrop Grumman offering promise sufficiently lower acquisition and support costs? Does it offer premium performance to render it sufficiently more appealing than the proven opposition? How mature is the embedded BAE Systems training system likely to be and how far down the road is Northrop Grumman with integrating this?
The problem will come in answering these questions. A lot is known about the Raytheon and Lockheed offerings — Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites will have swathes of data when it comes to computer modelling, but limited current information regarding what it’s going to be like to own and operate a Model 400.
Can the cost and promise of a well-honed ‘clean sheet’ design outweigh the reality and risk-reduction offered by an off-the-shelf solution?