While Boeing and Northrop Grumman are building all-new aircraft, both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are offering proven platforms for the US Air Force’s T-X competition. Lockheed Martin’s T-50A arguably leads the field in the competition, but does it represent the ultimate solution for the future of USAF pilot training?
The Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50A looks to have it all. F-16-like performance, a proven track record in service, a comprehensive program of completed flight test — it should be the one to beat in the race to provide 350 new fast-jet training aircraft for the US Air Force.
Speaking to Combat Aircraft, T-50A chief test pilot Mark ‘Red’ Ward says: ‘You have a proven aircraft that’s available today. If the USAF gave us the go-ahead, we could move IOC [initial operating capability] for the T-X to the left’. Former USAF F-16 test pilot Ward asserts that the T-50A offers ‘the lowest-risk airframe’. He adds: ‘We know the performance and what it can do.’
That assertion comes from the fact that the T-50A builds on the joint Lockheed Martin/KAI T-50 Golden Eagle.
The T-50A that is being pitched for T-X is based on the FA-50 light fighter. Indeed, Lockheed Martin’s two flying test aircraft, TX-1 and TX-2, are both modified FA-50s. The aircraft entered flight test on June 2 and July 26, respectively, in Sacheon, South Korea. Both feature new large-area display (LAD) main instrument panels, which are the same size as that of the F-35 (20 x 8in), a new head-up display (HUD), and new cockpit arrangement. The cockpit also has to meet the USAF’s wide-ranging anthropometric requirements, which was a concern for the ‘tight’ T-50 cockpit. Lockheed Martin says some changes are needed to allow a little more room in the cockpit and the company will also offer the option to move the rudder pedals out further for the more ‘leggy’ students.
Perhaps surprisingly, unlike the Leonardo-Finmeccanica T-346 in Italian service or even the BAE Systems Hawk T2 of the UK Royal Air Force, the RoKAF’s T-50 aircraft do not currently possess embedded virtual training systems (VTS), and so the T-50A has heralded the first use of such technology in the Lockheed Martin/KAI aircraft.
The T-50A is the first variant of the aircraft to feature embedded synthetic training. It features a new, specific, T-X software load, to account for the LAD and the embedded training, the latter of which is another threshold requirement for the USAF.
‘We can datalink the T-50As together. We will be able to link more, but we have just two aircraft at the moment. In that datalink we can run scenarios with airborne or ground-based targets and we can design those scenarios in any way we want. We can pick an airborne threat, then decide what type of weapons, maneuvers and signature the threat offers. [The student pilots] can do it as single-ship or multi-ship based on the scenario that’s programmed. When we play it, the student pilots can prosecute attacks or react in real time using the aircraft’s virtual sensors. We have a virtual radar, virtual targeting pod, virtual electronic warfare system and our display has an interface that means the student can see what they would see in either a fourth- or fifth-generation fighter.’
When it comes to the pure airborne performance of the T-50A, Ward comments: ‘That’s where we have really clobbered the competition. We have an airplane that was designed using F-16 technology. We basically have an F-16 wing; the design is downsized a little bit and it’s lighter, but essentially you have an airplane that turns even better. The GE F404 motor gives us 17,700lb of thrust and with an empty weight under 15,000lb it has very similar performance. Not the same, but similar, to an F-16. Handing wise, it’s got a Block 60-style digital flight control computer that’s been tuned to make it a very smooth but responsive airplane. We easily meet the threshold 6.5g-turn requirements. The objective is 7.5g and we’ve already proved we can meet that — it’s really not an issue for us. Supersonic we can fly at 625kt, Mach 1.2.
The full version of this feature will appear in the December issue of Combat Aircraft.