Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites has spoken out about its Model 400 jet that was tested for the ill-fated Northrop Grumman bid for the US Air Force’s T-X trainer program.
Having built and test-flown its Model 400 ‘clean-sheet’ T-X aircraft, Northrop Grumman looked like a certain bidder for the competition… until February this year, when it dramatically dropped out of the running.
One clandestine sighting of the Model 400 was as close as Northrop Grumman got to being in the T-X competition. The corporation had said nothing about its ‘clean-sheet’ aircraft until January 26, 2017, when, asked if Northrop Grumman would bid on T-X, CEO Wes Bush said that no decision had been made either way, despite the substantial investment in a flying prototype. ‘We don’t want to walk ourselves into a decision to do something just because we’ve been doing it,’ Bush said.
Then, dramatically, on February 1, 2017, the company said it wasn’t going to submit a bid for the competition. Northrop Grumman was out.
The US manufacturer had been expected to offer its single-engine ‘clean-sheet’ Model 400 aircraft. A prototype, built by its Scaled Composites subsidiary, was first spotted while conducting ground taxi tests at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California last August. The prototype, which also features a single F404 turbofan, reportedly flew for the first time at Mojave on August 24. The newly released imagery shows the initial test flight.
Northrop Grumman was initially teamed with BAE Systems to offer the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) as its T-X platform of choice. However, with the release of the USAF’s Key Performance Parameters (KPPs) it was decided that the Hawk wouldn’t meet the tough performance requirements. After Boeing had surprised many by going for a potentially expensive ‘clean-sheet’ design, Northrop Grumman now followed suit.
Northrop Grumman stated: ‘In 2011 we entered the fight with the Hawk and with an RFP schedule to be on the horizon in early 2012. We stood behind the Hawk as the best solution at the time. As the program moved to the right and the timeline grew, the Air Force requirements began to evolve and we gained greater insight into what capability was really needed for T-X. It became more and more clear to us that the Hawk was no longer the optimum solution in terms of requirements and affordability. We as a team made the decision to no longer offer the Hawk and to incorporate a new air vehicle into our T-X solution.’
While this came as a blow for BAE Systems and for the Hawk, it wasn’t all bad news. Northrop saw BAE Systems’ experience and capabilities in pilot training as being crucial to its bid when it came to ‘embedded air vehicle training capability’. The embedded synthetic training afforded by the Hawk AJT was viewed as being essential as Northrop developed its contribution for a T-X solution.
Northrop Grumman progressed with an internally funded ‘clean-sheet’ solution, abandoning an off-the-shelf proposal. ‘Divided tracks lead to divided focus, and our team is committed to offering one integrated family-of-systems solution that affordably meets the requirements of the Air Force’, the company stated.
Northrop Grumman tasked its subsidiary Scaled Composites of Mojave with developing the ‘clean-sheet’ design. Northrop Grumman gave reporters a sneak preview of its T-X concept in late 2015, with a model shown that many described as being ‘much like a T-38’, of which Northrop was of course the manufacturer. The model showed a low-wing, single-engine aircraft with conventional tail arrangement.
Northrop Grumman’s T-X website stated: ‘Northrop Grumman has used advanced design and prototyping techniques to build a purpose-built aircraft for the competition. The aircraft combines Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites’ innovative approach to aircraft design, development and rapid prototyping.
‘Our partnerships with BAE Systems and L-3 [Link] position our team as the industry leader in pilot training experience. For decades, we and our partners have designed and delivered more training platforms in service than any others, with over 95,000 pilots trained and more than 17 million flight hours logged. Together, our team is pulling from our many successes in the pilot training arena to deliver a high performing, affordable T-X solution.
‘Combining our purpose-built aircraft with BAE Systems’ embedded training capability and an L-3 ground-based training system, we have created an integrated training solution designed specifically to US Air Force requirements. That’s why we’re a leader in trusted and affordable combat pilot training.’
The Model 400
Rollout and possibly first flight of the new Northrop Grumman T-X prototype was expected in the second half of 2016, according to reports in January 2016. Indeed, bang on schedule on August 19, the first images appeared on social media of what appeared to be Northrop Grumman’s new aircraft. The images were taken at Mojave Airport, California, during what was reported as a high-speed taxi trial. Logs from FlightRadar 24 confirmed the test.
The aircraft, registered N400NT, was indeed manufactured by Scaled Composites at Mojave, and according to the FAA registry, is powered by a single F404-GE-102D turbofan engine and is known as the Model 400. The aircraft showed clear lineage with the T-38 and indeed the F-20 Tigershark.
The aircraft is reported to have made its maiden flight on August 24, but Northrop Grumman said nothing specifically related to the Model 400. The company completed initial test points and would have had a good idea of the aircraft’s handling qualities. Indeed, rumours suggest that handling qualities from that initial testing were a factor in the company’s decision to pull out of T-X.
In a statement the company said: ‘Northrop Grumman and its principal teammate BAE Systems have carefully examined the US Air Force’s T-X Trainer requirements and acquisition strategy as stated in the final request for proposals issued on December 30, 2016. The companies have decided not to submit a proposal for the T-X Trainer program, as it would not be in the best interest of the companies and their shareholders.’
In the end, it proved just too risky for Northrop Grumman. It had to cut its losses and walk away.