Bill Anderson, President Textron AirLand.

One new aircraft to appear at the 2014 Farnborough Air Show was Textron AirLand’s Scorpion prototype low-cost twin-engine tactical military jet. During the show, BILL READ interviewed Textron Airland President Bill Anderson about the development of the Scorpion and his plans for its future.

Q: Did you have any problems flying the Scorpion from Wichita in Kansas over to Farnborough in the UK?

BA: We’ve only have seven months of flight tests but we’re very confident in the air. The only things we needed to get over here were fuel and good weather and we got both. We flew it across the Atlantic, so we’re pretty proud of it. We flew a northerly route, stopping about seven times to refuel.

The Scorpion over The Needles lighthouse. (Textron AirLand).

Q: How long did it take to develop the Scorpion?

BA: Starting from a clean sheet design on 9 January 2011 to the first flight took 23 months. I literally started with an empty building, nine people and a white board. On the commercial side, time is money. If it had taken ten years to build, then it would have cost you $40m. It took us less than two years and you can buy it for $20m. The airplane uses high but mature technology. For example, it’s fitted with Martin-Baker Mk 16 ejector seats which are very high tech, very good and very reliable. Martin-Baker saw the opportunity very quickly, so they came onto the programme as a commercial partner. They looked at our cockpit and said “Oh no – our seats won’t work in that design. We can modify our seats but it will cost tens of millions of dollars as well as about a year’s schedule. If you give us three more inches of the plane and two more inches of width, then our seats will work.” So the design team gave them those extra five inches.

Q: Where did you recruit the design team from?

BA: We drew on Textron’s engineering strength. Primarily we drew on Cessna’s commercial expertise and then we added the military component from different business units or by hiring them as contract engineers. We quickly built a very high functioning team which enabled us to go very quickly. Engineers, fabricators and final assembly people - we were all in the same boat. So, if something didn’t work, it wasn’t a case of sending an email, it was a case of getting up and walking across to the factory floor to find out what was wrong. It was a dedicated team which worked for two years on the design and build phase. We didn’t want to build a toy – this is a commercial model. We did a market analysis and we built the plane into a specific market to provide a capability for a cost

The Scorpion uses a lot of existing off-the-shelf parts to keep costs low.

Q: How many existing systems were you able to incorporate into it?

BA: The all-composite fuselage is new build. The hydraulics and electronics are mature technology and it’s fitted with Martin Baker ejection seats together with brakes and tyres from the Citation Sovereign. You can’t use business jet avionics in a tactical airplane, so it uses are military avionics. When we started the project these were sourced from Cobham but they’ve since been spun off and they’re now Genesys Aerosystems. You can spend a lot of money chasing that last 10% of technology and you quickly get a $50m jet.

Q: How was the project managed?

BA: This airplane was built to FAA and US airworthiness military certification. It was built with all the same rigour and engineering traceability in safety and redundancy as any other Cessna jet. No steps were skipped. Scott Donnelly (the CEO of Textron) trusted me a lot, so our design trades were made in days or even minutes sometimes and I was pretty much the final decision and source selection authority, as well as controller and keeping the team motivated.

Weapons testing is planned later this year.

Q: How is the flight test programme going?

BA: Flight testing is going great. Obviously we got it over here, no problem. Our biggest foe has been the weather but we’ve got 130 or so hours of flight. We’ve already exceeded our advertised speed of 450kt, we did 455. Our chief test pilot, Dan Hinson, put it through our initial aerobatics phases. He will tell you: the airplane is powerful, agile, quick and very responsive. We’ve been through all our stall tests. We ran an intercept on a Cessna 182 flying at about 80kt and Dan was able to get the Scorpion down to around 94kt-95kt and still manoeuvre up and get very close to that Cessna. Low-speed handling characteristics are outstanding and the top end speed characteristics are really, really good. We’ve not lost one flight to unscheduled maintenance. The only reason we’ve lost a flight so far is weather. When we get back we’re going to fly in a US Northern Command military exercise. We’re going to use the plane to offload real time HD video information to a ground command and control station and they’ll send ground forces out based on that information. After that, we’ll continue the flight test programme and then we’ll release a weapon, which will probably be a Textron Systems G-Claw, before the end of the year.

Q: Who supplies the engines?

BA: On this model, the aircraft is fitted with two Honeywell TFE731 turbofans – an engine that has already been used to power a wide variety of business jets. For subsequent models, economics might dictate that we use a different engine but we haven’t yet made a final selection. Right now we plan to supply it with only one choice of engine but if a large client orders a whole fleet or airplanes and wants to specify an engine made in their country, then we could accommodate it – as long as it’s reliable. I know there’s at least one other engine that will fit in that same structure and that was by design not by accident. We’re not going to away from our basic principles of highly reliable, highly affordable, highly effective airplane.

It was the Scorpion's international debut.

Q: Does the fact you’re come to Europe mean that you’re hoping to interest customers outside the US?

BA: This is our international debut. We went to RIAT and then we came to Farnborough to show it to the international market. The international interest has been tremendous and I’m glad we came. We’ve had a lot of comments like: Why haven’t I heard about it? Where did this jet come from? The reason for this is that, for competitive reasons, the development of this jet was kept quiet. It came as a big surprise. We announced its existence in October and we flew it in December. We started having real conversations and real marketing. It’s hard to sell PowerPoint but not so hard to sell a real airplane. But, quite frankly, this is what Textron does. We have airplanes all over the world. We service our airplanes all over the world and they’re perfectly capable of taking off every day without leaving a huge logistics trail.

Q: Are you intending to take the Scorpion anywhere other than the UK?

BA: Right now, we’re going to fly back to the US and do that Northern Exercise, and continue on with our flight test programme. Coming to England has been a great opportunity to begin our international debut. The international community is well represented here.

Customer interest for the $20m combat aircraft has gone well beyond 'initial discussions' (Textron AirLand)

Q: Do you have plans for a second prototype?

BA: The answer is yes but it won’t be a prototype but the final production configuration. We haven’t decided again because we want to wait until we get our launch customer. We only announced this jet ten months ago and only flew it seven months ago. The interest has gone well beyond initial discussions with some customers.

Q: Have you now got some idea of what customers are looking for?

BA: When I sell a few, then I’ll tell you that I got it right. The reception has been tremendous. This configuration was built from the ground up for ISR strike but it is intended as a multi-mission platform. Whether you want to do maritime surveillance, border patrol, counter insurgence or stand-off strike, it can do them all.

Sensor system manfacturers have been impressed by the Scorpion's internal weapon/ISR bay.

Q: While you’re at Farnborough, have you been talking to the systems manufacturers?

BA: We are. I already know that a sophisticated maritime surveillance and a counter narcotics package will work onboard. We have the science, we have the cooling, we have the power and we have the avionics to control it, so we’re well on our way.

Q: To ensure commercial success, will you be relying mostly on exports?

BA: We expect that many units would go to international customers but this airplane has a relevant place in the US inventory, although the military does have a fairly rigid procurement and acquisitions systems.

The company expects bulk orders - with a rumoured 100-aircraft launch customer.

Q: Has the interest been in bulk or individual orders?

BA: Most of the orders we’re currently talking about are fleet orders. Once we get the production line rolling, then we expect to get the ‘oneses and twoses’. 

Q: How many total orders are you hoping for?

BA: It’s a sizable market. When we did a commercial market analysis of the mission space that we’re in, the addressable fleet that needs to be replaced due to age or obsolescence is around 2,000 aircraft. However, that doesn’t include completely new demands. Two countries that we’re talking to are not replacing aircraft - our aircraft orders would be on top. Nor does it include any US opportunities.

7 August 2014