M-346 gets lighter, faster, more agile
While the first two prototypes of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 lead-in fighter trainer are engaged in a development program, a third is taking shape at the Italian manufacturer’s Venegono facility. It incorporates some differences from the two existing aircraft, having benefited from test and evaluation programs Alenia Aermacchi conducted with air force pilots from various countries.
The M-346 was tested by pilots from Singapore, Poland, France, Greece, Italy and the United Arab Emirates, where the aircraft was down-selected last February and where it carried out an operational evaluation in July and August. These tests took place in temperatures close to 122-deg F in the shade and involved nine UAE pilots, one Alenia Aermacchi test pilot and two Italian air force experimental wing pilots, who flew the aircraft in 43 missions logging about 50 flight hours.
Last April, the company deployed the two M-346 prototypes to Pratica di Mare, the home base of the Italian air force experimental wing, where the 311th test squadron conducted several ground and flight evaluations.
According to Alenia Aermacchi (Stand C31), the pilots and technicians made observations and suggestions regarding improvements that the company is now including in the M-346’s baseline configuration. It is considering other proposed changes with the aim of incorporating them into the preproduction aircraft.
These changes dictated a quick redesign, followed by the validation of modified components and software and adopting them on the preproduction aircraft. The modular design of the M-346–using Catia V4/V5 digital mockup technology–includes modifications intended for full-scale production. This allowed Alenia Aermacchi engineers to spend less time on the redesign and more time on customer requirements.
Apart from the modifications dictated by the intensive flight testing, the third aircraft benefits from a weight-reduction program, which should yield a decrease of just over 10,000 pounds in empty weight. The lighter weight is the result mainly of the adoption of a new main landing gear (current prototypes use the AM-X trainer’s landing gear) and the extensive use of composite materials and super-plastic forming techniques.
The weight savings will be used partly to increase fuel capacity, which will bring the clean aircraft ferry range to more than 1,100 nm at 40,000 feet (1,540 nm with external fuel tanks). In the training configuration, the lower weight should allow operators to increase point performance, such as maximum speed, maneuverability, sustained load factor, specific excess power, acceleration and climb time.
Development of the prototypes has also increased maximum angle of attack to 40 deg, which will be flight tested with an anti-spin parachute. The company also anticipates making improvements to the embedded-training system next year and plans to work with Galileo Avionica on that project.
According to French pilots who have flown the M-346, the jet trainer’s sustained turn rate and specific excess power are close to those available with the Dassault Mirage 2000 fighter in afterburner mode and equipped with external fuel tanks. Italian air force pilots have reported using the flight control system to adapt aircraft roll rate, angle of attack and load factor. This should allow customers to modify their training syllabus as pilots proceed from basic to lead-in fighter training.