All Systems ‘Go’ for Boeing's Red Hawk Trainer

 - July 20, 2020, 6:00 AM
Boeing pilots are conducting the current T-7A trials from St. Louis. Saab test pilots may join later test campaigns, having flown the T-7 during the demonstration phase. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing’s two T-7A Red Hawk advanced trainer development aircraft have completed around 80 percent of Phase 1 testing, according to Thom Breckenridge, vice-president of Boeing Defense global sales and marketing, strike, surveillance, and mobility. “We are on track for achieving initial operational capability in 2024,” he said in a press briefing on July 14, “with first delivery in 2023.” Full operational capability is slated for 2034.

T-1 and T-2, the first two Red Hawks, have now flown more than 200 times, at some points achieving six flights a day between them. Currently, the aircraft are engaged in clearing a series of test points that explore the T-7A’s full envelope, as well as testing the aircraft’s systems.

Boeing’s chief test pilot for Air Force programs, Dan “Dragon” Draeger, reported that the aircraft has been flown to its highest speed and has proved its fuel-flow system in inverted flight. It has exceeded its threshold angle-of-attack requirement of 20 degrees, and also its objective target of 25 degrees. It meets requirements of both instantaneous and sustained turn rates, and has been demonstrated at loads above the threshold figure of 6.5  g as it approaches the objective of 7.5 g. It is also “very well-behaved in a crosswind environment,” reported Draeger.

Hot-weather trials now are getting underway, taking advantage of the high temperatures that are being experienced in St. Louis, where the T-7A is assembled and undergoing manufacturer's tests. Engine re-start trials are upcoming, as is a campaign of high angle-of-attack trials using aircraft T-2, for which the instrumented nose boom normally fitted for tests will be removed.

Draeger noted that the requirements of social distancing amid the Covid-19 pandemic had demanded some operational procedures to be modified, particularly with regard to briefing, debriefing, and launch/recovery. This has led to only one T-7A being flown at any one time and a slightly reduced rate of testing. “Some opportunities have been lost,” he said.

Boeing, with partner Saab, is producing the T-7A for the U.S. Air Force’s advanced trainer requirement to replace the aging fleet of Northrop T-38 Talons. The current requirement stands at 351 aircraft. The partners took a clean-sheet approach to take full advantage of innovations in design, development, and manufacturing technologies. A key driver involved making the aircraft as close in character to modern fighters as possible while keeping operating and acquisition costs low. “It was designed to perform like a fighter, with precise high angle-of-attack maneuverability, something our competitors just don’t have,” said Breckenridge.

Draeger elaborated further: “Performance is squarely in the center of where fourth- and fifth-generation operate.” Moreover, the aircraft’s systems feature mission computers separated from the triplex flight-critical systems. That feature allows the aircraft to be digitally tailorable to synthetically mimic different aircraft types in terms of cockpit displays, radars, sensors, weapon systems, and defenses. For the student, that translates into an ability to see information presented in the cockpit in the same fashion as in the front-line aircraft, with its specific capabilities also replicated onboard synthetically.

The T-7A is part of a wider training system that Boeing is developing. A ground-based training system (GBTS) is on course to be delivered to the Air Force ahead of the first aircraft arriving, comprising an array of components from desk modules to flight simulators, and including an egress trainer.

A key element of the GBTS is that it uses the same operational flight program (OFP) software as the aircraft, enabling it to maintain concurrency with the actual aircraft through simultaneous software uploads. It also employs the same brief/debrief system, making the transitions between GBTS and aircraft as seamless as possible. Available from the first day is a live-virtual-constructive (LVC) capability that allows simulators to be networked with flying aircraft in joint training operations. At present, there are no plans to network the T-7A with other aircraft types, although the simulators can be.

Boeing and Saab are currently focused on the U.S. Air Force requirement, but the T-7 is drawing strong interest from potential export customers. There is flexibility in the production system to cater for additional orders without interrupting production for the USAF, which is expected to reach 48 units annually. Saab is producing the aft fuselages for the Red Hawk, the first seven of which are being built in Linköping, Sweden, before production shifts to a new factory at West Lafayette in Indiana.

While the aim of the T-7 in the first instance is advanced training, the type has obvious applications to other tasks, such as light attack. “We’re confident it can fulfill the role,” said Breckenridge. “It was designed for growth from its inception.” The aircraft has a single centerline hardpoint for the carriage of stores such as practice bomb carriers, but it could be modified with underwing hardpoints for additional pylons. Another role to which the T-7 could be adapted is carrier training as an answer to the U.S. Navy’s UJTS requirement for a T-45 Goshawk replacement.