As the U.S. Air Force refines its requirements for T-X, formally known as the Advanced Pilot Training Family of Systems program, competition is intensifying, with competitors and other observers noting that the service is looking for a capable, high-performance aircraft to prepare pilots for the F-35Joint Strike Fighter.
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is studying a further package of improvements for the T-50 Golden Eagle, offered for USAF together with Lockheed Martin, while Alenia Aermacchi is still in talks with a new U.S. partner, telling Aviation Week that a deal should be announced “very soon.”
Meanwhile, Boeing and Saab could fly their T-X advanced trainer demonstrator before the end of the year, says Debbie Rub, Boeing vice-president for global strike. She said on July 28 that the company’s T-X demonstrator is close to its first flight. “Can I say we will fly next year?” she asked, glancing at public relations officials during the question-and-answer session of a briefing on strike programs in St. Charles, Missouri. “We will fly this year or we will fly the year after,” she added. “We want to win. We have a partnership with a great company, Saab, [and] we will do what it takes to win.”
Boeing and Saab have moved quickly, having announced their teaming agreement less than two years ago. Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush told financial analysts on July 29 that the company would be unveiling its new clean-sheet demonstrator, built by its Scaled Composites subsidiary, “in the coming months.”
In recent clarifications to the request for information (RFI) originally released in March, the Air Force says that a flight demonstration may be required as part of the source-selection process. In the case of Boeing-Saab and Northrop Grumman, the demonstrator need not be a production-standard aircraft but should be “highly relevant to the production configuration.”
Alenia Aermacchi’s T-100 proposal, based on the M-346, has been in limbo since its original partner, General Dynamics (GD), backed out in March, and it is not disclosing the identity of its potential teammate. A leading possibility is Textron, the only U.S. builder of jet aircraft, aside from GD, that is not already committed to T-X. It has become a more likely T-X partner since Alenia Aermacchi’s former link with GD dissolved. Meanwhile Textron has moved into the fixed-wing military business, acquiring Beechcraft and the T-6 program and launching the Scorpion reconnaissance and attack aircraft. Asked whether it is in talks with Alenia Aermacchi, the company says only: “It is Textron’s policy not to comment on market rumors.”

A key to Alenia Aermacchi’s revived proposal is that the Air Force, in a July 10 amendment, clarified the sustained g-performance requirement contained in the initial RFI, which seemed to eliminate the M-346. Rather than the common definition of sustained g-force as being achieved at constant speed and altitude, the T-X requirement is to perform a specific maneuver, designed to evaluate and improve the student pilot’s performance at high g, in which 6.5g or more is sustained through a 140-deg. turn.
The RFI states that the maneuver must start at or above 15,000 ft. and end no lower than 13,000 ft. while the aircraft loses no more than 10% of its initial speed. The maneuver has to begin with at least 80% internal fuel, so that it can be performed at any time during a training sortie.
The M-346 is compliant with this requirement but “on the line,” says company chief test pilot Enrico Scarabotto, and Alenia Aermacchi is planning to increase its performance before any T-X flight demonstration takes place. He adds that the RFI requirement as originally interpreted would be hard for any aircraft short of a fighter to achieve, and that the M-346 has proven itself to handle well at such g levels, with minimal buffet. “That allows the pilot to concentrate on the g-straining maneuver, rather than fighting the aircraft to hold 6.5g.” The specified maneuver “is extremely dynamic.”
Having passed the sustained-g hurdle, Alenia Aermacchi is positioning the M-346 as the most modern in-service training system in the contest, with features such as live, virtual, constructive (LVC) training (in which a real-world training sortie can be combined with simulated adversaries, targets and allied assets) already in development.
The Italian air force has an initial-service version of LVC; the full version will be delivered next year, the company says. The training tool has already been used to allow the M-346 to simulate beyond-visual-range adversaries while acting as an aggressor for the air force’s Typhoon fighters. The M-346 is equipped with the Elbit Targo helmet-mounted display (HMD), which can be installed in both front and rear cockpits and can be used in LVC to provide what the company calls “dome in the air” experience, with simulated targets projected onto the visor.
Engineers working on LVC infrastructure technology at Rockwell Collins’s Advanced Technology Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, confirm that the Air Force is asking more rather than less from the T-X as the process of defining requirements continues. “In the last couple of months,” says LVC strategy leader Chip Gilkison, the customer has started to see a need for the T-X to act as a lead-in fighter trainer for the F-35, as more pilots join the new program. “They have recently started taking pilots from the T-38, directly to the F-35. Previously they would go from the T-38 to the F-16 and then to the F-35.” A combination of LVC and high-performance companion trainers, Gilkison says, is needed to train pilots to the full potential of the F-35’s sensor suite.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s trade and industry ministry is launching development of key improvements to the T-50—including inflight refueling and software—offering contracts that cover about 60% of their cost. The ministry does not mention the competition as the reason for upgrading the T-50, but the purpose is clear, since the defense ministry is not paying for the work and because the South Korean air force is not known to have asked for these improvements. However, the changes could make the T-50 more appealing to other export customers.
The T-X requirement calls for the ability to refuel from a boom-equipped tanker—not provided on any previous trainer and missing from both the M-346 and T-50. The South Korean government program calls for a single dorsal-mounted unit combining a refueling receptacle and a 600-lb. fuel tank, apparently in order to minimize redesign of the structure or loss of fuel capacity to the receptacle. The target development cost is 6.9 billion won ($5.94 million), of which the government will pay $3.6 million. The project is expected to run from August 2015 to July 2018.
The separate avionics work will support a large cockpit display, an HMD, an improved head-up display (HUD) and embedded training system for a trainer aircraft. The industry ministry is seeking bids for the 7.95 billion won project, with the government paying $4 million.
One of the main goals is to simulate the high-off-boresight air-to-air missiles. Beyond fuel and software, the industry ministry is calling for work on the T-50’s air data system and is seeking a carbon-fiber leading edge for the fin.