Amid a cloud of uncertainty over how the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation trainer jet program will be funded, the service will hold an Industry Day this week as competitors learn more about the aircraft’s requirements.
For three days starting Jan. 29, industry will descend on Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for a series of meetings with Air Force officials.
“It’s a program that needs to happen, and it is by no means clear how to fund it,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.
T-X Program Needs
Despite a push by the Air Force, acquisition funds for the T-X program were not included in the fiscal 2012 budget. Because the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution that leaves the budget at 2012 levels, the program will be unfunded as long as the continuing resolution is in effect. Senior Defense Department officials have made it clear they don’t know if or when the resolution will be replaced with a new budget.
The winner of the T-X competition will replace Northrop Grumman’s T-38 Talon, in use since 1959. “The T-38 needs a replacement system by sometime in the 2020s,” Aboulafia said, a deadline that means the replacement program needs to be up and running “by the end of this decade” at the latest.
The T-38 is easily one of the more successful aircraft designs around. In an age when supersonic aircraft still had decidedly deadly handling characteristics, Jack Northrop designed on that was safe enough to be used as a trainer, cheap and easily maintainable enough to be bought in large numbers, and durable enough to be in use over 50 years later. In fact, the Air Force recently upgraded the jets in its fleet to the T-38C configuration. Aerodynamically, nothing has changed. Most of the changes were to update the avionics to better conform to what pilots will see when they move on to operational aircraft.
And that’s what will be the major issue in the replacement, the T-X program. There are any number of airframes and powerplant combinations out there that would be at least minimally acceptable. The issue will be designing and integrating a cockpit display that will ease the student’s transition into his future mount.
A student pilot will spend about 18-24 months learning to fly. A very large part of that training is not so much about the actual stick and rudder movements, but learning to use the instruments of the airplane to build situational awareness. Changing the instruments is very disorienting to the student, and relearning a new panel takes time. And in flying, time isn’t just money, it’s a LOT of money.