The Boeing T-X Fighter Jet Could Be The Future Of Our Air Force

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Boeing on Tuesday rolled out the sleek prototype of its new T-X trainer, the plane that just might save thousands of jobs in St. Louis County as fighter production winds down in the next decade.

Boeing unveiled a twin-tail, single-engine craft designed to mimic a fighter jet with high maneuverability and endurance for high G forces.

The Air Force wants 350 new jets to train the next generation of fighter pilots, but Boeing is facing off against three competitors. One of them, Northrop Grumman, has been ground-testing its own prototype.

Boeing has one prototype in ground testing, and another is being assembled at Boeing’s sprawling north St. Louis County plant.

Design and engineering work for the trainer is being done in St. Louis, but Boeing says it hasn’t decided where it would assemble the plane if it gets the contract. The company is in an “evaluation process” to determine where the trainer would be built, said Darryl Davis, who heads Boeing’s Phantom Works development operation.

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Boeing has teamed with Saab, the Swedish maker of the Gripen fighter, to develop the new trainer.

St. Louis is the “likeliest place” to build the plane, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at the Teal Group of aircraft industry consultants. Building it in Sweden would cause political problems in the U.S.

Several thousand workers build Boeing’s F-15, F/A-18 and E/A-18 fighter and attack aircraft in St. Louis County. Boeing is seeking orders for those planes, but production is likely to end sometime in the next decade. The T-X is the only other fighter-like aircraft on Boeing’s drawing boards.

“The T-X is a must-win for Boeing,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank on security issues. “They really need this aircraft to keep their military engineers engaged.”

In addition to the 350 planes desired by the Air Force, the trainer would have potential foreign sales. The trainer it replaces, the aged T-38, debuted in 1961 and production totaled 1,146 aircraft before it went out of production in 1972. Analysts say the Air Force order alone could be worth $11 billion.

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Boeing and Saab designed the plane from a “clean sheet of paper,” Davis said. Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems teamed up to do the same, but two other competitors are offering versions of existing trainers. Lockheed Martin and KAI are offering a trainer based on one used by the South Korean air force. Raytheon, Leonardo, Honeywell Aerospace and CAE-USA are offering a trainer based on a Leonardo plane used in Italy.

An existing design might allow for a cheaper plane with a reliable record. But starting from scratch would allow Boeing and Northrop Grumman to design an exact match for the Air Force’s requirements, Thompson noted.

Lockheed builds the F-35, the Air Force’s newest fighter and the plane many of its new pilots will fly.

The Boeing trainer unveiled Tuesday resembled a giant gray and white mosquito, with some similarity to Boeing’s larger F/A-18. It features a General Electric engine and “stadium seating,” with the instructor seated behind and higher than the student pilot. The Air Force wants a plane that can sustain forces of 6.5 times gravity for sustained periods during maneuvering.

The double-tail design increases stability and braking ability. The cockpit will resemble the F-22 and F-35, the Air Force’s newest fighters.

“I think they have a very good chance of winning,” said Thompson. “No one else is offering a dual tail. If you look at it from the front, you can see how similar it looks to the F-35 and the F-22.”

Much of the design work took place at Saab, Aboulafia said. He detects “distant hints” of Saab’s old 105 trainer in the T-X wing design.

Boeing plans to begin flight testing this year at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. “This is a production jet,” Davis said.

Boeing tried hard to keep the costs down, and that led to some innovations. Some composite parts are made whole in 3D printers. Workers can prepare a cockpit canopy in eight days, a task that used to take six weeks, according to Boeing officials.

Boeing brought some of that cost-saving know-how from its commercial jet operation. Thompson, who toured the T-X facility, said he was impressed by how few people were assembling the plane.

Boeing lost competitions to build the Air Force’s new bomber and the F-35. The T-X may be its last chance to keep a toehold in the fixed-wing, manned combat aircraft business as the F/A-18 and F-15 business fades.

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That might play to Boeing’s advantage when the Air Force makes its T-X decision, said Jeff Windau, analyst at Edward Jones investments in Des Peres. “It’s important to them to keep multiple suppliers engaged in developing the next generation of technologies,” Windau said.

The U.S. will eventually need a newer fighter, and giving Boeing the trainer might keep Boeing as a competitor until then, Aboulafia said. “That does not mean that Boeing is still in the design game,” he added. “They outsourced so much of the design to Saab.”

Boeing holds government contracts for military tanker and surveillance planes, helicopters, drones, missiles and smart bomb assemblies. It employs nearly 15,000 people in the St. Louis area.

The Air Force is expected to choose the winner of the trainer contract next year or in early 2018.

Editorial copy via St. Louis Post-Dispatch