ST. LOUIS: Boeing and Saab unveiled their long-awaited entry for the Air Force’s next generation trainer, known as T-X, an intriguing mix of Super Hornet and a Gripen. The plane is designed to go straight to production without passing through the conventional development stages of a military aircraft.
While our colleagues at Aviation Week and FlightGlobal enthuse over the aircraft’s design, we’re going to focus on what may win this competition, along with the actual training software: the advanced production techniques Boeing and Saab have incorporated.
“It is a production jet at this stage,” averred Darryl Davis, president of Boeing’s Phantom Works, standing in front of a second jet already being subjected to structural proof tests. The two companies are building a plane with very little touch labor and are using advanced adhesives, 3-D printing (additive manufacturing to the faithful) and other techniques to “break the cost curve,” Davis told reporters after the unveiling this morning. Bending the cost curve is, of course, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James’ effort to rein in development and procurement costs.
Davis, whose Phantom Works includes the luridly famous Black Diamond production experiments, said production knowledge gleaned from both companies’ commercial and defense experience meant they would rely on “orders of magnitude less touch labor.”
As an example of the advanced techniques being employed, Program Manager Ted Torgerson walked over to the plane’s cockpit. Currently, a cockpit takes about six weeks to build and requires expensive equipment to hold it and the materials needed to build it. “We’ve taken a six-week process and brought it down to eight days,” Torgerson said.
The plane, which can be modified to accept two hard points per wing (it’s not a requirement to have any), can be refueled in flight just behind the flight instructor’s position, Davis said.
No word yet on where manufacturing will occur or who will build what, although it seems pretty certain SAAB is building the central fuselage, given that Davis confirmed recent reports of an air shipment from Sweden were related to T-X and did not include wings or a tail.
Also, software is a “key” component of the entire system, as is the plane’s processor, Davis told us. Boeing is using the Air Force’s Open Mission Systems approach to ensure its a as flexible and adaptive as possible.
The Boeing aircraft’s first flight should occur by the end of this year, Davis said.
Boeing paid for my flight and lodgings on this trip.