Sierra Nevada Corp./TAI Team To Offer Freedom Trainer For T-X
Dec 16, 2016 James Drew | Aviation Week & Space Technology
Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) are betting that the U.S. Air Force is seeking a fuel-efficient advanced pilot trainer to succeed the outdated Northrop T-38 Talon, like the one the companies plan to offer.
With the spotlight shining on the major primes until now, the two businesses have quietly set up shop in Centennial, Colorado, as Freedom Aircraft Ventures LLC, to develop a lightweight, all-composite trainer powered by two business jet-class engines.
The company tells Aviation Week in exclusive interviews that it intends to enter the jam-packed race for the T-X, offering an “economical” trainer alternative to those being pitched by rivals Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. The clean-sheet aircraft has been designed by an integrated team of engineers from SNC and TAI, who have been working for some time at the joint venture’s headquarters near Denver.
»SNC/TAI pitch lightweight, FJ44-4M-powered Freedom Trainer
»Single prototype being built in Colorado for flight evaluations
»American-made advanced pilot trainer aimed at domestic and international air forces, but based on U.S. T-X requirements
»Freedom Aircraft Ventures LLC registered in Centennial, Colorado
Better known for its satellites and Dream Chaser spaceplane, the Sparks, Nevada-based company’s Turkish-American owners Fatih and Eren Ozmen, CEO and owner/president, respectively, want to play in the big leagues and see military aircraft manufacturing as a key driver of growth.
They singled out the military trainer market after sensing demand for more than 1,200 aircraft globally, driven partly by the introduction of the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II, with the largest potential order being the U.S. government’s requirement for 350 or more T-X aircraft.
The company’s twin-tail, moderately swept-wing trainer with a tricycle landing gear and step-tandem cockpit is powered by the Williams International FJ44-4M, a 3,600-lb.-thrust-class engine chosen by the Aero Vodochody L-39NG and Leonardo/Alenia Aermacchi M-345 High-Efficiency Trainer. Williams certified the engine in 2010 for the light business jet market, providing a cruise speed of up to 450 kt. over a 2,000-nm range with 5,000 flight hours between overhauls. It was chosen as the Freedom Trainer offering due to its relatively inexpensive procurement and sustainment costs as well as fuel efficiency, with the company saying it can buy two Williams engines for half the cost of one high-power military turbofan.
The company already has one flying prototype in development, and it intends to answer the long-awaited T-X request for proposals (RFP) once released by the Air Force. The timing of the RFP will not be affected by the stopgap funding measure passed by Congress, since it is not a new-start program. The air force says a RFP notification could come any day, otherwise it will push into January due to holidays.
SNC/TAI’s proposal is for a purely a fly-by-wire trainer, seeming to leave little design margin for secondary light-attack or aggressor roles. Instead, the aircraft digitally replicates radar intercepts, precision-guided munition drops and the use of targeting pods. The aircraft is no larger than the GE J85-5-powered T-38 and consumes 30% less fuel, allowing weight reductions across the board to boost high subsonic performance at lower thrust levels. “We’re focusing on open architecture and lowest total ownership cost,” one company executive explains. The Freedom Trainer also is designed to fully comply with the Air Force’s Open Mission System standards to prevent “vendor-lock,” even though that requirement was dropped. “We did not want to drive costly design/redesign into systems that may otherwise meet the objective requirement,” an Air Force Life Cycle Management Center official says. SNC believes buying into any proprietary systems will drive up costs later.
The company says the Freedom Trainer will likely cost less to buy and sustain than its higher-powered competitors and consume 40-50% less fuel, while still meeting all threshold and objective performance requirements, including 6.5-7.5g sustained and high angle-of-attack maneuverability.
“In this day of tight budgets and looming operations and sustainment bow waves, it only makes sense for the Air Force to spend less up-front so they can save more over the life cycle, which is why this training system makes so much sense,” Fatih Ozmen says.
SNC is the prime contractor, with financial and intellectual input from TAI, it notes. “We’re not just a pretty face,” the company says. “We didn’t start off with a design from Turkey or anyplace else.” The single prototype under construction in Colorado, and the overall program, can be accelerated as needed to meet the Air Force’s schedule requirements for T-X. It has not been decided where in the U.S. serial production would occur, and there is potential for coproduction overseas for foreign buyers, the company says. It has some experience in this arena, having teamed with Brazil’s Embraer to set up an A-29 Super Tucano factory in Jacksonville, Florida, which is now delivering aircraft for the Afghan and Lebanese air forces.
T-X is the single largest opportunity for SNC, but it will complete the trainer even if it loses, with opportunities in Australia, Turkey and many other nations that are inducting modern warplanes. “We’ve cast a wide net,” a company official says.
Freedom Trainer was purposefully designed from the outset to meet Air Force training and airworthiness standards, which are well regarded by other air arms. The aircraft incorporates “live, virtual and constructive” training elements, provisions for aerial refueling, data links and communication radios woven into a high-performance aircraft with a fifth-generation cockpit, sensor suite and avionics. The overall training system requires “very little invention,” the company notes.
SNC is renowned for keeping a low profile, having also silently competed unsuccessfully in the Air Force’s first round of contracts for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or J-Stars, replacement program.
The company has again kept quiet while finalizing its teaming arrangements and developing the T-X proposal. It has been engaging directly with the government, steering clear of industry days.
“We don’t want to surprise people in the Defense Department and Air Force, but we do want to surprise the industry,” says one company official. “It’s not just about T-X per se; we’re looking at an international advanced trainer.”
The Air Force confirmed engagement with SNC, saying it keeps an “open dialogue” with all companies that express interest in the T-X competition. The service says it welcomes any proposals that meet its requirements.
SNC is lining up against sizable primes: the first, second, fourth and sixth largest defense OEMs in the world by 2015 revenue. Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries are offering to build the Golden Eagle-based T-50A in Greenville, South Carolina. Raytheon and Leonardo would set up a T-100 final assembly and checkout facility plant in Meridian, Mississippi. Boeing and Saab unveiled their clean-sheet trainer in St. Louis in September, without having picked a final assembly location. The Northrop Grumman/Scaled Composites/BAE Systems/L-3 team has not shown its hand, except through leaked photos on social media. Its T-X prototype is flying routinely at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
SNC’s annual revenue has grown to $2 billion since being bought by the Ozmens in 1994. The majority of its revenue comes from space systems and special forces programs. TAI has significant aerospace aircraft manufacturing clout in Turkey, having license-built more than 300 F-16s and now center fuselages for the F-35 as a second source. The company is producing the Hurkus Free Bird turboprop basic trainer as well as helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and a next-generation fighter for the Turkish government.
The Ozmens’ ethnic tie is with Turkey, and they are helping that nation develop a regional jet based on the Dornier 328, with TAI as a major subcontractor. It seems a natural fit, but the SNC/TAI partnership for T-X is not without headwinds due to the political and security situation in the NATO-allied nation. The unsuccessful military coup against President Recep Erdogan in July resulted in a governmentwide purge, and war continues to rage across the borders in Syria and Iraq.
SNC says the joint venture with TAI is solid, postcoup. TAI immediately sent an envoy to the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to Freedom Trainer. “The talent from TAI has been phenomenal,” SNC points out. “They brought their A-Team. We’ve cast a wide net,” a company official says.
SNC says it aims to be a disruptive innovator, and its Freedom Trainer “family of systems” is the embodiment of that ethos, from the aircraft to the ground-based training system, simulators and courseware, and logistics chain. “The aircraft is just another training device,” the company notes. “We want the students to go off to their weapon systems with as high a quality training experience as possible, but focusing on doing it at the lowest possible cost per graduate.
“We think a lot of our solutions are groundbreaking innovations,” the company continues. “We took an engine that can meet [our requirements] and built an airplane around it.”
The U.S. government plans to retain 546 T-38A/B/Cs. While some play aggressor roles in flying exercises or support weapons testing, 431 Talons support undergraduate training for pilot selected to fly fighters or bombers. The Air Education and Training Command expects to phase out its T-38 between 2023-29 as the T-X comes online, targeting initial operational capability by fiscal 2024.
The source-selection process will take about one year, with a development contract expected in early fiscal 2018. Low-rate production should start in fiscal 2022.