Textron AirLand’s new Scorpion strike and surveillance aircraft performed its maiden flight yesterday morning, from McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas.
The company said the aircraft conducted a range of handling manoeuvres during approximately 1.4 hours of flight and that the flight marked one of the fastest developments of a U.S.-built tactical jet, progressing from initial design to first flight in less than 24 months.
“Today’s first flight is a major milestone for the Scorpion as the program transitions into the flight test phase,” commented Textron CEO Scott Donnelly. “When the design phase began less than two years ago, we were confident that we would deliver a uniquely affordable, versatile tactical aircraft by taking advantage of commercial aviation technologies and best practices. Today’s flight met all expectations, and keeps us on track towards certification and production,” he added.
Scorpion’s first flight was crewed by pilot Dan Hinson, an engineering test pilot with over 5,000 flight hours in 79 different types of aircraft, and co-pilot David Sitz. “The flight was completed according to plan,” said Hinson. “Having flown many tactical aircraft throughout my 23-year career with the US Navy and with other aircraft manufacturers, I can say that the Scorpion compares very favourably to more costly aircraft currently used for low-threat missions. It showed impressive stability and responsiveness closely matching all of the predicted parameters for today’s manoeuvres – it’s going to be a highly capable aircraft for the ISR and homeland security mission set.”
The Scorpion was announced in September 2013 as a demonstration aircraft designed to accommodate the budget constraints and shifting mission requirements of the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. partner nations. Powered by twin turbofan engines generating 8,000 lbs. of thrust, the Scorpion transitions easily between low speed and high-subsonic speed, as needed for diverse missions such as irregular warfare, border patrol, maritime surveillance, emergency relief, counter-narcotics and air defence operations, Textron AirLand said.
The Scorpion has a cruising speed of up to 450 ktas (517 mph), with a ferry range of 2,400 nautical miles. The aircraft carries an internal payload of up to 3,000 lbs., as well as wing-mounted precision munitions.
Mostly made out of composites, the Scorpion has a 14.4m wingspan and its length is 43.5ft. To perform its ISR/ground attack missions, the unswept wings are equipped with 6 hard points in addition to an internal payload bay.
It also has two retractable sensor mounts. The latter can be 3,000 pound while the external one 6,100. With 9,000lb of internal fuel, it will have a ferry range of 4 440km. The maximum take-off weight is set at 21,205lbs.
For F. Whitten Peters, a former Secretary of the Air Force, acting as both an investor and an advisor to AirLand Enterprises “Scorpion will fill a critical price and performance gap in the tactical military aircraft market.”
For Bill Sweetman (of Aviation Week), the idea is to sacrifice fighter type air to air performance and a heavy weapon load in order to reduce acquisition and operating cost. In times of global budget constraints, and clear cuts in the defence budget, Textron-Airland bets on figures more than facts in order to win the heart of U.S. congressmen.
According to Caitlin Lee, from Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Scorpion’s price tag should be less than legacy platforms such as the AV-8B Harrier II, or the A-10, with unitary cost ranging between $25 million and $50 million. However, such amount of money remains pretty consequent and does not match well with a communication campaign based on the idea of a cheap aircraft.
The manufacturer insists on the fact that acquiring the Scorpion would be cheaper than upgrading the fleets of Fairchild Republic A-10s or Lockheed F-16s. However, the main gain should concern the operating costs of the aircraft. While USAF estimate the operating cost for one hour of flight of an F-16 is around $25,000, Textron AirLand claims that it would cost only $3,000 per hour for its Scorpion. It partly results from the fact that many parts of the Scorpion come from existing Cessna platforms. As related in AIN, the flap drive mechanism will come from the Citation XLS and Mustang, while the aileron drive mechanism comes from the Citation X. This low operating cost appears to be the core of the JV’s strategy. Gil Roy, wrote in French aero blog Aerobuzz.fr, that the JV has calculated that replacing the F-16s, A-10s and F-15s by the Scorpion could result in $1 billion savings per year.
Though, the usefulness of the Scorpion is being challenged by many observers and analysts from the aerospace sector. In effect, it is more expensive than its current competitor manufactured by Embraer and Beechcraft, based on powerful turboprops. Others estimate that several Scorpion missions could be performed by drones. This particular point deserves to be discussed. In effect, current MALE drones cannot fly at 833km/h, carry as much weapons as the Scorpion would, nor perform the same combat missions. A more technical question is the utility of an internal weapon bay compared to external hard points. Such capacity is petty costly to develop and does not match with the common idea of a lowprice aircraft.
However, it is too early to judge about the future of the Scorpion. If it plans to gather political support, Paul Bertorelli, from AVWeb, warns Cessna that “it will need lots of friends in Congress to overcome the legions of supporters that Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have cultivated over the years.”
But it may end up to be a serious candidate for future T-X jet trainer competition despite the fact that it is not the JV’s main target and that it would require modifying the aircraft to a certain extent.