[ ABOVE: Image courtesy of Leslie Farmer ]
Lockheed Martin’s T-50A jet trainer completed its initial flight test in Sacheon, South Korea, on June 2, signaling the aerospace company’s readiness to compete in the U.S. Air Force Advanced Pilot Training competition.
The Air Force announced last year that it wants 350 new jets to replace its Northrop T-38 Talon jet trainers, which, according to Northrop Grumman, were produced from 1961 to 1972. The Air Force uses the T-38 aircraft for undergraduate pilot training.
The competition is valued up to $11 billion.
After the announcement, Lockheed Martin had engineering teams within its Skunk Works division create designs for an aircraft that could compete.
WATCH // Lockheed Martin’s T-50A fifth-generation training jet completed its first flight in June 2016.
It then conducted a study comparing the new aircraft designs to its FA-50 Golden Eagle jet fighter, a modified version of the T-50 — a supersonic advanced trainer jet developed by Lockheed Martin and Korean Aerospace Industries in the 1990s.
The study found that its clean-sheet aircraft design — springing from just the requirements and a “clean sheet” of paper — would cost eight times more than using a current model. It would also slow the production process.
“The clean-sheet design just wasn’t better than what we had. We would have to figure out how to build it and then produce a prototype, as well as validate the design,” said Don Erickson, site director for Lockheed Martin’s Greenville Operations Center at the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center (SCTAC).
The T-50 has more than 100,000 flight hours and has trained more than 1,000 fighter pilots. But Lockheed Martin decided to upgrade the jet trainer and announced that it would partner with Korean Aerospace Industries to produce the T-50A.
The upgraded aircraft is retrofitted with an aerial refueling receptacle on its dorsal and a ground-based training system. It also has a fifth-generation cockpit similar to what’s installed in the F-35 Lightning II and open system architecture, which allows for faster integration of new sensors, weapons and other capabilities.
The initial flight test last week found that the aircraft has a maximum speed of 1,020 mph at 30,000 feet and a range of 1,150 miles.
From Sacheon to Greenville
In February, Lockheed Martin announced that, if awarded the contract, it would conduct the final assembly and check out for the T-50A jet trainer at its Greenville facility at SCTAC.
“The site has a 31-year history of strong performance in final assembly and checkout, which is the type of work that would be done with the T-50A, as well as state-of-the-art capabilities in aircraft modification, a flexible and highly skilled workforce and a competitive cost structure,” said Leslie Farmer, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman.
The 227-acre Greenville facility houses 16 hangars and offers 8,000 feet of runway. It also has 1.2 million square feet of covered space and provides various services, including maintenance, repair, overhaul and modification, to government and commercial aircraft.
Lockheed Martin decided to remodel Hangar 11 at the Greenville facility to house the production of the T-50A. The process began in April.
The 38,000-square-foot hangar was constructed in 1958 as a part of Donaldson Air Force Base, which closed in 1963. Lockheed Martin purchased the base in 1984.
Before remodeling, the hangar was used for modification and repair services to the P-3 Orion, C-130 Hercules and C-5 Galaxy transport plane.
The remodeled hanger will feature a new roof, anti-reflection floor paint and energy-efficient high-intensity lighting, according to Erickson. It will also feature upgraded offices on the north side, including ADA-compliant sidewalks. And on the north and south sides of the hangar, energy-efficient windows are being installed.
Also, instead of a traditional stacking door, the new hangar will feature a roll-up door that is sized to fit the T-50A as it exits the production line.
The remodeling process is 50 percent complete and will be finished late July, according to Erickson. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is expected for mid-August.
From blueprints to plane
Lockheed Martin will use a “warm line” manufacturing technique to produce its modernized jet trainer. The aircraft’s frame will continuously move down an assembly line as technicians piece together and insert its internal components.
However, the company might consider a “static line” if pre-production doesn’t meet standards, according to Erickson. The aircraft’s shell would be in a fixed position.
“We’re using the ‘warm line’ to figure out production approaches, specific tooling that may enable us to install the wing or another part faster with less risks,” said Erickson.
Lockheed Martin will begin the pre-production process once the Greenville facility receives the aircraft’s major components later this summer.
Parts such as the wings, fuselage and tail are being assembled and shipped from South Korea. And if Lockheed Martin continues its partnership with General Electric Co., it will continue to use its American-made F404 engine, which is used in its T-50 aircraft.
Four aircraft will be sent to Greenville from South Korea sometime this fall. But employees will be trained before then.
“The point is to be able to produce these aircraft quickly if we’re awarded the contract,” said Erickson. “We’ll have some of our personnel engaged in South Korea to get some hands-on experience with the aircraft on the production line.”
Teams will return to Greenville and then continually assemble and disassemble two of the four aircraft to perfect the production process. The other aircraft will be used for test flights, which are expected to begin sometime in November.
If awarded the contract, Lockheed Martin will consider using robotics on the “warm line,” according to Erickson. However, he said it would “be tough to replace our skilled technicians” and that Lockheed Martin likes the “human element in the process.”
Lockheed Martin plans to produce four aircraft a month if awarded the contract. It would create 200 jobs at the company’s Greenville location, which now employs 475 people.
The additional employees would stem from Lockheed Martin’s current employee pool or the aviation-training program at Greenville Technical College, according to Erickson.
Production could also boost the local economy.
“A lot of the supply network has been established. But we could possibly use other suppliers in the area or in South Carolina,” Erickson said. “A lot of the supplies, if any, would just be the nuts and bolts of the plane.”
The growth of an industry
Lockheed Martin isn’t the only aerospace giant competing for the Air Force’s contract.
The Boeing Co. and Saab partnered to produce a clean-sheet design. However, no details have been provided. And Northrop Grumman partnered with BAE Systems to produce a clean-sheet design, which resembles the company’s T-38 Talon.
Textron AirLand planned to submit its Scorpion jet trainer but ditched it for a new design in February. Raytheon, Finmeccanica and CAE will offer its T-100, an Italian-made jet.
“Lockheed Martin has an advantage because an existing design saves money. And you’re better off not having to design and validate it,” said Jeff McKaughan, a senior aerospace analyst at Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy firm in Fairfax, Va.
McKaughan added that it’s too early to conclude which company will win the contract because it “depends on price and performance.” But he added that the aircraft’s maintenance and sustainment costs would be the “most significant factor.”
In December, the Air Force expects to release a request for proposals, and the competing companies will go through a selection process, including a demonstration. The Air Force expects to choose its winner by at least 2018. Initial operational capability is 2024.
For more information, visit lockheedmartin.com/us/products/t50A.html.
A boost to the state’s aerospace sector
If Lockheed Martin is awarded the Air Force contract, it will become the first company to produce an entire military aircraft in South Carolina. But it will join a well-established industry.
South Carolina houses 400 aerospace firms and four U.S. air bases. The Boeing Co. produces its 787 Dreamliner passenger jet at its North Charleston facility, which opened in 2009. And RBC Aerostructures produces parts for the F-35 fighter jet in Westminster.
SCTAC has an estimated $2 billion economic impact yearly on the state’s economy. Much of that impact stems from the various companies housed at the aerospace hub.
Stevens Aviation, which services various companies, provides maintenance and remodeling to civilian and military aircraft. Also, the South Carolina National Guard has a new helicopter station that holds six Chinook and four Lakota helicopters. The South Carolina National Guard is also building a 95,000-square-foot armory.
Lockheed Martin’s T-50A jet trainer program at SCTAC could spur additional growth to the local aerospace industry, according to Mark Farris, CEO and president of the Greenville Area Development Corporation.
“Greenville is near the center of a developing cluster of aerospace activity. While automotive is still dominant … we definitely have the potential to benefit as these aviation industries continue to agglomerate in the region,” Farris said.