Textron's Scorpion, seen during a Dec. 5 taxi test, will take its first flight next week. The plane is designed for a multi-mission role, with an emphasis on ISR capabilities. (Textron)
WASHINGTON — Textron’s new Scorpion aircraft will have its maiden flight early next week, according to company officials.
The plane is scheduled for flight early Tuesday from the company’s Cessna facility in Wichita, Kan., although a series of winter storms moving throughout the country may force a delay.
The flight, expected to be roughly 90 minutes, will be used to gather baseline information about the newly designed plane. If everything goes smoothly, a second flight will occur Thursday, followed by a semiregular schedule of test flights moving forward.
Company officials unveiled the design, in development since January 2012 at the Wichita facility, during September’s Air Force Association Air & Space Conference in National Harbor, Md.
The Scorpion is equipped with twin turbofan engines and a tandem cockpit, although the jet is designed to be flown by a single pilot. There are six hard points on the plane that could hold a variety of equipment, from extra fuel to Hellfire missiles.
The highlight of the plane is its internal compartment, which features 82 cubic feet of modular space for communications, electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gear.
Billed primarily as an ISR craft, Scorpion was designed as a multimission platform from the beginning, according to Bill Anderson, president of Textron AirLand.
“Everyone wants ISR, everyone wants high endurance, everyone wants affordability, so what we designed was a multimission airplane,” Anderson said. “The thought was to design a multimission airplane relevant to today’s security challenges and financial environment.”
Textron claims the plane can be flown for $3,000 an hour, significantly less than top-line fighters such as the F-16, while providing more capability than turboprops such as the AT-6.
Marketwise, company officials have cast a wide net. Anderson acknowledged that a large chunk of sales could come from customers with second-tier militaries that want expanded capabilities for both military and homeland security missions, with such regions as Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa potential targets.
But Textron has received interest from the US, as well, according to company officials, particularly from US National Guard leaders who see an advantage in a plane that can assist with counternarcotics and emergency disaster response missions.
“We’ve seen a lot of interests from the Guard on this,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, former director of the Air National Guard. Weaver, who is serving as a senior adviser on Scorpion, pitched the plane as an answer to the long-standing question of why Guard bureaus need high-end fighter jets in their states.
“What Scorpion brings to the table is a fighter the governor actually does need,” Weaver said. “Those are incredible capabilities that give the governor access to things that could be useful after a disaster like a hurricane, where you can get Guard units airborne immediately thereafter to provide surveillance.”
Both Anderson and Weaver acknowledged that they have considered entering a modified Scorpion into the T-X competition to replace the Air Force’s fleet of aging T-38 trainers, but said no decision has been made. Weaver also indicated that the suitability for maritime surveillance could lead to sales with the Coast Guard.
While company officials see the multimission capabilities of the plane as a selling point, Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Virginia-based Teal Group consulting firm, warns the market may not exist for such a jet.
“Historically, it’s been a long time since a market for a plane like this existed,” Aboulafia said. “You really have to work hard to gauge out the presence in this segment. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it’s difficult.”
Emphasizing the Scorpion’s ISR capabilities over its light-attack qualities is probably a good marketing move, Aboulafia said. But he says customers may be more interested in platforms that specialize in doing one thing very well, rather than a jack-of-all-trades approach.
Anderson dismissed that concern, citing the need globally for a cheaper alternative to costly top-end platforms.
“The international market wants an airplane that’s versatile,” Anderson said. “DoD wants a versatile, agile, cost-effective airplane that can do a multirole mission.”
Once data on this first flight is collected, the company will begin refining the design for future prototypes. Anderson estimates that the company would need 18 to 20 months from first order to begin producing units, with a decision about which facility would host high-rate production still up in the air. ■