WASHINGTON — Textron AirLand has begun a limited production run of its Scorpion jet in advance of a first flight later this year, its chief executive officer announced Thursday.

Textron has yet to land a first customer for the aircraft, the internally-funded clean-sheet design the company has been promoting in international markets since its 2013 debut. But Textron wants to take advantage of growing interest in the aircraft, likely caused by recent successful weapons tests and an agreement with the Air Force to assess the airworthiness of the platform, said Scott Donnelly, the company's chairman and chief executive officer.

"Given the level of activity, we've gone ahead and sort of pulled the trigger on initiating a small production build to help validate our manufacturing processes," he said in an Oct. 20 earnings call.

Textron developed Scorpion as a high-performing but inexpensive ISR and strike asset, costing $20 million to acquire and clocking in at $3,000 per flight hour, according to the company. Donnelly did not specify how many Scorpion jets would be produced in the initial production batch, but they will be build in the same facility in Wichita, Kansas, where the company previously built two planes. Only the first aircraft has flown so far, but that one is not considered production representative.

"We have a lot of customer conversations going on right now. We think there’s a number of opportunities to demonstrate this aircraft," Donnelly said. "We have a lot of customers that want to fly the aircraft, and that’s really what led us to want to accelerate both the expense side as well to … initiate a limited rate of production. Because we need to have these assets available for customer demonstrations, customer flights and hopefully, eventually, customer sales."

Producing a limited batch of aircraft will also help validate the company’s manufacturing processes and support Air Force requirements as the service assesses the jet, he said.

The service in July announced it had signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Textron to conduct an airworthiness assessment at the company’s expense. The goal of the review is to make it easier for US defense contractors to internationally sell military aircraft that are not planned for procurement by the US services. Donnelly noted that he had seen an uptick in customer interest since the agreement was announced.

"I think as we’ve established this CRADA with the Air Force and now have a path to certification, the level of activity with customers has stepped up considerably," he said. "It’s the right time for us to step up and demonstrate this aircraft and its performance capability and get much more aggressive about the marketing and test flights."

While there is no firm date for the aircraft to complete its airworthiness assessment, Donnelly said Textron personnel are working with officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to finalize detailed test plans and review data.

Meanwhile, the company has also conducted weapons testing of the jet in preparation for the first flight of a production-conforming jet, which Donnelly said will occur "very soon."

The Scorpion recently completed its first weapons demonstration at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, a company statement said. During the event, an airborne laser on the Scorpion‘s L-3 WESCAM’s MX-15Di sensor suite guided Hydra-70 unguided 2.75-inch rockets, BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) and AGM-114F Hellfire missiles to their targets.

The acceleration of Scorpion testing and production — which resulted in higher expenses than had originally been planned for in this stage of the program — has led to some pressure on earnings, Donnelly conceded.

"This is certainly not, still, a sure bet," but Textron would not take the financial risk if it wasn’t seeing strong interest from customers that indicated the time was right to start production and more aggressively pursue marketing and test flying the aircraft, he said.

One potential path to a future contract is the UK’s Air Support to Defence Operational Training program, Bill Anderson, president of Textron AirLand, told Defense News this July. This summer, Thales and QinetiQ selected Textron’s Scorpion as the aircraft in its proposed offering for the contract. According to a QinetiQ news release, the Scorpion was chosen for its high performance, reliability and low acquisition costs.

Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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