PALMDALE, Calif. – Northrop Grumman intends to fly a prototype of the company's T-X concept early this year, in anticipation of an upcoming Air Force competition to replace the aging T-38 fleet used for advanced jet training.

Northrop is working with aerospace company Scaled Composites, which it acquired in 2007, on an internally funded T-X demonstrator aircraft, Tom Vice, president of the company's aerospace sector, told reporters Jan. 14 during a media trip. Vice did not specify exactly when the prototype would fly, but said the event would take place in the first half of this year.

"We intend to fly the aircraft at a time which we believe aligns with the competition. So we will fly it when the competition dictates it," Vice said. "Obviously we're trying to hold on to the uniqueness of the design, but we will be flying that airplane probably in the first half of 2016."

Vice's comments were made as part of a company-organized trip to Northrop's Southern California facilities this week. Defense News accepted travel and hotel accommodations from the company.

Northrop, along with partners BAE Systems and L-3, initially had planned to propose an updated version of the Hawk T2/128 for the T-X program. But in a major reversal, Northrop decided to migrate to a clean-sheet design, according to reports from February 2015.

To construct the prototype, Northrop turned to Scaled Composites, which is known for its innovative engineering and rapid cycle time. The company is currently working on a total of 15 projects, a mixture of government and commercial models, company President Ben Diachun told reporters Jan. 14 during a trip to Scaled’s facility in Mojave, California.

"We've averaged a first flight every year in our 34-year history, Diachun said, emphasizing the company's history of rapid prototyping. "Each new project we take on, we look at what kind of opportunity is there to go demonstrate a new technology or a new aviation milestone."

In addition to T-X, Scaled is working on a new Firebird spy plane, designed primarily for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The twin-tail plane, designed for unmanned or manned flight, is rather odd-looking, with a pusher propeller at the rear of its fuselage.

Vice declined to give further details about the T-X demonstrator, but said the aircraft "is more than just a prototype." The company's T-X proposal bears a striking resemblance to the T-38 Talon, also built by Northrop, according to December press reports.

Northrop’s competition includes another clean-sheet design being put forth by a team made up of Boeing and Saab; Textron AirLand’s new Scorpion design; and the T-50 , the offering from Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries.

Raytheon is also reportedly eyeing a T-X role, and has had conversations about joining the Alenia Aermacchi T-100 bid as prime contractor, Defense News reported in September.

General Dynamics had been part of that offering as the prime contractor until March, when it surprisingly dropped off the team.

The winner of the T-X competition will provide the Air Force with 350 new aircraft to replace the T-38s. The service believes a new trainer is needed not just because of the age of the fleet, but because it cannot provide ample training for pilots who will be flying the F-35 joint strike fighter in the future.

The Air Force remains on track to release a request for proposal in September 2016, a contract award in fall of 2017 and initial operating capability sometime in 2023.


Twitter: @laraseligman

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