Ex-Harrier pilots working on better, faster, cheaper ISR flight testing
In an era of austerity, it might be counterintuitive to suggest that aviation and defense subsystems and equipment manufacturers could save money by doing more flight testing. But this is the pitch that a small company operating from this quiet, art deco-styled airfield in the heart of Britain has turned into a viable and growing business. At its core is an idea that has the potential to revolutionize aerospace development.
“When I was in the military it felt like test and evaluation went: develop, develop, develop, develop, test, fail; redevelop, redevelop, test; is that good enough?” says Chris Norton, cofounder of 2Excel Aviation. “Instead of that, our big idea is to go: develop, test; develop, test; develop, test. So you make fewer mistakes, you don't go down blind alleys, you don't create something that nobody wants.”
Flight testing has traditionally been seen as an expensive, high-end capability, well served by a number of established providers, and only worth doing toward the end of the development cycle. The cost is a function of the unique nature of every test, and the resultant need to undertake often extensive and time-consuming reconfiguration of the testbed aircraft to support each different customer and system.
2Excel relies on a small fleet of Piper Navajo PA-31 aircraft, stuffed with kilometers of wiring, sockets and a patch bay, and carrying a plethora of unique brackets, mountings and fairings. Instead of spending weeks instrumenting an aircraft for a single set of customer's tests, 2Excel can re-fit its “airborne laboratories” in as little as a couple of hours. Rather than tying up the aircraft for months at a time, 2Excel offers bookings by the day. As a result, Norton claims the company can knock down the price of flight testing.
Says Norton: “Airborne testing is beyond the reach of most small and medium-sized companies, so they don't do it. I'm not decrying what the legacy flight-test providers do: They will argue that their solution is technically perfect. But you don't need a 100% solution when you're at [Technology Readiness Level] 2 or 3. You need it to be perfect by the time you hit TRL 8, or System Readiness Level 7. However, if that's the first time you do flight test, and you find you've missed something, it's extraordinarily expensive [to resolve]. If a company spends £10 million [$15.7 million] a year on R&D, and I can reduce the risk of getting it wrong, then, frankly, this pays for itself 10 times over.”
Founded in 2005 by Norton and Andy Offer, both former Harrier squadron commanders in the, 2Excel began operations in April 2006 as an aerobatic display team with a difference. The Blades— which operates two-seat piston-powered Extra 300 aircraft, each flown by a former member of the Red Arrows —was, from the outset, licensed as an airline, and carries fare-paying passengers on stunt flights. The company currently has four business units: As well as the Blades, which makes money from air show appearances and corporate events, there is Broadsword, which flies holidaymakers in its three King Airs; Sabre, which offers contract air solutions to clients including the British Defense Ministry; and Scimitar, the flight-test operation. A fifth subdivision, an aerospace design house called Leading Edge, is launching imminently.
While Norton believes Scimitar's affordability is due in part to the fact that “we haven't got any baggage: there is no 'How we've always done it',” staff experience is a key selling point. All six Scimitar pilots have backgrounds in operational or experimental test and evaluation in the RAF, and when Sabre is hired to fly as a surrogate attack aircraft during army close-air support training exercises, the pilot will be a veteran of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo.
“We pulled in a lot of the Harrier force when it closed,” says Norton. “We have a bunch of former Red Arrows, a bunch of Jaguar pilots. It's almost like a little squadron.”
Scimitar and Sabre were established out of necessity in 2008, after a pivotal Blades sponsorship deal with a High Street bank fell victim to the global financial crisis; both divisions are already back in the black.
The Sabre-like service had always been part of the 2Excel plan, but Scimitar was new. “We created the capability from a blank piece of paper,”Norton says. “People said to us, 'It can't be done,' but that is the perfect place for us. If you can go and prove that you can do something that somebody says can't be done, you're first in—and if you can fill that space, you've got a commercial business.”
Much of Scimitar's day-to-day business remains confidential, but its extensive work with Selex Galileo is well documented. Scimitar's aircraft appear in brochures for two systems currently marketed by the-owned company. One is Sage, a suite of digital electronic support measures/electronic-intelligence receivers; the other is a radar-warning system for small aircraft, called Seer.
Two other Scimitar-flown Selex programs deal with situational awareness (SA). One of them, VigilX, fuses electro-optical and infrared information into a single SA product delivered to pilots via a helmet-mounted display, providing an alternative to night-vision goggles. The other uses off-the-shelf cameras and a Selex algorithm to alert a pilot to any inbound aircraft on potential collision courses—it is seen as a partial solution to the sense-and-avoid requirement to enable unmanned systems to fly in civil airspace, and could also be marketed as an additional safety option to the general aviation community.
Versatility is the reason 2Excel settled on the PA-31 as its platform of choice. The relatively roomy aircraft are on the U.K.'s civilian register, so client company engineers can fly during tests as passengers; data links also permit monitoring and control of test equipment to take place in real time on the ground. The mostly metal aircraft are unpressurized, so even major modifications—such as the large dormer window inserted in one of the Navajos for a burst-illumination laser test program—can be made quickly and inexpensively.
Norton characterizes 2Excel's relationships with clients as “partnerships,” and is keen to make clear that Scimitar's role is to facilitate early and frequent flight testing, not to lay claim to any of the technologies under development. However, the Scimitar staff is not there simply to drive the bus. “If you said, 'Here's a widget, just test it,' then of course we will,” says Norton. “But that's not really where you're harnessing our skills.”
To integrate the VigilX system on to the Navajo, Scimitar trials manager Dick Downs designed a multi-aperture nose cone. The team has also designed, tested and achieved certification for bespoke winglets, which include carriage space for antennas or other equipment. The Seer system's pairs of 45-deg. aerials were fitted to the Navajo following a bout of homespun, low-tech innovation.
“I took the stress ball off my desk and chopped it in half,” says Norton, who stuck the two hemispheres onto an improvised mounting made out of an old box and masking tape in a process he jocularly calls “cardboard-aided design.” With the rough-and-ready model demonstrating that the configuration had potential, Scimitar staff built the actual fairing and began testing it. Within six weeks the modification was certified.
“There's never been a Navajo with a radar-warning receiver on it, and we put two on and had it cleared to go anywhere in the world in six weeks,” Norton says. “Not only do you have rapid insertion of capability, you have a demonstration platform you can take anywhere. This is transformational for the defense world.”
Scimitar is busy—the outfit flew 33 weeks of trials last year, nine weeks more than their business plan had targeted. Marketing thus far has been by word-of-mouth: The 2Excel website only publicizes the Blades, and the company opted not to paint the Navajos gray to avoid drawing attention to the company and its work. But the flight-test operation is coming out of the shadows—two of the Navajos were on static display at the Farnborough air show (where the Blades performed daily), and Aviation Week's visit to Sywell marks the first time Scimitar has been presented to the media.
“We haven't got the scale or the capacity to do masses of work, so we didn't want to go so public that loads of people come to us,” Norton says. “Nor do we want to declare how we're doing it, so that people can copy us. Those are the risks in having this conversation.”
Yet, while popularity and imitation may be dangerous, so too is failing to explain the proposition. Persuading people to spend money earlier than they are used to is not always straightforward, even if the potential savings are considerable.
“[One company] said, 'I don't think I'm going to use you',” Norton recalls. “I asked, 'Why not?' They said, 'Because you're not reassuringly expensive.' I couldn't believe what I was hearing—but that is the cultural change that has to go on in every organization that doesn't do flight test and put it at the heart of their development programs.”