Sting In The Tail

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My first reaction to photos of the Textron Airland Scorpion was not positive, I will admit. The tandem cockpit, twin canted vertical stabilizers and slender straight wing made it look too much like a Citation wearing a Super Hornet costume for Halloween.

From an operational viewpoint, it seemed to be at risk of falling between two stools: not that much more survivable than a light attack aircraft in the AT-6 or Tucano class, and, in a reconnaissance mission, able to carry the same kind of sensors as a special-mission King Air, but more expensive to buy and fly, and with one very busy weapon systems operator in the rear seat.

Before I went to Farnborough I ran those twin tails past some people I know who really design airplanes. The Scorpion passed this test: the fuselage was wide enough, I was told, to cause problems with body slipstream blanketing the tail at high angles of attack. Two tails could be lighter than the tall single fin that would be required to get some fin area above the body wake. (I’m looking at you, M-346.)

Next, it was a matter of venturing to the Textron display, located somewhere in Surrey, to talk to Textron Airland’s president Bill Anderson and chief engineer Dale Tutt.

In person, the Scorpion is quite big -– at 21,250 lb. max take-off weight it is about the size of the M-346 or a Citation Excel, it carries a 9,300 pound useful load, and it stands well clear of the ground. As a jet, it offers much greater speed and altitude capability than a King Air or AT-6, Anderson points out.

Now that Textron owns both those aircraft, the Scorpion is not intended to compete with them. Or anything else, for that matter. The Scorpion costs more than its propeller-driven cousins but much less than a fighter: the goals were a $20 million acquisition cost and $3,000 per flight hour. Its niche is to do missions for which air forces today use fighters because that’s what they have, but where the fighter’s expensively acquired air-combat prowess and survivability are unused.

Textron Airland is careful to avoid the “light strike” label. Anderson says the role is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)/strike. It might be better called “non-traditional ISR,” which is what many fighters have ended up doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We talk to A-10 guys just back from their tours. Did they get shot at? No. Did they use weapons? 95 percent of the time, no,” Anderson says. “When you do that on an A-10 or an F-16, not only are you spending $18,000 an hour, but you’re chewing up lifetime on high-end assets.”

Anderson rattles off examples: counter-narcotics, armed reconnaissance over Afghanistan, border patrol. Modern sensors allow those missions to be performed at 15,000 feet or above, well above “golden BB” range. The Scorpion is designed to be tough, and may get shot at, but it’s not intended to be sent against well-equipped defenses. “That’s what you use that for,” says Anderson, gesturing at a Super Hornet cavorting overhead.

Although Textron Airland surveyed the installed base of fighters when it was inventing the Scorpion, Anderson adds, conversations with customers “that have gone beyond the initial phase” include two substantial prospects who are not replacing anything.

The airframe, Tutt and Anderson explain, is designed around its 82 cu ft., cooled and power-supplied payload bay. The designers looked at pods and pallets, Tutt says, but the bay allows for better integration. The wide fuselage, pear-shaped in cross-section, has dual keels on either side of the bay, and the lower skin can be custom-designed with whatever doors or apertures the customer needs. The bay is a key feature for the aircraft’s ISR-strike mission, and is there for large, specialized sensors such as foliage penetration radars or wide-area surveillance systems. In the cockpit, Textron is getting ready to demonstrate Thales’ low-cost helmet-mounted display, also called Scorpion.

The mid-body section tapers into a flat beaver-tail between the engine nacelles. The inlet ducts are long enough to keep the inlets out of the debris-and-spray zone, and long jetpipes reduce infrared signature. The landing gear is tall enough to facilitate swapping payloads in the bay, without making the wing pylons –- three on either side -– inconveniently high. A production version will have a standard inflight refueling capability, provided by Cobham.

The tandem cockpits, with Martin-Baker Mk16 seats, are preferred to side-by-side by international users, Anderson says, but Tutt adds that the layout points to another unusual feature of the Scorpion concept: it is designed to be modular. A tandem-seat configuration can easily be converted to a single-seater, or -– in the future -– a no-seater, an unmanned air vehicle with longer wings and smaller engines. Another option: the standard production aircraft will have a speedbrake above the beaver-tail, but some customers want to trade that for an antenna farm.

Area-increasing flaps provide a short-field capability –- Scorpion can use 2,000-foot strips at maximum weight and has adequate flotation for poor-quality runways. The flight controls are similar to the Citation X, with dual hydraulic systems and manual reversion using servo tabs. Overall, Anderson notes, the systems are patterned on Citation experience, “with its 99 percent availability rate.” The aircraft needs no specialized ground equipment –- it has a Cobham onboard oxygen generating system, and there is a boarding ladder, folded into a left-side compartment.

Wisely, Anderson is not setting a public target date for getting a customer. “There are some discussions that have gone well beyond the initial stage”, he says. We’ll see how that works out by Paris next year.

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