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.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Jul 17, 2014

I maintain that Cessna lost is bearings on military aircraft long ago; after the huge T-37/A-37 success, nothing. The Scorpion has no market, it is an shortened version of the F-18 without the speed or weapons carrying capacity. Several of the missions it intends to undertake can be done by existing A-10s at a fraction of the cost. If high altitude high-speed interception is required the F-16 is there.

on Jul 18, 2014

The A-10 is going away whether you like it or not. It's been on the chopping block for YEARS and keeps getting reprieved. Unfortunately there is no direct replacement for what the A-10 does best.

But the Scorpion isn't intended to replace the A-10's combat strike role. It's intended to replace the role that the A-10 (and F-16...and F-18) gets stuck with a great majority of the time....which even it is not intended to fill. That's the whole point: To stop wasting expensive airframe life on patrolling.

On your "a fraction of the cost" comment....need to stop and compare actual cost per flight hour. The A-10 is an aging airframe. The costs to keep old aircraft in the air grows as they age. As much as we love the A-10's, they are getting worn out and will eventually have to be put out to pasture.

on Jul 19, 2014

The Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II was designed to task. It is good at only one thing, "Close Air Support". The pilot sits in a Titanium tub that keeps him safe. The GAU-8 30mm gun can destroy any ground target that our forces have ever come up against. The placement of the engines is high and behind the wing and in front of the tail surfaces to deprive MANPADS launch by any ground operator at a most optimal angle for intercept. The combat system has been perfected to the Nth degree. Some A-10s have absorbed enough damage where the landing gear could not be deployed, yet the wheels stick out the bottom of the fuselage to enable a safe landing. Everything being offered as a replacement is a FAST JET, which is unsuited for the task. The mere psychological effect of an A-10 showing up on-station causes a change in the battle before a shot has been fired. IF a replacement is designed using the same criteria . . . you could have your modern replacement. Every replacement to date has been a FAST JET unsuited for the task. The ONLY friends of the FAST JET solution are the USAF and the industrial military complex trying to capture the sale with something they already have, and not have to develop that NEW CAS AIRCRAFT.

The A-10 is not used when we do not have Air Supremacy, and was never designed to do Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) although it carries AIM-9 missiles for self defense. Additionally, most USAF pilots do not want to fly A-10s. They want to be fighter pilots and go fast. There is a huge cadre of A-10 pilots in the Guard and Reserve who want to fly nothing but A-10s because it is fun to fly, and they have a higher probability of coming home if they take damage, and it is tremendously rewarding for them to help their Army and Marine brethren in trouble on the ground needing their help. The Law dictates that the USAF support our troops on the ground. These A-10 pilots fly into the teeth of the lion every time they provide support. The fighter pilots fly above the fray. I will leave it to you to determine which is the bravest and most gallant. The A-10 pilots are the only ones the USAF wants to get rid of. HHUMMMMMM?!!!!

Just my 2₵

on Jul 19, 2014

Firstly in a moment let me re iterate one thing in this historically momentously surreal maze of disposable technology today! @ being born and knowing and seeing the assassination of JFK was a mind altering life changing moment in our perception of how politics were played out, at that point in the teenage lives of many of us. Since that point governments all alike have been perceived as Deceptive all powerful and with great undermining capabilities as they needed. So now to the point associations after the cold war have created divergent relationships that have gone aryl to the point of creating sickly relationships. And allegiances. How (and I'd like to repeat this but wont) in Gods great creation could we have lost a futuristic aircraft such as that of the flight MH370 completely. I'm sorry but that is just out of the question absolutely and unequivocally unacceptable today. So here goes to my Canadian associates and allegiances we need not look for the F35 project any longer bite the bullet with the losses we now have to take. Aviation of the future will not ! Will not be that of piloted aircraft and we need an inexpensive (ISR) aircraft presently as well as a lot of other updated crap in our armed forces. Textron are offering this multi faceted incredibly versatile craft at a minute portion of the investment already lost with the F-35 this is what we need! Not what we want but what we need. With scram-jet Mach 8 inevitable and new (UAV's) stealth technology (ISR) combined with (LGB) as weaponry all in one, No need to worry about hand to hand combat it's the big picture we are missing. One lousy dirty bomb could conceivably wipe us all out. So my bottom line is do you know where your going ? I do !

on Jul 25, 2014

Well I love little aircraft like this & I'm sure if you gave the army 200 of them you'd have the mother of all fights on your hands to get them back. Provide the intelligence of their hand held drones with on board sensors, beam the info back to the troops. Then when the fur starts flying they can drop some PGMs, fire some cannons & rockets, buzz around the enemy. They would also be great at low level counter air vs choppers. 400kts aint much for a jet, but its twice as fast as a chopper & a little multi purpose radar with an AIM-9 on either wing would seal the deal.

If my country Australia said tomorrow they were reducing the F-35 buy by 6 & bought 40 of these instead, I'd be over the moon. These things we can afford to buy & fly, can't do either with the -35.

on Aug 2, 2014

I like the little guy too. We could build a lot of them. quantity has a quality all its own.

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