December 26, 2013

Interest grows in no-longer-secret Scorpion tactical jet

Wichita workers on Textron AirLand’s secret multi-mission tactical military jet, the Scorpion, never called the project by its real name until it became public in September.

Wichita workers on Textron AirLand’s secret multi-mission tactical military jet, the Scorpion, never called the project by its real name until it became public in September.

And they rarely used its code name – SCV12-1.

“It was too much of a tongue twister,” said Dale Tutt, the Scorpion’s chief engineer. “Most of the time we just called it ‘the project.’ Internally, we all knew what we were working on.”

A difficult code name would keep employees from using it, Tutt said, and that would lessen the chance of them mentioning it outside work.

The Scorpion project was kept a secret for nearly two years until Textron, Cessna Aircraft’s parent company, unveiled it three months ago.

The plan to go from concept to first flight in 24 months was an ambitious goal. But Textron and its staff met the schedule, and the Scorpion flew for the first time Dec. 12.

“Generally people thought you were crazy if we thought we could do it in less than four or five years,” Tutt said.

A quick turnaround is key to the success of the program, officials said.

Textron envisions a relatively affordable aircraft with multiple uses that could fulfill a number of military and security missions. Potential customers include not only the Pentagon, but U.S. allies around the globe.

The company has not yet taken any orders for the composite, tandem-seat, twin-engine jet.

“The objective when we kicked this program off is ‘speed is paramount,’ ” said Bill Anderson, who heads Cessna’s military government and special missions program and Textron AirLand. “You’re not clairvoyant on what the market is, but if you take five years to get there, you have a good chance of missing it.”

We wanted to get to the market as soon as we could. Let’s get an airplane … let’s fly it and then try to get it sold.”

Now that it’s flown, interest has increased significantly.

“We’ve had a lot of interest, both in the U.S. and internationally,” Tutt said. “The pace has certainly picked up. It’s amazing. … Everybody’s excited to hear more about it.”

The AirLand venture

The Scorpion is a joint venture between Textron, Cessna’s parent company, and AirLand Enterprises.

AirLand is composed of a group of aviation enthusiasts and former military officers who had an idea for a new military plane, Anderson said.

“We, Textron, decided to partner with them and commercially develop what we call an ISR strike aircraft,” he said.

The Department of Defense has been asking industry “to bring your commercial best practices to the DOD and let’s bring the cost of military products down,” Anderson said. “They have been asking for it, and we decided to do it.”

The international market for a cost-effective intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike airplane that has long endurance can total billions of dollars, he said.

AirLand Enterprises was founded by Clay Prince, chairman, president and CEO. Prince’s background is doing market analysis and understanding where there are unmet needs, Tutt said.

Plus, “he’s always had a good passion for his country,” Tutt said.

Former Secretary of the Air Force Whitten Peters and retired U.S. Air Force Major Gen. Paul Weaver are also part of the venture.

Market analysis for the Scorpion continues, Anderson said.

The plane is intended to be used for border security, maritime security, counter narcotics activities, irregular warfare support, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, the company said.

It fits the middle niche between unmanned vehicles, Embraer’s Super Tucano and Beechcraft’s AT-6, both turboprops, and fast, expensive fighter jets, such as the F-18 or F-35.

An F-18 or F-16 can cost $15,000 to $16,000 an hour to operate, Anderson said.

By contrast, the Scorpion is designed to cost less than $3,000 an hour in operating costs and sell for less than $20 million.

If the concept works, it will create a new market for tactical aircraft, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute.

“There are at least 60 countries in the world that would like to have a tactical aircraft like the Scorpion, but they can’t afford something as expensive as a F-35 or a F-18,” Thompson said.

Potentially it will create demand where none was previously recognized to exist, Thompson said.

High-end fighters like the F-35 can deal with most anything, he said. “But they cost so much to operate that most countries can’t hope to buy them.”

“A country flying a Super Tucano might decide it’s cost effective to move up with a Scorpion; a country operating with a F-16 might decide what they really need is something that’s jet powered but not as capable,” Thompson said.

The Scorpion’s low operating costs are an advantage.

“At some point, the high performance of the best fighters becomes an enemy of owning them because they cost too much to keep in the air,” Thompson said.

Teal Group aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia, however, said the launch of the Scorpion project is baffling.

“Historically, the market for a light combat aircraft has been extremely small,” Aboulafia said.

Embraer’s Super Tucanos and Beechcraft’s King Airs are selling well.

King Airs have been in use for many years.

“They work so well,” he said. “Drones are also playing a growing role. Could they sell (the Scorpion) to somebody? Sure. There’s always somebody. But enough to justify a program? I’m not sure how that happened.”

It could be that there’s a customer in mind, however, Aboulafia said.

Evolved design

The Scorpion started out as a single design concept in early 2012.

Today, the prototype tandem-seat, twin-engine plane is significantly changed from that original idea.

“We might have saved the nose cone,” Tutt joked.

“The thing we were concerned with was that it wasn’t going to meet the design goals and the design objectives of the airplane,” Tutt said.

For nine days in 2012, fewer than 12 engineers reviewed more than a dozen configurations to decide which would best meet the goals for the airplane.

“We were throwing pizzas under the door,” Tutt joked. “We literally had a throw down.”

They narrowed the list to four.

From there, the team spent four hours talking about the pros and cons of each design before making a final selection.

“Everybody put their biases aside and said, ‘This is the program we’re going to work now,’ ” Tutt said.

Once the project was launched, things moved quickly.

Developing the team

The engineering building where the project is housed, known as the Glass House, has a history of use for secret projects, such as Cessna’s Citation CJ4, Skycatcher and other aircraft.

In the wake of the recession, which has hurt the general aviation market, Cessna had vacated the building and put it up for sale.

The building had to be set up and computer networks put back in place.

A team had to be recruited and built.

Because of secrecy surrounding the project, they were recruited not knowing what project they would be working on, Tutt said.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.

A core group of Cessna employees and contractors are on loan for the project.

At its peak, the team totaled about 200 people. That’s now declined to about 170, including about 120 engineers.

The design schedule took an unconventional route.

The design of the outside contours of the plane was frozen in May 2012, Tutt said. Production of wing parts began in August. And the wind tunnel testing didn’t begin until the next month.

“Generally, everybody does wind tunnel testing before building the tools,” Tutt said.

Workers on the project stepped out of their normal work assignments to help where needed.

“We could see the progress every day, every week, every minute,” Tutt said.

Toward the end of the project, so many correlating activities were going on that “it felt like you were an air traffic controller at times, and everybody wanted to land at the same time,” he said.

To lower costs and risks and help meet the quick schedule, engineers incorporated many existing or mature systems, including some that are on Cessna Citation’s product line.

Roughly 90 percent of the plane’s composites and metal structures were built in Wichita by Cessna or its Wichita-area suppliers.

The design has the ability to be modified, said its chief test pilot Dan Hinson following the first flight.

“You could pop the wing off and stick another one on,” Hinson said. The engines can be changed.

The plane was designed to be a family of platforms, Tutt said.

It’s the same idea that Cessna has designing jets, he said.

“We want it to be adaptable to other platforms,” Tutt said.

For example, it could be converted to an unmanned system or a trainer.

The wing could be modified so the plane would fly faster.

First delivery will take place 15 to 18 months after an order is received, Tutt said. The earliest deliveries would begin would be 2015, he said.

The design and low-rate production will be done in Wichita. But it’s too soon to say where full-rate production will be performed, Tutt said.

“We’re keeping all our options open at this point,” he said.

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