A year ago Friday, Textron AirLand’s new Scorpion tactical jet flew for the first time.
The flight came only two years after the twin-engine, low-cost jet was designed and built in secret inside a Cessna facility in southeast Wichita.
The project was publicly announced in September 2013.
In the past year, the Scorpion has flown more than 260 hours and made more than 130 flights.
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Scorpion team members will mark the achievements of the past year with a small celebration at its site.
Flight testing will continue into 2015.
Textron AirLand and AirLand Enterprises developed the jet on their own – rather than relying on government funding – as an option for countries that can’t afford expensive fighter jets.
Dale Tutt, chief engineer for the Scorpion program, still speaks excitedly about the project.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” Tutt said. “We hit the mark” on the aircraft.
He’s pleased with the program’s progress.
“It’s been a blast,” Tutt said.
About 150 to 160 people are working on the project.
At the same time, the company is talking with potential customers to secure a launch customer and other orders.
Military sales traditionally take longer to make than selling to commercial customers.
Interest is strong, Tutt said.
It’s been growing since the Scorpion flew across the ocean in July and was on display for the first time at two key airshows: the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow.
Response from potential customers has far exceeded expectations, Tutt said.
“Countries were coming up to us that hadn’t been on our radar yet,” he said.
It was a trip that included 19 legs and 38 flight hours. The plane had no issues.
The company is now in advanced discussions with potential customers for the jet, designed to be an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, airplane with strike capabilities.
“We’re working with a number of different countries right now,” Tutt said.
It’s not yet clear when the first order might be announced.
“I don’t want to speculate on the timing,” he said. The company’s policy is not to talk about potential customers.
But reports say Textron AirLand has been in at least initial discussions with Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia about the Scorpion.
Interest in Nigeria
Tutt and two others attended last month’s International Fighter annual conference in London, where they participated in a panel discussion on the future of ISR and light attack aircraft.
Coincidentally, a Nigerian military official spoke at the same event, Tutt said.
During his speech, the Nigerian air force senior official, Air Vice Marshal R.A. Ojuawo, talked about Nigeria’s need to modernize its fleet with aircraft that had good ISR capability and were weaponized and reliable.
Tutt turned to his colleague and said, “This is right up our alley.”
Ojuawo’s next step was unexpected.
He put a photo of the Scorpion on the screen, “totally unbeknown to us, and said, ‘We want to buy this airplane,’” Tutt said. “That’s always satisfying when countries say that.”
The official in discussions with Textron said Nigeria’s air force is interested in the aircraft. There are State Department restrictions on what Textron can sell and to whom.
“Our team is working on that,” Tutt said in response to questions about reports on Nigeria’s interest.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Nigerian air force is concerned that efforts to acquire the Scorpion may be blocked because of concerns about Nigeria’s human rights record.
The air force currently relies on a fleet of older jets as it battles Boko Haram terrorists.
The Nigerian official dismissed human rights concerns, saying bystanders harmed as part of the battle against the insurgents shouldn’t be characterized as human rights violations, the Wall Street Journal said.
Nigeria is initially interested in 12 Scorpions to form one squadron, it said. A formal request to buy the plane has not been made.
Other countries at the conference expressed the need for affordable military aircraft, Tutt said.
“They want a jet, and they want to have ISR, and they want to have weapons,” he said.
There was also interest in the traditional big fighter jets at the conference, Tutt said.
In August, the Scorpion team participated in the Vigilant Guard, a large-scale, multi-state disaster response training exercise that tests the capabilities of emergency response agencies, both military and civil.
The Scorpion was on display at other venues.
It’s worthwhile to get the plane out in front of potential customers, Textron executives agree.
“No matter how many videos we show on YouTube and press releases we put out, it somehow makes it real when people see it for the first time,” Tutt said. “It solidifies that this can satisfy their needs.”
Flight testing will continue next year to gain a better understanding of how the systems operate and how the airplane flies, Tutt said.
“We’ve already learned a lot of that,” he said. “We continue to make improvements to enhance how the airplane performs.”
The team will continue to take the plane to shows and out on display.
A focus on sales will continue.
“A lot of energy next year will be focused on helping to sell the airplane to as many folks as we can,” Tutt said.
The team will continue work on production design, so when there’s an order, it can quickly move into production. When an order is placed, “We could start production deliveries within a couple of years,” Tutt said.
The Scorpion is important to Wichita suppliers. Small machine, composite and tooling shops worked on the project.
“It has been real good for them,” Tutt said. “As we prepare for production, I would expect that we’ll offer a lot of those same shops some opportunities.”
Engineering will always be in Wichita, he said.
“As we continue to sell to different customers, there will always be specialized work for each customer,” Tutt said.
No decisions have been made where the planes will ultimately be built, however.
“We have a lot of people expressing interest,” Tutt said.
What about Wichita?
“We have a lot of capacity here in Wichita,” he said. “But until we actually get that first production order, it’s kind of a ‘what-if’ scenario.”