Textron prepares for shift to more foreign sales of military plane

The Beechcraft AT-6, the attack version of its T-6 trainer, makes its inaugural flight. (Aug 20, 2013)
The Beechcraft AT-6, the attack version of its T-6 trainer, makes its inaugural flight. (Aug 20, 2013) File photo

The Beechcraft T-6 military airplane is a product that has lasted nearly two decades and survived three changes in company ownership.

Since the first flight of the T-6A Texan II in July 1998 – then under Raytheon Aircraft Co. – it has evolved through four models as a trainer as well as an attack airplane, dubbed the AT-6 Wolverine.

As airplane programs go, the T-6 has been a success. Last month, Textron Aviation’s Beechcraft Defense Co. delivered its 900th T-6 trainer, this one a T-6B to the U.S. Navy’s Training Squadron Two at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Florida.

But the company’s contract with the Navy and Air Force under the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System is nine months away from ending its 16-year run, which has amounted to more than 700 airplanes to the two service branches.

“Winning JPATS was winning the lottery,” said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia. “You just can’t replicate it (in terms of number of orders).”

The challenge for Textron Aviation going forward, analysts said, will be securing more orders outside the U.S. for the single-engine turboprop airplane that is manufactured at the Wichita-based company’s east campus.

“It’s a tough marketplace to be in at this point,” said Wayne Plucker, senior aerospace and defense analyst for Frost & Sullivan. “There are certainly countries looking for, let’s call it an intermediate trainer, but they’re going to kind of have to get in line behind Embraer and others unless they get help from the U.S. government under foreign military sales.”

Textron Aviation said in a statement to The Eagle that it is committed to the T-6 trainer after the JPATS contract ends. It would not disclose how many employees work on the T-6.

The company said that a four-airplane T-6D order from the Army, deliveries of which it announced in June, was its first T-6 delivery to that branch but that no further orders were expected.

“The T-6 continues to be an important program for the company,” the statement said. “The company continues additional T-6 pursuits outside of the U.S.”

Textron Aviation noted in the statement that a number of foreign military services use the T-6: the Hellenic Air Force of Greece, the NATO Flying Training in Canada program, the Iraqi Air Force, the Israeli Air Force, the Royal Moroccan Air Force, the Mexican Air Force and Navy and the New Zealand Defence Force.

The airplane also was selected by the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence’s Military Flying Training System program, though a firm order is pending and expected “in the coming months,” Textron Aviation said.

The U.K. order likely will be a good one, but not at the level the company saw with JPATS.

“It’s not small and it’s a significant thing but … it won’t be 700 airplanes,” said Plucker, the analyst. “It’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep the production line open. That’s something that Textron’s going to be happy with.”

‘Bread and butter’ vs. ‘gravy’

Longer term, the company will need to tap other foreign countries for T-6 sales, Plucker added.

The problem is, it will find stiff competition from other manufacturers, chiefly Brazilian airplane maker Embraer and its Super Tucano, also a one- to two-seat turboprop that is offered as a trainer and light attack military airplane.

That’s the same aircraft the T-6 went up against in a $427.5 million Air Force contract for 20 attack aircraft for Afghanistan’s military forces a few years ago. Then-Hawker Beechcraft offered the AT-6 in its bid for the contract but lost the contest – after a court battle over the contract followed by Beechcraft’s formal protest to the General Accountability Office – to a joint venture between Embraer and Sierra Nevada and their attack version of the Super Tucano.

Since that contest, the company continues to seek customers for the AT-6.

“We have promising and mature pursuits for a launch customer of the AT-6 Wolverine, but are not able to comment specifically on nations where we are offering the aircraft,” Textron Aviation said in its statement.

Aboulafia agrees the T-6 faces a lot of competition in the worldwide military trainer and light-attack markets. Besides Embraer, Textron Aviation is competing with Pilatus and Korea Aerospace in the military trainer market, he said.

One positive for a lasting T-6 program is Textron’s 2014 acquisition of Hawker Beechcraft.

“It’s a lot easier for (Textron) than Beechcraft as a merged company,” he said, adding that it gives production of the airplane “critical mass in terms of product support and marketing” on a global scale.

“They’ve been doing OK on the export front,” Aboulafia said of foreign T-6 sales. “(But) it’s very different when exports are gravy compared to when they are bread and butter.”

And with JPATS concluding, that’s what foreign sales of the T-6 will be for Textron Aviation: bread and butter.

Still, Aboulafia thinks T-6 production will continue post-JPATS.

“It’s just a question of what sort of (production) numbers they’re looking at: one a month, two a month?” he said. “That’s really the question.”

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jsiebenmark.