Boeing’s T-X prototype takes flight
NASA’s famous T-38 trainer, which has been flown by astronauts for fifty years, is being replaced. Boeing‘s T-X made its first flight on Tuesday, Dec. 20. It heralds what could be a new age in training aircraft for NASA.
On Dec. 20, 2016, test pilot Steven Schmidt took one of the company’s two demonstrator planes on a 55-minute flight, along with Dan Draeger – Boeing’s chief pilot for Air Force programs.
Schmidt and Draeger took the plane up to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and flew at speeds of up to 231 knots (265.8 mph / 427.8 km/h). During the flight, they conducted handling checks, tested backup systems, and collected information for post-flight analysis.
“The aircraft met all expectations,” Schmidt said after the flight. “It’s well designed and offers superior handling characteristics. The cockpit is intuitive, spacious and adjustable, so everything is within easy reach.”
Draeger added, “It was a smooth flight and a successful test mission. I had a great all-around view throughout the flight from the instructor’s seat, which is critical during training.”
“We went from CDR (Critical Design Review) to first flight in 12 months,” said Boeing’s T-X program manager Ted Torgerson. “We don’t do that very much at the Boeing Company. I don’t want to say it has not been done, but for a manned aircraft to go through a complete production-ready design, that is as fast and as efficient as we’ve ever been through it.”
The T-X is Boeing’s entry in a competition with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon to replace the T-38. Boeing’s team is the only one to design a plane with a twin canted vertical tail design, similar to the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the F/A-18 Hornet. The cockpit is a stepped tandem cockpit for student and instructor pilots. The T-X is powered by a GE Aviation F404-GE-402 afterburning turbofan.
Northrop Grumman has developed a clean-sheet design that is reported to have flown in August 2016, but the company has declined to confirm those reports.
Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are working on variations of existing foreign aircraft designs. Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada and Turkish Aerospace plan on entering the competition with a prototype design in the works.
The next flight of the T-X is currently scheduled for sometime in 2017.
The T-38 was developed by Northrop in 1961. It is a supersonic, twin-jet trainer aircraft used by both the U.S. Air Force and NASA. Utilized primarily by the Air Education and Training Command, T-38s have also been employed by the Air Force Materiel Command to test experimental equipment.
More than 60,000 pilots have trained in the T-38 since 1961, and more than 500 of the aircraft have remained in service with the Air Force, NASA, and the armed forces of Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey.
The T-38 was, and is, much-beloved by astronauts, pilots, and aviation enthusiasts. As Astronaut Story Musgrave put it: “A thousand years from now its beauty will not have changed; it’s not in any time or place – it’s eternal.”
T-38s served as the chase planes during the Space Shuttle era, piloted by fellow astronauts who followed the experimental orbiter during its descent and landing. Astronauts also used the trainers as personal aircraft to fly around the country to their various training locations.
But now the T-38 is set to be replaced. In early 2015, Boeing entered a partnership with Saab to develop a replacement for the T-38. Since then, the team has worked through multiple stages of aircraft development, from system requirements review to preliminary design review to critical design review and finally ground tests.
Video courtesy of Boeing
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.