The long-delayed Advanced Pilot Training Competition finally takes off.

by James Wynbrandt

By year’s end, the U.S. Air Force is expected to select the winner of its Advanced Pilot Training (T-X) competition. This selection will end the long and delayed search for a replacement for the venerable Northrop T-38 Talon, the Air Force’s primary jet trainer of more than half a century.

The U.S. Air Force plans to order 350 of the new trainers, intended to prepare pilots to fly fifth-generation aircraft like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, with entry into service (EIS) slated for 2024. Sweetening the potential payoff for the selected T-X contractor, demand from U.S. partner nations for next-generation trainers could push overall T-X purchases to 1,000 units, according to estimates.

Northern Lightning 2016

Though the concept of a competition conjures images of fly-offs performed before reviewing stands, packed with military brass and government personnel, the selection will be based on accounting data as much as aircraft performance specs. In fact, the U.S. Air Force has remained mum about what, if any, flight demonstrations will be performed. “Because the T-X is currently in source selection, we cannot comment on specific requirements,” a spokesperson told Aviation Aftermarket Defense. “We’re also restricted from commenting on any topic that may affect source selection.”

Since it was announced more than a dozen years ago, the replacement plan has drawn strong interest from aircraft manufacturers and contractors, which intensified with the release of the formal request for proposal (RFP) on December 30, 2016. Noteworthy, in the wake of the RFP, are not only the platforms now officially in contention, but also those withdrawn from consideration, as the service implements a new paradigm for acquisition programs, and suppliers grapple with tightened procurement budgets.

Setting an “affordability gate” limit of $16.3 billion for 350 aircraft and an associated “live, virtual, and constructive” ground-based training program, minimum T-X performance benchmarks include a 6.5G maneuvering envelope and 20-degree angle of attack (AOA) maneuverability. The aircraft and simulation system will be tasked with both basic and advanced training roles.


Basic training consists of instrumentation and navigation; aircraft control; airmanship; formation flight; air-to-air combat; air-to-ground combat; and crew/cockpit resource management. Advanced training includes sustained high-G operations (6.5 to 7.5Gs); aerial refueling; air-to-air intercepts; night vision imaging systems operations; and data link operations.

Under the new acquisitions approach, the evaluation criteria weigh technical performance and program risk equally with price. The U.S. Air Force will give bidders credit for aircraft performance that exceeds minimum standards, which will effectively lower the total evaluated price of the platform. Bidders also will  receive credit for delivering hardware below cost limits, as well as for establishing lower turnaround times.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein says that the new evaluation process holds “great promise” for future acquisition programs. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James calls the T-X “one of our beta cases” for a new emphasis on cost capability analysis as a means of reducing program budgets.

The Contenders

The two favorite contenders for the trainer contract are Boeing’s T-X, a design developed with Saab, and Lockheed Martin’s and Korea Aerospace Industry’s (KAI’s) T-50A, a derivative of the FA-50 Golden Eagle that the companies co-developed. Also in contention is the T-100 from Italy’s Leonardo and its U.S. subsidiary DRS. At least one other dark horse, the Freedom Trainer from Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), developed in partnership with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), will reportedly formally enter the competition as well.

The Boeing T-Xtx_rollout4_960-aa

Boeing and Swedish partner Saab offer the Boeing T-X (BTX), a clean-sheet, fly-by-wire, single-engine, twin-tail jet powered by a GE F404 engine. “Our T-X is real, ready, and the right choice for training pilots for generations to come,” says Boeing Defense, Space, and Security President and Chief Executive Officer Leanne Caret.

Unveiled in September 2016, the BTX is the product of a joint development agreement that the companies signed in 2013.The advanced cockpit features flexible avionics and a reconfigurable large area display (LAD), designed to provide students and instructors with a maximum range of training options. The stadium seating, which positions the instructor above and behind the student, facilitates training. Plus, the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) 1-7 compliant design increases the number of individuals who can effectively train and instruct in the platform.


For the ground-based training component, the Chicago-based airframer will provide “real-as-it-gets simulation,” along with interactive classroom lessons, computer-based training modules, and adaptive training that adjusts to students’ needs and instructor tools. The system is designed to evolve as technology, missions, and training needs change.

The BTX features a maintenance-friendly design for long-term supportability, with easily accessible panels, fewer and more common fasteners, and readiness of critical items, such as engine and seats. It also is designed around common U.S. Air Force ground equipment and uses established suppliers to reduce supply chain complexity and risk.

Lockheed Martin/KAI T-50A T-X Demonstrator31469216750_2fed8f3d69_o-aa

Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries offer the T-50A, also known as the T-X Demonstrator. Though a derivative of the T-50 Golden Eagle that these companies created together for South Korea’s trainer requirement and first flown in 2002, Lockheed Martin officials have said that the new platform was designed with an eye on becoming the T-38’s replacement.

Introduced in December 2015, the T-X demonstrator adds aerial refueling capability to the T-50 airframe, via a new dorsal refueling receptacle compatible with the boom/probe systems commonly used by U.S. Air Force fighters. However, most changes to the FA-50 are avionics related. The glass cockpit is similar to the F-35 Lightning II’s, including a single large area avionics display (LAAD) in place of the five small monitors used in the Golden Eagle. The T-50A also will be equipped with the FA-50’s integrated  electronic warfare (EW) suite and avionics upgrades. Embedded ground training systems will be part of the package.

TX-2 High Speed Taxi TestLockheed also builds the F-22 and F-35, and this potentially means that its custom trainer design could provide significant advantages in preparing pilots for those platforms. The partners are considering building a brand-new assembly line in the United States for manufacturing the T-50A for the U.S. Air Force if they win the contract.

Leonardo DRS T-100 Integrated Training Systemm346_fighter_jet_visual-2_1920x1080-aa

The Leonardo (formerly Alenia Aermacchi) T-100, a derivative of the Italian manufacturer’s M-346 Master twin jet trainer, has taken a circuitous route to the competition. The company first teamed with General Dynamics in 2013 to develop the platform, but the U.S. partner walked away from the program in 2015. Leonardo then joined with Raytheon, which withdrew from the project this past January, less than a month after the RFP was issued. Finally, in February, Leonardo announced that it would proceed with a bid in partnership with its U.S. defense contractor subsidiary DRS.


The M-346 on which the T-100 is based is a purpose-built, fifth-generation combat trainer, which has already been ordered by Israel, Italy, Poland, and Singapore. An embedded tactical training system (ETTS) enables advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground training. Powered by two Honeywell/ITEC F124-GA-200 engines, each producing 6,280 pounds of thrust, the T-100’s top speed in level flight is 590 knots, its maximum climb rate is 24,000 feet per minute, and its service ceiling is 45,000 feet.

The aircraft incorporates an Integrated Training System (ITS), based on live Virtual Constructive networking capability, allowing emulation of various radar targeting pods, weapons, and electronic warfare systems. CAE USA, the U.S. division of the Canadian training provider, will design and develop the T-100 Ground-Based Training System (GBTS).

Freedom Aircraft Ventures’ Freedom Trainer

Sierra Nevada Corporation and Turkish Aerospace Industries have established co-subsidiary Freedom Aircraft Ventures to develop the clean-sheet Freedom Trainer, a lightweight fly-by-wire twin jet for the T-X program. The composite aircraft will be powered by two Williams International FJ44-4M turbofans, and the partners reportedly plan extensive incorporation of off-the-shelf components to reduce research and development investment and risk, and to help keep production costs low.

An Informed Competition

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman, original manufacturer of the T-38, also developed a clean-sheet design concept for the competition that was unveiled last August amid great fanfare: a single-engine jet powered by a GE F404-102D engine with 17,200 pounds of thrust. But after studying the RFP, Northrop Grumman announced in February that it would not be submitting a proposal for the competition, reportedly because the cost per platform that the U.S. Air Force proposes does not provide sufficient return on investment per the company’s calculations. The same reasoning was cited for Raytheon’s exit from the contest.

These dropouts do not faze the U.S. Air Force. “I’d be concerned if we only had one competitor,” says Goldfein. “But as long as we’ve got a competition — and a really informed competition — I think we’re in a pretty good place.”


Image #1 – Courtesy of U.S. Air Force.  Photo by Senior Airmen Kenny Holston.

Image #2 – Courtesy of U.S. Air Force.  Photo by Senior Airmen Stormy Archer.

Image #3 – Courtesy of U.S,. Sir Force.  Photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock.

Image #4 and #5 – Courtesy of Boeing.

Image #6 and 7 – Courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Image #8 and #9 – Courtesy of Leonardo DRS.

Image #10 – Courtesy of Northrop Grumman.