Boeing Delivers First Jet Trainer To Air Force, But Delays Continue

By Allyson Park

Boeing photo

Despite achieving its inaugural flight in 2023, the Air Force’s Red Hawk T-7A trainer jet is still suffering from extended delays that will cost the service precious time and money, a recent government report said.

The Red Hawk was designed by Boeing and Saab as part of the Air Force’s Advanced Pilot Training Program to replace the aging T-38 Talon trainer jet — which entered service in 1961 — and modernize the service’s jet fighter training program, enabling the integration of new technological concepts and capabilities faster and more affordably and sustainably through virtual testing, according to Boeing.

On June 28, the T-7A completed its inaugural flight in St. Louis, Missouri, which marked the start of the program’s engineering and manufacturing development phase.

But the program is behind its initial schedule estimate, and developmental issues threaten to further delay the program, stated a May Government Accountability Office report, “Advanced Pilot Trainer: Program Success Hinges on Better Managing Its Schedule and Providing Oversight.”

In September 2018, the Air Force awarded Boeing an indefinite delivery contract, estimated to be worth up to $9.2 billion, to develop and build the T-7A aircraft and training simulators. The Air Force then awarded Boeing an $813 million incentive and firm-fixed-price order. The Air Force plans to order 351 aircraft and 46 simulators, the GAO report stated.

The T-7A was built with digital engineering processes and an open architecture mission system to ensure “more rapid, affordable future aircraft development,” Boeing’s product page stated. Compared to “traditional” aircraft development programs, T-7A experienced a 75 percent increase in improvement in first-time engineering quality; an 80 percent reduction in assembly hours; and a 50 percent reduction in software development and verification time, according to the company.

Along with the aircraft, Boeing developed a ground-based training system, Evelyn Moore, Boeing’s vice president and program manager of T-7 programs, said in an email.

The T-7A Red Hawk advanced pilot training system provides “real-as-it-gets simulation in full fidelity cockpits, emergency egress trainers, multi-participant debrief stations, interactive classroom lessons, computer-based training modules and a complete suite of instructor tools,” she said.

“This next generation of fighter and bomber pilots will have a much more comprehensive experience for better learning and decision making in the cockpit,” she added.

The ground-based training system consists of the hardware and instructional training techniques that use 8K high-resolution projection systems to conduct live-virtual-constructive training, including “programmable entities, simulated sensors, weapons, counter measures … and can be expanded as training evolves in the future.” The entire system uses a modular, open architecture system, Moore said.

The T-7A Red Hawk trainer jet is the first “wholly digital” training aircraft, designed with model-based engineering and digital design techniques, featuring fighter-like design and performance, stadium seating, maintenance-friendly design, an advanced cockpit, safety designed-in and realistic training, Moore said.

The trainer jet features a single engine, twin fin and stadium seating that gives both the instructor pilot and the student pilot an “excellent view from the cockpit. T-7A is equipped with modern avionics, advanced display systems and embedded training,” Boeing’s partner, Saab, stated on its T-7A product page.

According to Boeing, the purpose of the program is to develop a flexible, sustainable, affordable to maintain, modifiable and efficient trainer jet that “adapts easily to people, software and systems so future technologies can be easily implemented, pilots can adjust to their personal preferences and the entire system can be applied to other missions. By adapting to changing technologies and learning methods, and by downloading more expensive training, the T-7A produces better prepared pilots in less time.”

The T-7A was designed with “integrated logistic support, both onboard and offboard, as well as high reliability and availability [that] will minimize lifecycle cost,” according to Saab.

Yet for all the digital engineering, open systems architecture and advanced approaches to the program development, it’s still years away from an initial low-rate production decision, GAO stated.

Boeing developed two prototype aircraft, flown in 2016, to enable it to “conduct initial testing and identify any potential issues early on,” according to the GAO report. The Air Force ordered five test aircraft in 2018 to conduct government-led developmental and operational testing. The five test aircraft were “largely completed” by February 2023, the report said.

In June 2022, the program schedule was breached, and the Air Force received a new schedule from the contractor in January 2023, but program officials said that this new schedule was “likely optimistic since the schedule for several areas depends on favorable assumptions,” the report said. The Air Force subsequently conducted a “schedule risk assessment on the contractor’s schedule, but it did not account for key risks,” GAO said.

The Air Force set the “latest acceptable low-rate initial production date” as February 2026, meaning it will not be able to deliver the APT aircraft to trainers until nearly 10 years after the initial date of 2017, the report said.

These extended program delays will likely cost the Air Force nearly $1 billion “due to the need to use more expensive fighter jets to train pilots and funding for unplanned upgrades to existing trainer aircraft. Additional delays to the APT program could exacerbate these and other costs,” according to the report.

The program has yet to solve four key development challenges: the escape system does not yet meet safety standards; the flight control software likely needs more development than planned; the simulator is on track but not yet complete; and key sustainment data has not been provided to the Air Force, GAO said.

The escape system’s failure to meet safety standards is delaying testing, and Boeing will likely need to “execute several more design iterations and tests to resolve the problems,” according to experts, the report stated. While Boeing planned to finish the flight control software by mid-2023, Air Force experts estimate that it will need “several additional software versions” before completion, the report said.

Officials believe the simulator is on track to meet requirements, but the contractor has not begun building the software needed to “connect live trainer jets with simulators in real time,” the report stated.

Additionally, Boeing has only provided the Air Force with one-third of the expected sustainment data, according to the GAO report. This could “hinder the Air Force’s ability to conduct the number of flights necessary to achieve its test plan.”

While some of these issues are to be expected, “the program’s escape system challenges and coordination between the simulator and aircraft are unique to this program,” GAO noted.

With concurrence from the Defense Department, GAO made two recommendations to help get the program back on schedule: “ensure the program conducts a risk assessment that incorporates risks of overlapping development, testing and production phases,” and “make a plan for determining under what conditions it would accept production work completed prior to contract delivery.”

The Air Force accepted the first of five engineering, manufacturing and development T-7A Red Hawk aircraft from Boeing in September, a service release said. Those five aircraft “will quickly begin testing” and join the two contractor-owned prototype jets that have completed over 500 flights testing performance and flying qualities, the release said.

“There has been a lot of effort over the last couple months to get through first flight and now aircraft acceptance. We are excited to get these EMD aircraft into flight test,” Col. Kirt Cassell, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s T-7 program manager, said in the release.

Even though the acceptance of the first five T-7A Red Hawk is a significant milestone, more program delays mean more lost money, Richard Aboulafia, managing director at AeroDynamic Advisory, said.

Boeing has “a fixed-price contract, so they have to bear the costs, that is to say the contractors have to bear the cost, which means more write-offs ahead,” he said in an interview. “From the service’s standpoint, however, it means they’re relying on badly aging and costly-to-maintain legacy trainers.”

Beyond the U.S. Air Force, the Boeing-Saab team hopes to eventually sell more than 2,700 of the T-7A trainer jets to international buyers.

“We have had strong interest from air forces worldwide who are looking for the best system available to train their pilots now and into the future. We believe the T-7A Red Hawk, the program of record for the U.S. Air Force, is it,” Moore stated.

However, Aboulafia said 2,700 is an optimistic number at best.

“If they’re super extra lucky by historical standards, incredibly lucky, they’ll be off by one decimal point,” he said. “The market for supersonic trainers is extremely limited. The T-38 was only given away to a couple of allies. I think one or two foreign customers actually bought it. … But 2,700? That’s a real leap of faith.”

Despite continuous delays and testing problems, Boeing and the Air Force remain cautiously optimistic.

“We see the T-7 as a future franchise program for Boeing,” Moore said. “There is tremendous need around the world for advanced fighter training, and this jet is equipped to handle the mission.”

Aboulafia remains less optimistic, but maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, he said.

The T-7A “was the poster child for [model-based systems engineering,] digitization and everything. So far, that seems to have been a bit of an over-promise,” he said. “Having said that, it looks like the delivery a couple weeks ago was a very welcome milestone. Testing really hasn’t begun, so I guess they will find out.”

The Air Force did not return calls seeking comment. ND

Topics: Aviation, Training and Simulation