What’s Ahead for the Primary Fleet?

Dec. 1, 1986

When the Air Force set out to replace its aging T-37 primary trainer aircraft, the acquisition promised to be as noncontroversial as such things ever get.

The “Next-Generation Trainer” would not push the state of the art in technology. The program had wide­spread support. It appeared to be the perfect answer to improving flight-training operations while re­ducing fuel use substantially. In 1982, Fairchild Republic was se­lected from a field of six bidders and awarded a fixed-price contract to build the aircraft. The new trainer was subsequently designated the T-46A.

As it turned out, the acquisition was anything but smooth and easy. First, Fairchild ran into develop­ment trouble, and the schedule slipped badly. Then, before the re­covery effort was completed, the T-46A lost its funding for produc­tion.

Congress, attempting to get un­der the ceilings of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget law. stripped billions of dollars from de­fense. Programs had to be reduced. and the Air Force chose the T-46A as one to cut. The service life of the T-37 fleet could be extended for at least an additional 3,000 flying hours per airframe, the Air Force determined. For the time being, funding priority would go to re­quirements more immediate than a new trainer.

That “budgetary decision,” as USAF calls it, effectively termi­nated the T-46A program, although the contract option to proceed with production will not expire until March 1987. That left open the pos­sibility, however, that Congress might reverse the Air Force’s deci­sion. The issue became highly po­liticized.

In October—after extended and heated argument that overshot the budget deadline and closed down much of the federal government for an afternoon—Congress ordered that a new trainer competition take place. A flyoff, to be conducted by January 1, 1988, is to be part of the competition, and contenders identi­fied by Congress were the T-46A, the existing T-37, an upgraded T-37, and “any other aircraft capable of meeting Air Force training require­ments.”

Today, six months after the first operational T-46A was to have been delivered, the future of the primary trainer program remains uncertain.

The Trainer Requirement

The subsonic T-37 has been a rug­ged performer for Air Training Command since the 1950s. Its ma­neuverability is comparable to that of most fighter aircraft of World War II. Student pilots fly seventy-five hours in the T-37 before moving on to the supersonic T-38.

The Air Force’s desire for a mod­em primary trainer is predicated on the T-37’s deficiencies as well as its age. Since the aircraft is not pres­surized, training flights are re­stricted to crowded lower airspace. The engine gulps fuel. The range is relatively short. Scheduled training sorties often have to be canceled because the T-37’s capability is lim­ited in bad weather.

At the time the Next-Generation Trainer requirement was estab­lished, the service life limit of the T-37 was assumed to be 15,000 fly­ing hours. Last year, however, the Air Force began pulling inspections on aircraft reaching 15,000 hours and determined that they could go on safely to 18,000 with minor modi­fications. The T-37 fleet today aver­ages 12,000 hours, and if most of the aircraft can be certified to 18,000, that makes the primary trainer problem about six years less urgent than it was thought to be.

It is difficult to see extending the service life of the T-37 as anything more than a temporary measure. It does buy sometime, though, for the Air Force to find a more lasting so­lution that it can afford. Sooner or later, USAF will have to acquire a modem primary trainer.

Trials of the T-46A

The T-46A is the trainer that the Air Force wanted originally, and it may yet turn out to be the final se­lection. Overall, it is reported to be doing well in flight tests. It retains the twin engine and side-by-side seating features of the T-37 and adds pressurization, range, fuel efficien­cy, and capability in bad weather. It is powered by two Garrett F109- GA-100 turbofan engines.

When it rolled out at Fairchild’s Farmingdale plant on Long Island, N. Y., in February 1985, the com­pany expressed confidence that it would exceed all of the Air Force’s design specifications. Shortly thereafter, the problems began com­ing to light.

The Air Force was considerably upset to find that the T-46A had been rolled out with parts missing and work still to be done. In April, the airplane was unable to make its first scheduled flight. In June, the Farmingdale plant failed a Con­tractor Operations Review con­ducted by the Air Force Contract Management Division. More sched­uled milestones were missed, and the program is still behind.

By the time Fairchild began to get the main problems under control, the budget squeeze was upon the Pentagon. The combination of pro­gram and budget difficulties may have been fatal to the T-46A, at least in its previous incarnation.

Deliveries are running late on the first production lot of ten aircraft, and the Air Force does not plan to use its option for production of the second lot.

Lt. Gen. Bernard P. Randolph, Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition, said that USAF owns the data—which it continues to develop—and the tool­ing for the T46A. “We have told Congress that, at this time, we don’t want to buy the T-46, but at some point in the future, with the draw­ings, we may put it out for recompetition.”

Other Choices Possible

Cessna calls its proposed T-37 upgrade “the New Technology NTT-37.” It says it will accept a fixed-price incentive fee contract to produce this trainer in its plant at Wichita, Kan.

The NTT-37 would use the T-37 airframe and the well-regarded Gar­rett F109 engine developed for the T-46. It would feature modern avi­onics, lower gross weight, a new in­strument panel, cockpit pressuriza­tion, better fuel efficiency, and significantly increased range. There would be a new vertical tail to im­prove crosswind control. Noise lev­els—which the present T-37 has in abundance—would be well below the Air Force’s specifications for the Next-Generation Trainer. “The NTT-37 meets the performance and schedule requirements while reduc­ing the program acquisition costs by more than $1 billion for 650 air­craft,” Cessna says.

Still other options are possible, because, as General Randolph ob­served, “there are a lot of trainers out there.” If the price is right, the Air Force might decide that some existing trainer would meet its needs. One frequently mentioned possibility is that the Air Force could piggyback on the US Navy’s purchase of the T-45A Goshawk and achieve some economy by the scope of the joint procurement. (See “The Hawk on Tour” on p. 74.)

“That’s certainly an option that’s being talked about,” General Ran­dolph said. “There are some in Con­gress who think that’s what we should do. We’ve had a round of flying with the Hawk. The problem I see is that it remains a pretty expen­sive airplane, and we really can’t afford it. The Air Force doesn’t have a formal position on the Hawk. We haven’t had sufficient time to evaluate it.”

The Hawk would be at some dis­advantage in the competition be­cause it has neither twin engines nor side-by-side seating, which are called for as “mission essential” in the Next-Generation Trainer speci­fications.

There have also been suggestions that the Air Force consider going with a modern turboprop trainer, such as the Pilatus PC-719, the Beech T-34C, the Embraer Tucano, or the SIAI Marchetti SF-260TP. A turboprop would be inexpensive to buy and operate.

“I’d be very surprised if we bought a turboprop,” General Ran­dolph said. “The Air Force is pri­marily a turbojet operation. I’m not sure why you’d want to train on tur­boprops and then go fly turbojets.”

On Track for TTB

Ironically, a replacement for the T-37 may not be the next trainer the Air Force buys. In FY ’89, acquisi­tion will begin on 215 off-the-shelf business jets for the instruction of Tanker-Transport-Bomber (TTB) students in Specialized Undergrad­uate Pilot Training.

For the past twenty-five years, the Air Force has conducted identi­cal training programs for all student pilots, no matter what sort of air­craft they would be flying after graduation. This generalized ap­proach to training was a function of the aircraft USAF had available, not a conviction that it was the best way to prepare pilots. A decision was made some time ago to return to specialized tracks. All trainees will begin in the T-37 or its replacement. Then those headed for fighter, at­tack, or reconnaissance (FAR) cockpits will train in the T-38, and those on the TTB track will move to the new aircraft to be procured.

The Mission Element Needs Statement (MENS) laid down in 1981 prescribes a speed of 300 knots at sea level, positions for an instruc­tor and two students, and range for a three-hour mission with a 300-nau­tical-mile divert capability. The ac­quisition package includes twenty-six simulators. Initial Operational Capability (IOC) is projected for FY ’91.

In addition to providing better training, the TTB aircraft will take some of the work load off the T-38 fleet, thus extending its service life. Because of increased reliability and maintainability and lower operating and maintenance costs, the TTB trainer is expected to reduce train­ing expense by $37,700 per student.

Potential TTB candidates would probably include the British Aero­space HS 125, the Gates Learjet 35A, the Cessna Citation II, the Beech Jet, the Israeli Westwind II, and the Dassault Falcon 100.

“When we’re able to afford a new trainer, we’re going with the lowest-cost airplane we can find that will meet our needs,” General Randolph said. “We will probably rely on con­tractor logistics support.”