Air Force top guns need top-drawer tech

CNN  — 

The Air Force has been flying fifth generation advanced fighter jets for 11 years now, but believe it or not, it’s still training pilots for planes like the F-35 and F-22 with aircraft designed more than a half century ago.

Plans are in the works to build a new advanced fighter jet trainer, and this month, Lockheed Martin flew its candidate for the first time.

It’s called the T-50A.

If Lockheed has its way, the T-50A will replace Northrop’s T-38 Talon, which first flew in 1959 — when Dwight Eisenhower was President and “Twilight Zone” was a top TV show.

The premise is this: If you’re going to put a pilot in a $100 million jet with high-performance flight characteristics and super sophisticated targeting displays and data links, why not train the pilot in something similar?

The T-50A will offer an advanced fifth-generation cockpit and in-flight refueling capability, Lockheed said.

Other designs

But Lockheed has some competition.

Northrop Grumman and a partnership between Boeing Phantom Works and Saab also plan to submit aircraft candidates for the $12 billion Air Force contract.

Their proposals would build the planes from all-new designs, while the T-50A is based on an already existing jet used by South Korea.

Boeing hasn’t revealed much about its design – which reportedly is expected to make its first flight this year. An early artist’s rendering showed a plane with a “long nose and forward cockpit,” according to Flightglobal.

Northrop Grumman’s candidate is also expected to fly this year, Flightglobal reported in December. Saab told Flightglobal the project was going “tremendously well.”

Raytheon's T-100

A fourth competitor, Raytheon, is offering its T-100 which – like the F-35 – boasts a fully integrated instrument display mounted in the pilot’s helmet. The T-100 is a variant of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 advanced jet trainer, currently in use by air forces in Italy, Singapore, Israel and Poland.

Lockheed project promises to create jobs

Early on, Lockheed’s iconic Skunk Works facility considered building a completely new training jet, but the T-50A idea offered the potential to save money on development and production time.

Lockheed says it’s prepared to start building the new planes at an existing factory in Greenville, South Carolina, which would add at least 200 new jobs there. It’s a contract that initially calls for purchasing 350 planes.

The new trainers will be part of the U.S. Air Force Advanced Pilot Training program — aka T-X.

What the Talon can’t do

The old Talon is expensive to fly and – as you might expect – it’s just not as advanced.

For one thing, it can’t turn fast enough.

The Air Force says it wants a trainer jet that turns faster than the T-38 Talon.

In training for air-to-air combat, reports that the Talon can only take the stress of high speed turns at under 5.5Gs – Gs meaning five times the force of gravity. The Air Force wants its new training jet to pull at least 7.5Gs.

The T-38’s dogfighting capabilities are limited to the technology of the 1950s and ’60s, said Lockheed’s Jim Robinson, a retired Air Force T-38 and F-16 pilot.

Before they first set foot inside the cockpit of an F-35, for example, “a student in a T-50A will have access to a system that teaches them to fly 8 Gs, and to develop the muscle memory to withstand those forces,” Robinson said. Giving students that high-G experience in a trainer will reduce their learning curve when they begin flying the Air Force’s most advanced fighter jets.

Also, Talon’s design won’t allow pilots to train with night-vision goggles. But night vision capability will be a design requirement for the new trainer.

Training time

Currently, by the time pilots are tapped to fly the Pentagon’s newest fighter – the F-35 Lightning II, they’ve already logged 1,500 to 3,000 hours of flight time in other aircraft.

But before they start flying the F-35, they usually have to put in about 200 hours of flight time in Talons, according to Lockheed.

The Air Force is expected to decide which plane it will use as its new fighter jet trainer as soon as next year.