High-flying competition to win Navy jet contract has international flavor

What's that nifty British plane doing flashing its undersides in full-page advertisements in Time and Newsweek? It's trying to woo the United States Navy.

The British Aerospace Hawk, flown so dramatically by the Royal Air Force's aerobatic display team, the Red Arrows, is bidding hard to become the Navy's new trainer for the late 1980s and beyond.

but so are other machines.

In fact, a total of six aircraft -- three already flying and three in blueprint form -- are out to catch the eye of Navy brass.

For the victor, the spoils are substantial: a contract for some 250 to 300 aircraft and ancillary equipment worth up to $5 billion.

The Navy currently uses two jet trainers -- the Rockwell International T-2C Buckeye for intermediate pilot training and the McDonnell Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk for advanced training.

Both aircraft are expensive to maintain and operate, says a Navy spokesman, pointing out that because the flight simulators used with them are "limited in capability" the Navy is forced into excessive and costly dependence on the two planes for pilot training. In any case, the spokesman adds, both aircraft "will begin to reach the end of their service life in the mid-to-late 1980s." The new Navy trainer, which could be selected as early as November, will replace both the T-2C and the TA-4J.

The prospective manufacturer of the new plane is not only being asked to produce something that will take trainees from propeller-powered Beechcraft T-34 C Mentors to sophisticated carrier-based jets, but also to provide simulators, learning aids (known as "academics"), a training management system, and logistics support for these additional elements.

The Navy refers to the trainer competition as the VTXTS program -- "VTX" indicating a fixed-wing experimental training aircraft and "TS" the training system.

Of the three contenders already flying, only one is American designed. That is the redoubtable T-2C Buckeye, which Rockwell is proposing to modernize (improving its performance, reliability, and maintainability) to meet VTXTS requirements. Singer-Link would upgrade the Link simulators now in use with the plane.

The other aircraft are the British Aerospace Hawk and the Franco-German Alpha Jet, a coproduction of Dassault-Breguet and Dornier.

In order to offer the package the Navy requires, British Aerospace has teamed up with the Sperry Corporation and McDonnell Douglas, whose naval aviation experience goes back 60 years. Likewise, the French and German firms have linked hands with Lockheed.

If the Alpha Jet were to sweep all before it, Lockheed would build it in the US, says Fred Jacques, Lockheed- California's vice-president and general manager of government programs.

If the British entry won, McDonnell Douglas would assume the role of prime contractor, British Aerospace becoming principal subcontractor for the airframe and Sperry the principal subcontractor for the simulators.

In its eagerness to land the multibillion-dollar contract, the Anglo-American consortium is offering both the Hawk and a new plane designed specifically for the VTXTS program -- as are two additional consortiums: Northrop and Vought, and Grumman, Beechcraft, and Link (part of the Singer Company).

But Rockwell claims that 10 "highly expensive" years will be required to implement any new VTXTS "at a fraction of the cost of a new, and as yet, untried system." A spokesman says he believes the T-2C could be modified for between a quarter and one-half the cost of a new plane.

Rockwell, which claims the Buckeye is the safest jet trainer the Navy has ever flown, says the modified plane could be delivered by 1986, a full year before the Navy plans to start using it.

The Alpha Jet could also be operational by 1986, asserts Lockheed. "Selection of this aircraft, which has already gone through its development and testing process, could save the US government approximately $600 million as opposed to any as-yet unbuilt airplane," Mr. Jacques says. "This would include major savings achieved by the early phasing out of the obsolescent trainers now in use."

Lockheed maintains that the twin-engined, two-seat Alpha Jet, which is currently being flown by the air forces of France, Belgium, and West Germany, uses considerably less fuel and has significantly lower operating costs than the T-2C and the TA-4J.

Similar claims are made for the Hawk, which recently completed a 30-day demonstration tour of the US. According to British Aerospace, on each evaluation flight the aircraft made its Rolls Royce Adour turbofan burned an average of 1,100 to 1,200 pounds for fuel as opposed to the 3,000 or more pounds a TA-4J would have consumed.

The Hawk, which has been in RAF service in advanced flying and weapons training roles since 1976, will be modified to meet VTXTS requirements. Its nose gear will be completely redesigned to permit catapult launch and an arrester hook will be added to its rear fuselage.

For obvious reasons, details of the three "paper" aircraft are scant. "Once we've won, I'll be delighted to tell you about it," says a Grumman spokesman, adding, "but I think you're talking to the winner." If the modified Hawk is rejected, the new aircraft proposed by the Anglo-American consortium would be designed by McDonnell Douglas.

According to one source close to the VTXTS program, Navy pilots are leaning toward the Hawk and Alpha Jet. They apparently reject the Buckeye as being too elderly a prospect for improvement.

The Navy's known preference for twin-engined aircraft may boost the Alpha Jet's chances.

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