NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Boeing plans to deliver the U.S. Air Force’s first T-7A Red Hawk on Tuesday, marking a major milestone for the trainer aircraft that has struggled with safety issues, software problems and schedule slips.
In a briefing at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Col. Kirt Cassell, who leads the service’s T-7A division, and Evelyn Moore, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for the aircraft, also outlined plans for further deliveries and testing of the critical trainer.
The Air Force plans to buy 351 T-7s to replace its fleet of 504 aging T-38 Talon trainers. T-7s are designed to emulate a fifth-generation fighter, and will help new pilots learn how to fly advanced jets such as the F-22 and F-35.
But problems with the T-7, particularly its escape system and flight control software, caused the program to fall behind schedule. The Air Force said in April that the aircraft’s flaws had caused it to both re-baseline its schedule and fall further behind its timeline. The Air Force originally expected the T-7 to reach initial operational capability in 2024, but the service now expects that won’t happen before spring 2027.
In Tuesday’s briefing, Cassell said the Pentagon is processing the final paperwork that allows the Air Force to officially accept the trainer designated APT 2, which the Air Force took for its first test flight in June.
The Air Force’s first T-7 test pilots will start training and becoming acclimated to the aircraft in a week or so at Boeing’s factory in St. Louis, Missouri, Cassell said, and will start initial flight tests there to gauge qualities such as how well it handles. Boeing expects to deliver the second and third trainers in October, and they will then move to Air Force bases for more in-depth testing.
The fourth and fifth T-7s are in their final stages of construction, with delivery expected by the end of 2023, Moore and Cassell said. All five are needed for when the program moves past the engineering and manufacturing development phase and into the initial operational test and evaluation phase, Cassell said.
The first two T-7s will fly to Edwards Air Force Base in California, where they will undergo a series of increasingly intensive tests measuring performance and handling, Cassell said. This will include studying factors such as aerodynamic “flutter” and how much load the trainer can bear in flight.
The third jet will go to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for about six weeks of climate testing at the McKinley Climatic Laboratory. That testing occurs in a chamber designed to emulate varying temperatures and weather conditions in order to ensure aircraft can operate safely in all climates.
Moore said the T-7 is on track for a milestone C decision authorizing low-rate initial production in the first quarter of 2025.
Saab, which makes the T-7′s aft fuselage in West Lafayette, Indiana, and other key suppliers to Boeing have already made major assembly components for the next wave of T-7s, Moore said. This will allow Boeing to have T-7s built at St. Louis and ready for delivery as soon as low-rate initial production is authorized, she said. Moore expects Boeing can built about 60 T-7s per year.
The Government Accountability Office earlier this year noted that Boeing’s plan to start building aircraft before the Air Force officially placed an order could pose “significant risks” to the service. The watchdog said the Air Force and the Defense Contract Management Agency would be unable to conduct all the necessary production oversight to ensure the planes meet requirements. And if the T-7 changed significantly between the test phase and award of a low-rate initial production contract, the GAO said, those planes already built might need retrofitted.
Moore and Cassell also provided updates on efforts to fix the T-7′s escape system and glitchy flight control software. Problems with the T-7s flight control software are still being worked out, Moore said, but an update to is on the way and expected to be released in the next few months.
Cassell said that following a successful and informative February test of the redesigned escape system, the Air Force and Boeing have since conducted further tests measuring the ejection seat’s center of gravity and inertia, as well as collecting data in a wind tunnel.
More tests will follow this fall on other elements of the escape system, including the seat’s drogue parachute, Cassell said. Another “full-up shot” to test the complete system is expected to take place in February 2025, he added.
Cassell said the Air Force did not issue a formal waiver allowing T-7 tests to take place before the final fixed escape system was in place. Instead, he explained, Air Force leadership was briefed that “the escape system is not exactly where we’d like it to be yet,” and have permission to conduct flight tests.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.