Boeing Eyes Summer Flight Tests for Delayed Training Jet, Citing ‘Progress’ on Ejection-Seat Woes
The company says it’s almost ready to test-fly the Air Force’s T-7A Red Hawk, but lawmakers are impatient.
This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. April 14.
Boeing says it has made progress on fixing an ejection seat problem that has delayed the U.S. Air Force’s new T-7A pilot training jet, and hopes to begin developmental flight testing this summer.
Lawmakers have urged the Air Force to move faster to replace its half-century-old T-38 trainers, which have been involved in several accidents in recent years.
“The T-38 has killed too many people, and whatever we can do to accelerate the production of T-7 to replace the T-38 is absolutely critical to our nation's future, especially the Air Force pilot force,” Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said during a House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing in March.
Boeing, which has built five test aircraft and two flying prototypes for its T-7A Red Hawk, anticipates more rigorous flight testing beginning this summer after it receives “military flight release,” which essentially clears the aircraft for flight, a company representative said. After the company’s initial testing this summer, the aircraft will go to Edwards Air Force Base in September for Air Force flight testing.
Delays in T-7 production have largely stemmed from problems with the aircraft’s emergency escape system. In light of the ejection seat problem, Air Force leaders want to delay the service’s first purchase of operational jets until 2025, and they expect the first delivery of production aircraft in December 2025. The Air Force plans to buy a total of 351 T-7 jets, but did not request money to buy T-7s in the 2024 budget request it sent to Congress last month.
The T-7 delays can’t be mitigated by a more aggressive flight testing schedule, an Air Force spokesperson said. “The planned flight schedule is already success-based and aggressive.”
The spokesperson said the service is confident that improvements and recent testing are yielding “safe and effective escape systems,” and added that “minor changes” to the seat have already reduced risk and increased safety.
“Additionally, the USAF and Boeing are studying the ejection seat performance throughout 2023 to identify additional enhancements, and Boeing will use the results of testing to inform changes needed to qualify the seat as safe for production,” the spokesperson said.
Boeing has reported about $1 billion in losses on the program. The company originally underbid the T-7 competition, and delays and new charges have added additional pressures.
However, the company remains “committed” to the program and sees the “T-7 as a future franchise program with potential opportunities around the globe,” the company representative said. “Our priority currently is executing for the U.S. Air Force.”
To mitigate the delay, Boeing will start building operational T-7s on its own dime, Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter said during a March 29 House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee hearing. Since the company does not have a formal contract, if any part of the aircraft doesn't meet the service’s requirements, Boeing will have to pay for corrections. The Air Force did not provide an immediate answer on when it will execute the contract with Boeing.
However, Hunter said in March that the Air Force has been working with Defense Contract Management Agency officials at industry plants to observe the production process so that “when we get to the point of accepting aircraft, we will know that it in fact meets our requirements.”
Officials are encouraged by some recent test accomplishments. Hunter said that the Air Force had “a substantial achievement in February of getting through performing a sled test, dealing with some of the issues with the escape system that we were hung up on that will allow us to get to military flight release and begin the developmental tests so we are now moving forward from areas where the program had gotten stalled.”
Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., chairman of HASC’s tactical air and land forces subcommittee, said he appreciates Boeing’s desire to get underway with production, but warns there’s potential for the Air Force and the company to end up in a “back and forth.”
“Unless you have a formal written agreement, those things are going to be an allegation about who said what, when, and where,” Wittman told Defense One during a March 31 interview. “I just don't think that's a good place for the Air Force to be and for the United States military to be.”
Wittman pointed to the refueling camera system on Boeing’s KC-46 tanker, which has been plagued with problems, as an example of what happens when questions aren’t answered early on.
“I think it's incumbent upon the Air Force to get a contract going forward on this as quickly as possible. This has already moved two years to the right. I just don't see how we can delay this any more,” he said.