THE FIRST flight of Textron AirLand’s Scorpion strike/intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft prototype, N531TA made its much anticipated first flight on December 12.  The aircraft took off at 1030hrs Central Time  from McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita, Kansas and  was airborne for approximately 1.4 hours.

During the flight, the crew conducted a range of handling manoeuvres in an aircraft that has one of the fastest developments of a US-built tactical jet, progressing from initial design to first flight in less than 24 months.

“Today’s first flight is a major milestone for the Scorpion as the programme transitions into the flight test phase,” commented Textron CEO Scott Donnelly.  “When the design phase began less than two years ago, we were confident that we would deliver a uniquely affordable, versatile tactical aircraft by taking advantage of commercial aviation technologies and best practices.  Today’s flight met all expectations, and keeps us on track towards certification and production,” he added.

Scorpion’s first flight was crewed by pilot Dan Hinson, an engineering test pilot with over 5,000 flight hours in 79 different types of aircraft, and co-pilot David Sitz.  “The flight was completed according to plan,” said Hinson.  “Having flown many tactical aircraft throughout my 23-year career with the US Navy and with other aircraft manufacturers, I can say that the Scorpion compares very favourably to more costly aircraft currently used for low-threat missions.  It showed impressive stability and responsiveness closely matching all of the predicted parameters for today’s manoeuvres – it’s going to be a highly capable aircraft for the ISR and homeland security mission set.”

Although marketed as a strike/ISR aircraft, Textron/AirLand are marketing the twin engine jet as a versatile customised alternative to the current options, in the border security, maritime security, irregular warfare role that could appeal to many south American countries as a viable A-37 successor. The Asia Pacific region will also be a prime target with all the above options appealing to many states looking for a fast but cheap ISR platform in the South China Sea and surrounding seas.

Development of the Scorpion was undertaken in secrecy and its existence was not made public until September 16, 2013 at the US Air Force Association conference  just outside Washington announced.  It is intended as a demonstration aircraft designed to accommodate the budget constraints and shifting mission requirements of the US Department of Defense and US partner nations.

Powered by twin turbofan engines generating 8,000lbs (35.58kN) of thrust, the manufacturer states that the Scorpion will transition easily between low speed and high-subsonic speed, as needed for diverse missions such as irregular warfare, border patrol, maritime surveillance, emergency relief, counter-narcotics and air defence operations.

The Scorpion has a cruising speed of up to 450kts (833km/h) with a ferry range of 2,400nm (4,440km) and service ceiling of 45,000ft (13,720m).   The aircraft can carry an internal payload of up to 3,000lbs (1,360kg) as well as wing-mounted precision munitions.  There are three hardpoints under each wing with a capacity of 1,750lbs (794kg) on the inner pylon, 950lbs (430kg) on the centre one and 400lbs (181kg) on the outboard pylon.  The aircraft has an overall length of 43ft 6in (13.26m) and wingspan of 47ft 4in (14.43m).  Standard empty weight will be 11,800lbs (5,352kg), maximum take-off weight 21,250lbs (9,639kg) and maximum internal fuel load 6,000lbs (2,722kg).

The prototype was built in secrecy by Cessna Aircraft in Wichita and is designated the Cessna Model E530 by the company.  Prior to today’s maiden flight, initial taxi tests were undertaken on November 25 at McConnell, with some of the final taxi tests being carried out on December 5.  The aircraft had been ready for its maiden flight on December 9, but due to weather concerns was delayed several days.