UK air demonstrator work takes off in Lancashire

By Ged Henderson

14 Jun 2023

BAE

The UK’s major combat air industry partners, including BAE Systems, have lifted the lid on some of the work taking place to deliver the nation’s first flying combat air demonstrator for a generation.

The Flying Technology Demonstrator, first announced by the government in 2022, is set to take to the air within the next four years as part of the project to produce the UK's next generation supersonic stealth combat aircraft, Tempest.

The demonstrator is being designed using a range of innovative digital techniques and transformative processes, with Lancashire engineers playing a leading role in its development.

In a new facility at BAE Systems in Warton, test pilots from the defence giant, Rolls-Royce and the Royal Air Force have already flown more than 150 hours of the demonstrator aircraft in a new bespoke simulator, providing crucial evidence to support flight trials.

In a first for military aircraft design, BAE Systems’ engineers based in the facility called ‘Hanger Five’ have used auto coding to create safety-critical systems software in a matter of days rather than weeks.

This allows rapid assessment of the flight control systems during more complex flight manoeuvres, with the simulator capturing “crucial data” about how the jet will handle and perform, years before its first flight.

Engineers have also been carrying out aerodynamic engine testing, harnessing new advanced manufacturing processes to produce an engine duct, made at BAE Systems’ Samlesbury plant. It is uniquely shaped to slow the air from supersonic to sub-sonic speeds at the engine face.

Experts from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo UK, MBDA and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are collaborating with a range of SMEs to develop the technologies needed to deliver Tempest.

The demonstrator project is also being used to pass on to future generations of engineers the skills needed for the UK to remain an industry leader in defence and aerospace capability.

Work on the demonstrator continues to gather pace and the progress being made on several fronts was revealed at a media briefing held at Warton. A significant proportion of future development work is set to take place in the county.

The engine duct intake made at Samlesbury has fewer moving parts than a traditional fighter jet, enhancing the aircraft's ‘stealthy’ design. The test was conducted at Rolls-Royce’s site in Filton, Bristol, in the same facility where the Concorde Olympus engine was tested in the 1960s.

In another development, working alongside UK crew escape specialist Martin Baker, a team of BAE Systems engineers has led successful ejection seat trials, using a rocket-propelled sled travelling at speeds of more than 500mph.

Experienced engineers have worked alongside junior team members on this project to pass on vital skills which can be taken forward into future developments of Tempest.

The project partners say the range of “novel technologies” being harnessed by the demonstrator programme will demonstrate and test key elements of the next generation combat air design.

It will also show the skills, tools, processes and techniques needed to develop Tempest, which will be delivered through the Global Combat Air Programme, in partnership with the UK, Italy and Japan.

Neil Strang, Tempest programme director at BAE Systems, said: “It’s now 40 years since our people led the demonstrator aircraft programme which gave birth to Typhoon and the work we’re doing today is another once-in-a-generation opportunity to write the next chapter in aviation history.

“Right across the Tempest programme we’re using digital techniques and innovative design and engineering methods, to ensure we can deliver Tempest in service by 2035.

“We already have 1,000 people involved in this programme across UK industry and the supply chain, with young apprentices and graduates working alongside some of our most experienced engineers.

“This work will continue to act as a beacon, attracting the very best talent and experience to pass on to future generations of engineers needed for the UK to remain an industry leader in defence and aerospace capability."

Richard Berthon, director future combat air for the MOD, added: “The Flying Demonstrator programme is a remarkable effort to design and build a supersonic stealth jet that will prove integration and develop our national skills, while providing data and learning in support of Tempest entering service by 2035.

“Today, for the first time, we are able to lift the lid on some of the key work that is taking place on this important programme.

“Tempest is no longer just an idea or concept on a computer; our industry partners have made real, tangible progress and are bringing the programme to life through innovative projects, such as the flying demonstrator.”

In July 2022, defence secretary Ben Wallace, who is MP for Wyre and Preston North, announced plans for a new combat air demonstrator to fly within five years.

Speaking at the time, he said: “The design and development of the demonstrator aircraft represents an important milestone, showcasing the success and talent of our engineers, programmers and software developers.”

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