Commercial airliner modified to be flying lab for 6th-gen Tempest fighter
Aerospace company Leonardo and aviation services company 2Excel are modifying a commercial Boeing 757-200 airliner to act as a flying laboratory. Called Excalibur, it will be used to test technology for the 6th-generation Tempest fighter jet being developed by the international Team Tempest for the Royal Air Force and the Italian Air Force.
Though the Tempest is being digitally designed, the technology that goes into it will, sooner or later, need to be tested in the real world even before the Tempest Flight Test Aircraft (FTA) prototype is assembled. Named after the legendary sword of King Arthur, the Excalibur will provide the real-world flight environment needed to test the next-generation electronics of the Future Combat Air System fighter.
The contract signed by the two firms comes on the heels of a two-year study required to translate the design and specifications for the Tempest into the outline design for Excalibur. This included not only basics like selecting an aircraft with the necessary size, weight, and power, but also how to install new power, cooling, and racking systems along with observer stations, and computing and data recording equipment.
Currently, Excalibur can carry a payload of 28 tonnes fully fueled, fly at an altitude of 42,000 feet (12,800 m) at a cruising speed of Mach 0.8 with an endurance of eight hours. Inside, there will be a Tempest "representative cockpit" in the passenger cabin and the nose of the aircraft will be reshaped to mimic the aerodynamics and structure of the Tempest.
In addition to work for the Tempest program, Excalibur will also be available to act as a control hub for testing uncrewed platforms.
When it enters service in 2035, the twin-engine, delta-wing Tempest will work alongside the Typhoon and F-35B fighters until it eventually replaces them. Its 6th-generation technology will allow the jet to be a flying command and control center while the pilot acts as an executive officer rather than a dogfighter. Its abundant surplus electrical power will let it deploy hypersonic missiles, drone swarms, and laser weapons.