Built-on-spec jet fighter puts Textron on hunt to drum up buyers

PARIS — Textron Inc. is working to drum up buyers for its self-funded, $20 million Scorpion military jet, betting the plane may one day generate thousands of sales.

After two years of pitches, Chief Executive Officer Scott Donnelly is still trying to prove the case for the light-attack fighter, created with off-the-shelf commercial systems and outside of the military acquisition process.

“We’re closer every day, but not there yet,” Donnelly said at the Paris Air Show Monday, where the first Scorpion is parked on display for customers. “There is evaluation work going on, there are a lot of people looking at it. It is government business, so you have to go through budgetary cycles.”

Textron’s new jet and the pull-out-the-stops sales effort exemplify the kind of business done the aerospace industry’s largest and oldest event. About 139,000 trade visitors and 2,260 exhibitors from 47 countries are gathering this week to strike deals and find markets for innovations.

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Donnelly’s days are a blur of back-to-back meetings with government delegations, suppliers and customers of Providence, Rhode Island-based Textron, whose product portfolio includes Bell helicopters, Cessna jets and even the riding lawn mowers that tailor golf course fairways.

To reach the show, the Scorpion completed its second trans- Atlantic flight and reached 400 hours of flight-testing. It will travel around Europe for several weeks after the event for trial runs by interested companies.

“It’s kind of where we expect it to be,” Donnelly said in an interview. “We have more and more people paying interest, people who want to fly it.”

Two retractable pods attached to the model’s belly this year give pilots cameras, light and heat sensors and multi- purpose radar. Textron plans other changes for next year including static testing, the first flight of a production aircraft and assessing live weapons systems.

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Textron’s target markets for the Scorpion are countries that need search-and-rescue aircraft, trainers for military pilots and light attack fighters for border patrol but can’t afford separate aircraft fleets for each function or state-of- the-art weapons systems such as Lockheed Martin’s F-35. Textron is the parent company of Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter. 

“The Scorpion is a little bit risky,” Brian Foley, an aviation market analyst, said in an interview before the show. “Traditionally a company that builds an aircraft on spec without an RFP is taking a tremendous gamble.”

Textron is anticipating demand that may never emerge, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace and defense analyst with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant.

Countries looking to replace Northrop Grumman Corp.’s F-5 jets, also developed on spec, trainers and military and Russian aircraft will probably look to supersonic models like South Korea’s KAI T-50s rather than planes powered by business-jet engines, Aboulafia said.

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“Somebody investing in a new aircraft? That’s commendable,” Aboulafia said. “It’s even pretty neat-looking, too. The only problem is a lack of a market.”