By Michael Sirak

The Air Force has chosen Lockheed Martin [LMT] over Aurora Flight Sciences to continue work on an experimental aircraft, or X-plane, that will validate composite materials, cutting-edge structural and aerodynamic innovations and new manufacturing technologies applicable to the design of a future tactical transport aircraft.

Bethesda-Md.-based Lockheed Martin said yesterday that the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has authorized it to proceed to the phase-two contract of the Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA) Flight Demonstration program. The Air Force anticipates that innovations from the ACCA program will contribute to it being able to acquire a new class of short-takeoff-and-landing transports circa 2020 that is significantly lighter and costs much less to produce than current air mobility platforms of the same size.

“This contract represents an important first step to advance composite usage on next-generation tactical air mobility transports,” Frank Cappuccio, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), said in the statement that the company issued Oct. 17. ADP is commonly referred to as the Skunk Works.

“AFRL is excited to authorize Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works to proceed with their highly innovative demonstration program,” said Barth Shenk, AFRL program manager.

Under the 12-month, phase-two contract, Lockheed Martin will now build and demonstrate the X-plane in flight. The total value of phase-two work is around $45 million, the AFRL has said.

Lockheed Martin said its X-plane concept involves using a Dornier 328J aircraft that has its mid/aft fuselage and empennage replaced with advanced composites.

“With ACCA we are attempting to reinvent the manufacturing paradigm through the strategic use of composite manufacturing technologies,” said Frank Mauro, vice president of ADP’s Advanced Systems Development. “This is an important opportunity to forever change the way composites are used in aircraft manufacturing, leading to lighter, less expensive, more durable aircraft that are easier to maintain.”

Aurora may not be totally out of the picture. According to Lockheed Martin, AFRL is currently investigating opportunities for Aurora to collaborate with Lockheed Martin in the demonstration of additional technologies and capabilities for future transport structures.

Both Aurora and Lockheed Martin won ACCA phase-one contracts worth $2 million in April to mature concepts for the technology demonstrator aircraft (Defense Daily, May 11 and May 18). The AFRL said it would choose one of them to proceed to phase two.

Lockheed Martin says the integration of advanced composites on the ACCA flight demonstrator will enable a reduction of 80 percent to 90 percent in parts count and a dramatic reduction in corrosion and fatigue issues compared to conventional aircraft manufacturing approaches.

Planned growth provisions will allow it to be used well into the future as a technology workhorse for additional air mobility advanced transport experiments, the company said. The AFRL has said there are plans for a subsequent one-year period of flight evaluations and the potential for using the platform beyond that as a testbed for additional technologies.

Lockheed Martin said technologies from its ACCA work will also be applicable to a broad spectrum of platforms such as next-generation long-range strike aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems and air mobility transports.

The Air Force announced the ACCA program in December 2006 (Defense Daily, Dec. 20, 2006).