Re-energising the UK aircraft industry

AMApril20Features - Aeralis1
AMApril20Features - Aeralis1

AERALIS aims to build innovative aircraft using a modular design that will motivate a new generation of young people to train in aerospace engineering, manufacturing and STEM subjects, as well as follow careers in aviation. Ian Parker reports.


Britain used to make aeroplanes. Now it only makes bits of aeroplanes. But the glory days of British military aviation might be returning in some small measure. UK company AERALIS plans to offer a modular fighter trainer aircraft range to the world’s air forces. A ‘primary target’ is, of course, the Royal Air Force (RAF).

All eyes these days are on costs and historical training aircraft and methods have proved expensive. Many air forces use turboprops as initial trainers to keep costs down, but it’s a bit of a false economy because the transition from prop to jet is not a simple one and conversion training hours can mount up. The total lifecycle cost of maintaining and supporting the new Basic and Advanced training aircraft will be 30% less than that of a conventional flying training system, says AERALIS. The company is planning A, B and X versions for advanced, basic and aerobatic team operations and parts commonality will be about 85% across the three versions.

The B version will include: HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) operation; Helmet-Mounted Display; Wide Area glass cockpit display; full autopilot INS/GPS, a digital moving map, stores management system, datalink (between AERALIS aircraft); a collision warning system: ground proximity warning system; radar altimeter; integrated AERALIS mission planning and de-briefing system; synthetic air-to-ground ‘no-drop’ bombing scoring system; and hardpoints for stores/fuel carriage.

AERALIS is looking at the possibility of design and build partnership with UK-based manufacturers

Maintaining and operating various prop trainers is expensive. So, what’s needed is a low-cost ab initio jet trainer. That’s where AERALIS comes in.

“Manufacturing of significant parts of the aircraft will be distributed, but the final assembly we hope will be at MoD (formerly RAF) St Athan in South Wales,” states Matt Powlson, chief systems engineer at AERALIS. “The design concept behind the aircraft is modular in broadly four key structural areas - the common core fuselage, wings, empannage and then the nacelle for the engine(s).

“We’re in discussion with UK-based manufacturers, possibly with them doing design and build and integrating their design organisations with ours. There’s a big export market for this kind of aircraft and so the opportunity is there for international production.

“We’re borrowing ideas from the civil sector to produce a family of aircraft in the way that companies like Airbus do. This allows the design cost to be amortised across more types. This is lacking in defence. The military tends to have elementary, basic and fast jet training aircraft all from different places and built in different ways. We are borrowing the principle of an aircraft family from the civil world. The fact that the aircraft is modular provides offset opportunities for export nations and there is a large global market for this.”

Current partners include Thales, ARA, Stirling Dynamics, Frazer-Nash Consultancy, TFD Europe and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions.

However, the UK government has a habit historically of encouraging home-grown candidates and then selecting an aircraft from overseas. This was exemplified by the Turbo Firecracker, built and flown on the Isle of Wight, which lost out to the Tucano, selected for political reasons among others.

“We’ve had discussions with the Welsh Development Agency for support in setting up a facility in St Athan and we’ve been getting guidance from the MoD on their future requirements,” says Powlson. “The UK government provides support for civil aerospace and we’d like to see them consider ‘whole aircraft’ defence aerospace as well.

“But there haven’t been that many opportunities for them to invest. AERALIS is the first near-term, UK-led project for a small jet aircraft since the Harrier. They haven’t really had anywhere to put their money, so we’d welcome them putting their money with us.”

Composite or metal?

Because the aircraft are for training, they’re likely to have a fairly hard time, so repair capability will be very important. The common core fuselage - the heart of the aircraft, will probably be metal, so repairs will be more straightforward. But the outer wings, the empennage and the nacelle may be composite.

“These are all discussions to be made with the organisations which become the lead for those modules. If we’re working with a composite materials specialist, for both design and build, we’d be led by them and the technology available to them.

“Every selection of materials will be preceded by a cost/benefit analysis, considering not only the cost of manufacture, but the speed of manufacture and the certification. New processes and new materials can lead to issues here, as well as through-life maintenance costs.”

Composites have their own design requirements and failure modes. In the early 1980s, a business aircraft project called Learfan, funded by the UK government, failed the fuselage pressurisation test because the carbon fibre/epoxy structure had essentially been designed as ‘black aluminium’ which didn’t work.

“There needs to be an intelligent combination of composite and metallic structures, rather than going all-composite because that’s the fashion. There are clear advantages of composites in a rapid development programme, but we have to look beyond that. The current Hawk trainer was conceived in the early 1970s and we need to be thinking of that kind of a lifespan. I’d love to get more information on smart materials and see how far the manufacturers have got with certifying such materials. They’re very enticing and we’re certainly open to them. There’s plenty of time to involve these in the aircraft once there’s sufficient evidence to prove that they pass the cost/benefit analysis.”

Where skills meet thrills

Matt Powlson, chief systems engineer at AERALIS

Powlson is a STEM ambassador and he says the digital artefacts that will be available to build STEM experiences based on the new trainer are colossal and will grow over time.

“We at AERALIS imagine this aircraft being able to replace the Hawk for The Red Arrows, and their purpose is to inspire young people to consider a career in aerospace and with the RAF. They need engineers to make the whole thing work. We can provide a virtual ‘armchair’ flight through the aircraft itself, because the data is generated and held digitally. It’s another area in which we’d love to see government support.”

Engine selection could be made to support sales to other countries. There will be an interface specification which could be met by a number of different engines, from a number of sources.

Powlson can envisage air forces in Europe coming together to train pilots jointly.

“A significant part of our target market is training service providers which will almost certainly serve more than one nation and the intent within the avionics system is to allow adaption for training towards a range of frontline aircraft. It could accommodate pilots heading for a wide range of frontline aircraft, F16s or Typhoons for example.”

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