August 27, 2012
Credit: Credit: 2 Excel Aviation
Angus Batey Sywell Aerodrome, England
In an era of austerity, it might be counterintuitive to suggest that aviation and defense subsystems and equipment manufacturers could save money by doing more flight testing. But this is the pitch that a small company operating from this quiet, art deco-styled airfield in the heart of Britain has turned into a viable and growing business. At its core is an idea that has the potential to revolutionize aerospace development.
“When I was in the military it felt like test and evaluation went: develop, develop, develop, develop, test, fail; redevelop, redevelop, test; is that good enough?” says Chris Norton, cofounder of 2Excel Aviation. “Instead of that, our big idea is to go: develop, test; develop, test; develop, test. So you make fewer mistakes, you don't go down blind alleys, you don't create something that nobody wants.”
Flight testing has traditionally been seen as an expensive, high-end capability, well served by a number of established providers, and only worth doing toward the end of the development cycle. The cost is a function of the unique nature of every test, and the resultant need to undertake often extensive and time-consuming reconfiguration of the testbed aircraft to support each different customer and system.
2Excel relies on a small fleet of Piper Navajo PA-31 aircraft, stuffed with kilometers of wiring, sockets and a patch bay, and carrying a plethora of unique brackets, mountings and fairings. Instead of spending weeks instrumenting an aircraft for a single set of customer's tests, 2Excel can re-fit its “airborne laboratories” in as little as a couple of hours. Rather than tying up the aircraft for months at a time, 2Excel offers bookings by the day. As a result, Norton claims the company can knock down the price of flight testing.
Says Norton: “Airborne testing is beyond the reach of most small and medium-sized companies, so they don't do it. I'm not decrying what the legacy flight-test providers do: They will argue that their solution is technically perfect. But you don't need a 100% solution when you're at [Technology Readiness Level] 2 or 3. You need it to be perfect by the time you hit TRL 8, or System Readiness Level 7. However, if that's the first time you do flight test, and you find you've missed something, it's extraordinarily expensive [to resolve]. If a company spends £10 million [$15.7 million] a year on R&D, and I can reduce the risk of getting it wrong, then, frankly, this pays for itself 10 times over.”
Founded in 2005 by Norton and Andy Offer, both former Harrier squadron commanders in the Royal Air Force, 2Excel began operations in April 2006 as an aerobatic display team with a difference. The Blades— which operates two-seat piston-powered Extra 300 aircraft, each flown by a former member of the Red Arrows —was, from the outset, licensed as an airline, and carries fare-paying passengers on stunt flights. The company currently has four business units: As well as the Blades, which makes money from air show appearances and corporate events, there is Broadsword, which flies holidaymakers in its three King Airs; Sabre, which offers contract air solutions to clients including the British Defense Ministry; and Scimitar, the flight-test operation. A fifth subdivision, an aerospace design house called Leading Edge, is launching imminently.
While Norton believes Scimitar's affordability is due in part to the fact that “we haven't got any baggage: there is no 'How we've always done it',” staff experience is a key selling point. All six Scimitar pilots have backgrounds in operational or experimental test and evaluation in the RAF, and when Sabre is hired to fly as a surrogate attack aircraft during army close-air support training exercises, the pilot will be a veteran of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo.