“We pulled in a lot of the Harrier force when it closed,” says Norton. “We have a bunch of former Red Arrows, a bunch of Jaguar pilots. It's almost like a little squadron.”
Scimitar and Sabre were established out of necessity in 2008, after a pivotal Blades sponsorship deal with a High Street bank fell victim to the global financial crisis; both divisions are already back in the black.
The Sabre-like service had always been part of the 2Excel plan, but Scimitar was new. “We created the capability from a blank piece of paper,”Norton says. “People said to us, 'It can't be done,' but that is the perfect place for us. If you can go and prove that you can do something that somebody says can't be done, you're first in—and if you can fill that space, you've got a commercial business.”
Much of Scimitar's day-to-day business remains confidential, but its extensive work with Selex Galileo is well documented. Scimitar's aircraft appear in brochures for two systems currently marketed by the Finmeccanica-owned company. One is Sage, a suite of digital electronic support measures/electronic-intelligence receivers; the other is a radar-warning system for small aircraft, called Seer.
Two other Scimitar-flown Selex programs deal with situational awareness (SA). One of them, VigilX, fuses electro-optical and infrared information into a single SA product delivered to pilots via a helmet-mounted display, providing an alternative to night-vision goggles. The other uses off-the-shelf cameras and a Selex algorithm to alert a pilot to any inbound aircraft on potential collision courses—it is seen as a partial solution to the sense-and-avoid requirement to enable unmanned systems to fly in civil airspace, and could also be marketed as an additional safety option to the general aviation community.
Versatility is the reason 2Excel settled on the PA-31 as its platform of choice. The relatively roomy aircraft are on the U.K.'s civilian register, so client company engineers can fly during tests as passengers; data links also permit monitoring and control of test equipment to take place in real time on the ground. The mostly metal aircraft are unpressurized, so even major modifications—such as the large dormer window inserted in one of the Navajos for a burst-illumination laser test program—can be made quickly and inexpensively.
Norton characterizes 2Excel's relationships with clients as “partnerships,” and is keen to make clear that Scimitar's role is to facilitate early and frequent flight testing, not to lay claim to any of the technologies under development. However, the Scimitar staff is not there simply to drive the bus. “If you said, 'Here's a widget, just test it,' then of course we will,” says Norton. “But that's not really where you're harnessing our skills.”
To integrate the VigilX system on to the Navajo, Scimitar trials manager Dick Downs designed a multi-aperture nose cone. The team has also designed, tested and achieved certification for bespoke winglets, which include carriage space for antennas or other equipment. The Seer system's pairs of 45-deg. aerials were fitted to the Navajo following a bout of homespun, low-tech innovation.
“I took the stress ball off my desk and chopped it in half,” says Norton, who stuck the two hemispheres onto an improvised mounting made out of an old box and masking tape in a process he jocularly calls “cardboard-aided design.” With the rough-and-ready model demonstrating that the configuration had potential, Scimitar staff built the actual fairing and began testing it. Within six weeks the modification was certified.
“There's never been a Navajo with a radar-warning receiver on it, and we put two on and had it cleared to go anywhere in the world in six weeks,” Norton says. “Not only do you have rapid insertion of capability, you have a demonstration platform you can take anywhere. This is transformational for the defense world.”