UK's 6th gen fighter program enters second phase with "Excalibur" FTA

A £115 million contract has been launched for the "Excalibur" Flight Test Aircraft (FTA) project, a pivotal element of the UK’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS).
Christopher McFadden
"Excalibur's" FTA will be a modified 757.


The United Kingdom's "Excalibur" Flight Test Aircraft (FTA), a modified 757 airliner, is set to enter its second development phase, Breaking Defense reports. An integral part of the nation's "Future Combat Aerial System" (FCAS) sixth-generation "Tempest" fighter, The "Excalibur" FTA will begin test flights sometime in 2026, the UK's Ministry of Defense (MoD) has announced. The £115 million (USD 150 million) contract was awarded to Leonardo UK and 2Excel earlier this month.

Part of FCAS

The "Excalibur" project will include uncrewed aircraft, F-35s, information systems, weapon systems, and a crewed fighter. Named after King Arthur's legendary sword, the FTA will have a payload capacity of 14.5 tonnes (16 tons) and fly at 42,000 feet (12,802 meters) up to speeds of up to Mach 0.86. It has a range of 3,900 nautical miles and can stay in the air for up to eight hours.

Leonardo, a founding member of the UK's "Tempest" combat air partnership, will use the airliner to test new technologies developed by the program. Along with the Ministry of Defence and UK Tempest Partners BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, and MBDA, they are actively conducting various tests and demonstrations, including "Excalibur," to ensure the successful delivery of GCAP within the given timeline.

In the project's first phase, 2Excel conducted an in-depth engineering study on the 757 airframes. UK industry experts meticulously dismantled the retired aircraft. The comprehensive study aimed to provide the UK team with sufficient regulatory evidence and design information for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), thus paving the way for certification of the modified aircraft for flight.

The team is now ready to modify a second aircraft, a commercial jet purchased from Titan Airways, which has already arrived at 2Excel’s facility in Lasham, Hampshire. The contract includes modifying the 757, conducting flight tests, securing certification, and obtaining approval from the CAA.

The "Excalibur" aircraft will be modified to incorporate the integrated sensors, non-kinetic effects (ISANKE), and integrated communications systems (ICS) that Leonardo and its global partners developed as part of GCAP. Scientists and engineers will assess the sensors and communication systems on the aircraft during test flights in the next three years.

“The Excalibur program will help us to accelerate the development of advanced electronics for the ISANKE & ICS domain via early flight testing, which can take place in parallel with the wider development of the core platform," said Andrew Howard, Director of Future Combat Air/GCAP UK, Leonardo UK.

A major milestone

 “This contract is a major milestone for the FTA project and demonstrates our commitment to support the UK Future Combat Air System," said Richard Berthon, Director of Future Combat Air, UK Ministry of Defense. Chris Norton, Director and Excalibur program lead at 2Excel Aviation, added, “2Excel is excited and proud to be playing its part in such a unique, cutting-edge, and nationally important project. Conceived by Leonardo in Bedfordshire and 2Excel in Northamptonshire, designed in Yorkshire, and built-in Hampshire, Excalibur is already contributing to the UK’s economic recovery.”

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