Years in the planning and development, a major portion of the next generation fighter training jet for the U.S. Air Force will be coming off the assembly line in West Lafayette in 2023. Executives from The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and Sweden-based Saab last week rolled-out the first T-7A Red Hawk advanced trainer at a ceremony in St. Louis. Workers at Saab’s facility near Purdue University will manufacture the aft section of the aircraft and then ship it to the Boeing plant in St. Louis for final assembly.
In an interview on Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick, Robert Ulibarri, general manager and vice president of Saab’s aerospace systems group, said the project will provide a substantial boost to the economy for years to come.
“We’re going to see over $100 million dollars invested in this site,” said Ulibarri.
Last fall, Saab cut the ribbon on the $37 million research and manufacturing facility at Purdue University’s Discovery Park District. Since then, the cavernous shell has been equipped with cutting-edge technology and innovation.
“This is a program for the long term. It’s a multibillion-dollar contract that’s going to bring jobs to our area, as well as research and innovation with the university for many years to come,” said Ulibarri.
In 2018, the Air Force awarded Boeing a $9.2 billion contract to build the trainers which will replace the aging T-38 trainer which has served the USAF since 1961.
So far, the company has hired 65 employees for the West Lafayette facility and has 40 current job openings. By 2027, Saab expects to hire up to 300 employees for the West Lafayette facility, including assemblers, engineers, and system administrators. Many of those positions being filled by Boilermakers.
“About 50% of our professional staff in the front office are Purdue graduates and more than 20% of our workforce are veterans,” Ulibarri said. “There’s just a really great ecosystem we live in [at Purdue] that both provides talent as well as access to research and development.”
Ulibarri says a portion of the employee base has been in Sweden cross-training with workers there to build the aft sections. He says the technology is being transferred from Sweden to the U.S.
The aerospace company says the Indiana facility will also support research and development in autonomy, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing.
During the ceremonial rollout, Saab President and Chief Executive Officer Micael Johannsson said the joint Boeing-Saab project is not only about providing the latest equipment to train military pilots, but also a model on how to build future aircraft.
“With careful and accurate joint preparations from both Boeing and Saab, we have managed to apply true digital engineering,” said Johannsson. “We are now able to join our fully installed aft fuselage with Boeing’s forward fuselage in less than 30 minutes when it arrives here. This is a great accomplishment made by together by Boeing and Saab.”
The T-7A has been officially named the Red Hawk to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which eventually became the U.S. Air Force. In World War II, the aviators painted their planes with a red-tailed color scheme.
“They distinguished their aircraft by painting the tails red, and what an honor and a tribute to paint the tails of our aircraft red to really signify the path, the trailblazing ways,” Ulibarri said.
The first T-7A squadron is planned to be operational in 2024.