Source: Farnborough Airshow via Twitter

The Farnborough International Airshow returned in person for the first time in four years to greet 80,000 visitors, including 156 civilian and military delegations, from nearly 100 countries. Typically held every two years, the world’s second largest airshow was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. This year’s show, held July 18-22 near London, focused on challenges the aviation industry has faced since 2018 and aerospace defense marketing. 

Organized by Farnborough International Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of ADS Group, the U.K. trade organization representing the aerospace, defense, security and space sectors, the airshow offered static and flying displays, networking opportunities, thought leadership and GovCon marketing presentations. Calling itself the global platform for the aerospace and defense industry, Farnborough also welcomed more than 1,500 exhibitors. 

Supply and workforce woes 

Global supply shortages have left almost no industry untouched, and aviation is no exception. Even delivery of the next-generation Air Force One planes is two years behind schedule, according to Boeing. 

“It’s topic No. 1 in every meeting in every chalet I’ve been in,” said Chris Calio, chief operating officer at Raytheon Technologies, referring to the temporary structures dotting the flight line at Farnborough Airport. 

To address the problem, he said Raytheon has sent hundreds of employees to suppliers to help them work through logjams and is looking for those within its own factories. 

But also lacking in supply is skilled workers. Raytheon, which manufactures Pratt & Whitney jet engines and other aircraft components, laid off about 20,000 staff and contractor positions during the pandemic’s height, and is struggling to bring workers back.  

“I don’t think we’ve had a single meeting since we got to London…that has not talked about three things: inflation, supply chain and workforce,” Raytheon Chief Executive Officer Greg Hayes added. “We want to be talking about sustainability. We want to be talking about the mission and connected aerospace. The fact of the matter is, supply chain continues to be the topic du jour because everybody is suffering from it.” 

One solution is educating the next generation of workers about aviation work, he said. “What we’ve been pressing the [Biden] administration on is: help us convince kids that apprenticeship programs and these skilled jobs are actually as important as a four-year college degree,” Hayes said. 

Innovation takes off 

The news was not all doom and gloom, of course. Many manufacturers shared big plans. For instance, Ted Colbert, the new CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, addressed B2G marketing when he said the company will build new combat fighters, the first time it will tackle frontline warplanes in 30 years. 

Additionally, the company is also working on a new jet trainer called the T-7A Red Hawk, which supports Boeing’s focus on autonomous technology. 

“We’re leaning really hard into the future with autonomy,” Colbert said, also noting the development of unmanned MQ-25 Stingray aircraft.  

Autonomous refueling tankers were a major topic in light of the Air Force’s June launch of the Advanced Aerial Refueling Family of Systems program through a request for information that calls for such technology. 

Boeing said that its KC-46A Pegasus, the Air Force’s newest refueling tanker, had carried out autonomous boom aerial refueling during test flights, while Airbus said that its A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport received certification for automatic air-to-air refueling in daylight – a certification that the company says is the first of its kind in the world. It worked with the Royal Singapore Air Force to test the technology, and the Spanish National Institute for Aerospace Technology certified it. 

Airbus also shared the kickoff of Auto’Mate, a demonstrator that will develop and integrate technologies in support of autonomous air-to-air refueling and formation flight operations. The company will test the tech in flight next year, with a demonstration planned for mid-2024. 

Additionally, the company is working with Lockheed Martin to adapt the body of its A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport into the LMXT strategic tanker.  

“The autonomous refueling is sort of part of that broader enterprise perspective on how we’re bringing autonomy to the customer,” said Tim Flood, Boeing’s senior regional director of international business development for Europe and the Americas. “So, we’ve done some flight testing already on autonomous refueling, and that’s a feature that we’re continuing to grow down track.” 

Next-gen recon 

Amid a competition between Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky and Bell Textron to win an Army contract for the next generation of attack reconnaissance helicopters, the companies said they’re seeing global demand for the rotorcraft technology they’re developing. 

“Whatever the Army gets, everybody wants to be a part of it,” said Chris Gehler, vice president and program director of future attack and reconnaissance aircraft at Bell Helicopter, adding that Bell Textron’s prototype, the Bell 360, is about 90% complete. 

Sikorsky is pitching technology developed for its Raider X and Defiant X to U.S. allies, including NATO members.

“We are ready to promote this technology internationally,” said Luigi Piantadosi, Lockheed Martin director for international future vertical lift. “The United States, NATO and all the NATO partners require now more than ever to work as a one force to stay really ahead of the growing threats.”