Black Eagles showcase the T-50 for Korea Aerospace Industries at the Savoy

The Black Eagles on the ground
The Black Eagles on the ground

Eleven handsome pilots in aviator sunglasses swagger down the runway in slow-motion choreographed formation. Behind them is parked a sleek black and gold aircraft pointing menacingly towards you. A booming Hollywood soundtrack could be announcing the start of a Top Gun sequel. But it’s the start of the promotional video for Korea’s Black Eagles aerobatic team, and for the Korean T-50 trainer that they fly.

I’ve come to the Savoy for Korea’s first Defence Industry Showcase in the UK, and I’m pretending to be a UK defence procurement executive looking for a potential replacement for our Hawk trainer. It was a bit of a switch, having earlier that week pretended to be a media mogul trying to fill my TV schedules with purchased Korean TV shows at the TV Contents Showcase.

“The World’s Best Aerobatic Flight Team,” the American-accented voiceover proudly announces.

Hang on there. We in Britain are pretty proud of our Red Arrows. Yes, the Black Eagles had just got an award at the Waddington Air show a couple of days previously, and would go on to win another award at the Royal International Air Tattoo a few days later, but the Red Arrows hadn’t been competing.

“We will become the best Aerobatic Flight Team in the World, flying supersonic jets using our own national technology,” the announcer goes on to claim, the greater precision bringing modesty. Now I’m happy. The Red Arrows are pretty good, and use British technology, but the 38-year-old Hawker Siddeley Hawk is subsonic. I’m perfectly happy for the Black Eagles to be better than the Americans, French, Russians, and whatever other national display teams fly their own supersonic planes, and I settle down to enjoy the rest of the video.

Cupids Arrow
The Black Eagles’ “Heart and Cupid’s Arrow” manoeuvre

The audience of defence industry people, journalists, supporters of Korea and, somewhat incongruously sitting next to me, two lawyers specialising in shipping finance, applauded the video as the team executed some of their trademark manoeuvres: creating a taegukgi and a cupid’s arrow out of their smoke-trails. Very impressive: I’ve never seen the Red Arrows do that. The Black Eagles don’t execute the taegukgi at their overseas shows as it plays best in front of a Korean audience, but there were enough Korea supporters in the room to feel pride at the stunt.

The Taegukgi manoeuvre
The Taegukgi manoeuvre

We moved on to the speeches. Warwick Morris, former British Ambassador in Seoul, disclosed that there was some British Aerospace technology in the in the T-50, so if I did buy some I would be supporting British jobs in a small way. But of course, with the T-50 based on the Lockheed Martin F-16, there’s much more American technology involved. He also disclosed that in order to get the Black Eagles to the UK airshows at which they were performing to so much acclaim, nine T-50 aircraft had to be dismantled, shipped across the world, and then reassembled in the UK. It performs pretty well for a giant Airfix kit.

We hear about the other products of Korea Aerospace Industries: they are part of the supply chain of both Airbus and Boeing, and they have upgraded the Lynx helicopter and developed drone technology.

We hear about the reliability and versatility of the T-50, and perhaps more importantly of its economics, somhow requiring far fewer hours to get a pilot fully trained and combat-ready. That claim strikes a chord.

We hear about KAI’s recent success in selling 16 T-50s to Indonesia, where it is replacing our own Hawk, and of its hopes for selling 24 to Iraq, 16 to Chile, another 16 to Poland, and, the one they were really pleased about and confident of winning, a joint bid with Lockheed Martin to supply the US Air Force with 350 trainers. And demonstrating the high stakes involved in the Defence Industry, the following morning British Aerospace was in the news, claiming that it was in the lead for winning that particular USD 10 billion contract.

The Black Eagles in action
The Black Eagles in action

So, the planes were impressive, economic, versatile, fast, reliable, everything you could want a plane to be. But would I buy any for the RAF? Well, the T-50 might have a couple of BAe widgets in it somewhere, but the Hawk is pretty much 100% BAe, so right now I’m sure British defence dollars would be spent on a next generation Hawk.

The Korean Defence Industry Showcase was held in the Savoy’s Lancaster Room on 5 July 2012

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