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DARPA selects partners for next-generation seaplane

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected General Atomics, partnering with Maritime Applied Physics Corporation and Aurora Flight Sciences working with Gibbs & Cox and ReconCraft, to develop designs for DARPA’s Liberty Lifter seaplane wing-in-ground effect full-scale demonstrator. 

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected General Atomics, partnering with Maritime Applied Physics Corporation and Aurora Flight Sciences working with Gibbs & Cox and ReconCraft, to develop designs for DARPA’s Liberty Lifter seaplane wing-in-ground effect full-scale demonstrator. 

This blast-from-the past project seeks to demonstrate a leap-ahead in operational capability by designing, building, floating, and flying a long-range, low-cost X-Plane capable of seaborne strategic and tactical heavy lift, similar to the World War II-era Catalina flying boat and eccentric-industrialist Howard Hughes’ experimental H-4 Hercules. 

The planned Liberty Lifter demonstrator will be a large flying boat similar in size and capacity to the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft — goals include take-off and land in Sea State 4, sustained on-water operation up to Sea State 5, and extended flight close to the water in ground effect with the capability to fly out of ground effect at altitudes up to 10,000 feet above sea level. 

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DARPA Liberty Lifter program manager Christopher Kent explained, “We are excited to kick-off this program and looking forward to working closely with both performer teams as they mature their point-of-departure design concepts through Phase 1. The two teams have taken distinctly different design approaches that will enable us to explore a relatively large design space during Phase 1.”

These comments were expanded upon by General Atomics president David Alexander: “GA-ASI is committed to the advancement of a cargo seaplane design capable of delivering heavy cargo and utilising wing-in-ground effect to revolutionise transport to support tomorrow’s warfighter. 

“Our experience in maritime aircraft such as the MQ-9B SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian will help advance the capabilities of the Liberty Lifter concept and expand our cargo aircraft portfolio,” Alexander added. 

The General Atomics team has selected a twin-hull, mid-wing design to optimise on-water stability and seakeeping — the concept plane employs distributed propulsion using 12 turboshaft engines.

Meanwhile, the Aurora Flight Sciences’ point-of-departure design more closely resembles a traditional flying boat, with a single hull, high wing and eight turboprops for primary propulsion.

During Phase 1, DARPA will work with both performer teams and Department of Defense stakeholders to refine the Liberty Lifter designs, with particular attention to operational needs and operating concepts as they are introduced. 

The Phase 1 contract awards are for an 18-month period of performance with six months of conceptual design work and nine months of design maturation culminating in a preliminary design review. There will be an additional three months for manufacturing planning and test/demonstration planning reviews.

As scheduled, Phase 1 will transition into Phase 2 in mid-2024 with continued detailed design, manufacturing, and demonstration of a full-scale Liberty Lifter X-Plane. DARPA anticipates teaming with one or more DoD Service and international partners for those activities and further development of the Liberty Lifter concept into an operational vehicle.

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