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“Liberty Lifter” Program Sees Renewed Investment from DARPA

Will There Be a Resurgence for Seaplanes? Darpa’s Funky Catamaran Demonstrator Gains $40 Million

Not long after news of a refreshed PBY Catalina hits the hangar, another bolus of money begins working its way into the LIberty LIfter program, a distributed thrust, ground-effect seaplane designed for tactical airlift in oceanic regions.

It’s a bit interesting to compare and contrast the two aircraft, both designed to fulfill a military mission in their respective eras. The Catalina served as a recon, rescue, patrol, and anti-sub aircraft throughout WWII, later giving way to a waning interest in the pacific front as strategic enemies fell into history. Now, as the South China Sea begins to geopolitically roil, DARPA planners see the cracks and gaps in their armories. The Liberty LIfter, unlike the Catalina, is a hauler, theoretically able to fly up to the beach and disgorge columns of allied vehicles - and hopefully armor, if payload allows.

The program remains embryonic, with a few takes on the general theme. So far, the commonalities are a high-wing with a number of propellers distributed throughout the wing. From there, the concepts diverge. The new funding injection will support two prime contractors as they hone their respective ideas - Aurora’s relatively tried-and-true flying boat design, and Orbital Sciences’ twin-hull concept. The latter is by far the more eye-catching one, showing an unorthodox arrangement of 10 pusher props placed ahead of the inboard ailerons and flaps. Both designs will be held to the same requirements, though, with a 5 to 13-foot AGL flying height in ground effect, a service ceiling of 10,000 feet, and a range of up to 6,500 nautical miles. In theory, the resulting Liberty Lifter will be able to haul about as much as a C-17 Globemaster…if they can ever build them.

But for now, Orbital will see the infusion of $19.5 million, and General Atomics $21.5 million in order to follow through and take a swing at it.

FMI: www.darpa.mil

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