A crowd of people watching Hodges on the virtual flight cheered when he made a successful landing, something Leonardo hopes for as the Air Force considers industry proposals and plans to award a contract later this year for 350 trainers to replace its aging T-38 Talons.
Leonardo may be an underdog for the T-X contract, analysts say. Defense giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing made their own offerings to the Air Force, and along with all competitors turned over additional flight data to the service in June.
But Leonardo's CEO has insisted the company is firmly in the running. Its simulator flight with Hodges and sponsorship of the annual Tuskegee Airmen conference in Orlando are part of its push to boost visibility and win what is one of the decade's key tactical aircraft contracts.
If it does win, the company said it will build a manufacturing facility at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala., where the famous unit trained.
"We are proud to sponsor the Tuskegee Airmen's national convention and look forward to honoring their incredible contributions by building next-generation, American-made Air Force training aircraft right in the shadow of where some of the greatest pilots in history learned their skills," Leonardo CEO Bill Lynn said in a statement.
Leonardo has based the T-X offering on its Aermacchi M-346 trainer jet already flown by Italy, Singapore and Israel.
Lockheed has partnered with Korean Aerospace Industries to put forward one its existing airframes, the T-50A, which was developed for the Korean air force and already has 142,000 flight hours.
Boeing is working with Swedish company Saab on a completely new "clean sheet" aircraft design to replace the trainers.