Saturday, November 1, 2008

Week in review (10/26 to 11/01)

IF ANYTHING, THE controversy in Northwest Florida about the F-35 and the increased jet noise level it will bring to communities around Eglin Air Force Base has escalated over the past week. How this plays out will be of high interest to any other areas of the nation where F-35s will be based.

An environmental impact study says that at military housing areas and base schools on Eglin, noise from the Joint Strike Fighter will be twice as loud as F-15s, reaching 83 decibels. Off base, F-35 noise will reach up to 90 decibels in neighborhoods under an Eglin flight path. And the number of people exposed frequently to sound levels of 75 decibels or more will increase from 142 people to 2,174 people.

The environmental impact study was prompted by plans to set up the joint F-35 pilot and maintenance training school at Eglin. It will, no doubt, bring a lot of economic development activity to the region. But the city of Valparaiso has expressed concern over the noise, and filed suit to get more information. Late in the week the city decided to increase the amount of money it plans to spend on the suit.

Residents of Valparaiso - or any area getting F-35s - might be interested in a story in the November issue of Defense Technology International, which details the growing issue of hearing loss in the military. An article by Senior Editor Paul McLeary, title "Equipment Noise is Accelerating Hearing Loss," points out that new equipment such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, is so loud that "the technology to protect users from damage does not yet exist." The article notes "it’s not a matter of whether but when and how badly operators will suffer permanent hearing damage."

Elsewhere, Gov. Charlie Crist and the cabinet approved a joint venture with the Navy to eventually preserve more than 5,000 acres of undeveloped land surrounding Whiting Field Naval Air Station north of Milton, Fla. The vote was unanimous to spend $1 million for an initial 208 acres near the base’s northeastern and southern perimeters.

One story during the week that got a lot of attention was out of Pensacola Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., where two members of the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration team, one a pilot, were removed from the team allegedly having an inappropriate relationship. One story that didn't get a lot of attention, Air Force Special Operations gunships, based at Hurlburt Field, Fla., are getting a new tool to provide increased situational awareness – an addition that will let gunships take on a mission commander role.

ON THE SPACE FLIGHT front, NASA is also looking at speeding up development of the new moon rockets - Ares I and Ares V - and Orion, the Apollo-style crew capsule. Any speed up of that program is of high interest to Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Mississippi's John C. Stennis Space Center, both heavily involved in that mission.

During this past week, a story out of Stennis Space Center showed things are progressing in the construction of a new rocket test stand. Fabricated steel for the 300-foot test stand began arriving by truck Oct. 24. The new A-3 test stand will be used to test the J-2X engine, which will be used in both the Ares I and Ares V.

The full-scale components of the Ares I-X test rocket built at NASA’s Glenn Research Center are heading for Port Canaveral, Fla. At Kennedy Space Center the components of the upper stage simulator of the Ares I-X test rocket will be integrated with other parts of the Ares I-X vehicle for launch. The first test flight is being pushed back to July 12 because of the delay in a final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.

THE AERIAL TANKER ISSUE hasn’t gone away. You’ll recall the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team was awarded a contract in late February to assemble 179 tankers in Mobile, Ala. But Boeing's protest was upheld by the General Accountability Office, which cited flaws in the Air Force process. The Pentagon later opted to cancel the project and leave it to the next administration.

There have been a lot of twists and turns since then, including voices from some quarters saying a split buy is becoming more possible. In one of the latest stories, the Pentagon came up with an approach that would make the entire issue a cost shootout between the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America and Boeing. The story says the next administration might go with this option. We'll have to see.

But in any case, two failed acquisition programs, including the one for the tanker, will be among the first subjected to a new review system. The new process will require Army and Navy officials to conduct peer reviews of the Air Force programs before, during and after contract decisions. The Air Force, in turn, will help review contracts for the other branches. The new process began Sept. 30 for all programs worth $1 billion or more.

Finally, while it's not directly related to the tanker issue, one of the competitors in that project has resolved a labor issue. Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers reached a tentative agreement last week. IAM says the new contract limits the amount of work outside vendors can perform in the workplace.

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