Saturday, August 1, 2009

Week in review (7/26 to 8/1)

If you needed any more proof that unmanned systems will play an increasing role in aerospace, consider this: The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado has integrated unmanned aircraft systems into the school's curriculum.

Two Viking 300 unmanned systems, made by L-3 BAI Aerospace in Maryland, are used for the training at Camp Red Devil at Fort Carson, Colo. The academy hopes to send 300 cadets through the basic program each year.

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael C. Gould said the service has made unmanned systems a priority. He said their value is evidenced every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gould said the program is designed in part to “light a fire” in many of the cadets, and get them involved in the field.

Unmanned systems – you’ll sometimes see the acronym UAV, sometimes UAS – are of high interest to the Gulf Coast region on several levels. Northrop Grumman does production work on both the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and the Global Hawk fixed-wing UAV in Moss Point, Miss. And California’s AeroVironment, which builds Dragon Eye, Raven and more, has a training operation in Navarre, Fla.

But there's another reason: the military’s future and current aviators train in this region. The Navy does initial pilot and flight officer training in Pensacola and Milton, Fla., and we have plenty of active duty pilots at Eglin, Tyndall, Hurlburt and Keesler, as well as Air National Guard pilots, who train in this region and no doubt are paying attention to the growing use of UAVs. Let's face it. UAVs are competing with these pilots now and will continue to do so in the future for missions. They’ve no doubt heard the talk that the F-35 may well end up being the last fighter designed to have a pilot. Perhaps, perhaps not.

One next generation UAV that will be competing with these pilots for air time is the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System. Built by Northrop Grumman, it recently passed a key milestone. It went through a series of static and dynamic proof load tests to validate its design and structural integrity. The testing was done under the UCAS Carrier Demonstration program.

Next for the X-47B, now designated with Navy Bureau Number 168063, will be engine integration and taxi tests through the fall in preparation for first flight and carrier trials. Little doubt our naval aviators here will be watching those tests very closely. One of the most fascinating aspects will be when the aircraft makes an arrested landing. Naval aviators pride themselves on their ability to land an aircraft on a moving platform. Can a machine do it? We’ll have to wait and see.

Folks in Moss Point will obviously be paying attention. The X-47B may one day mean more work for the Unmanned Systems Center. They already do production work on two of the stars of Northrop’s UAV lineup, so it’s not unrealistic to think some work on the X-47B may one day be done in the Gulf Coast.

In yet one more UAV item during the week, Northrop Grumman announced that it finished assembling the first Euro Hawk unmanned aircraft system for Germany. The Euro Hawk, a derivative of the Block 20 Global Hawk, will serve as the German Air Force's high-altitude, long-endurance signals intelligence system.

It would be a major surprise if there wasn’t something to report during the week on the aerial tanker. You no doubt know that Boeing and the Northrop Grumman/EADS team are competing to build the next generation of aerial tankers for the Air Force. Northrop and EADS want to build the tanker in Mobile, Ala. It’s a lucrative contract – one of the biggest, with the initial competition offering a $40 billion prize - and the spinoffs will mean a lot for the Gulf Coast region.

Well during the week the Mobile Press-Register wrote that the White House budget office complained about Congressional pressure to split the contract. A statement said the administration supports taking advantage of efficiencies associated with an award to a single contractor. Many in Congress still feel that awarding the contract to one company will invite protests, and that will delay replacing the fleet of old tankers.

Another tanker-related items during the week was an announcement by EADS that Saudi Arabia will buy three more of the company's A330 refueling tankers. The company said the Royal Saudi Air Force will take delivery of the first of six A330 tankers in 2011. It’s the same aircraft platform EADS and Northrop Grumman are proposing for the Air Force tanker. The EADS tanker has far outsold the Boeing tanker in the world marketplace.

Anyone interested in the tanker battle has no doubt been intrigued by Boeing’s takeover of the Vought Aircraft Industries’ South Carolina plant, where a structure for the 787 Dreamliner is built. The purchase, first announced July 7, was finalized during the week.

The plant in North Charleston will be called Boeing Charleston, which will be managed by the 787 program, and will continue to perform fabrication, assembly and systems installation for 787 aft fuselage sections.

It’s quite possible this plant will end up becoming a second final production line for the 787. The benefit for Boeing would be easing the oft-delayed Dreamliner schedule. It also makes some political points for the company having an assembly line in the Southeast.

The last Space Shuttle Main Engine test was conducted during the week at Stennis Space Center, Miss. The test marked the end of 34 years of testing space shuttle main engines at Stennis. The center’s new mission is helping NASA prepare for the next era of human spaceflight, the Constellation Program. Last year and the year before Stennis did component tests for the J-2X engine that will be used in the program. A new test stand is being built at Stennis for future J-2X testing.

At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Raytheon Co. completed a series of captive carry flight tests of its entry in the GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb II competition. Engineers tested the weapon's integration and guidance receiver navigator on an Air Force F-15E and also conducted seeker-performance evaluations on an Army UH-1 helicopter.

In another item during the week, Pratt & Whitney said the engine that will power the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter surpassed 12,000 engine test hours as part of the system development and demonstration phase. Added to hours during the concept demonstration program, the F135 engine has more than 15,600 test hours. Pratt & Whitney will deliver the first seven production engines later this year.

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is scheduled to host the Joint Strike Fighter Training Center.

This and that
- A retired Air Force officer was convicted in Pensacola, Fla., of destroying records and lying to a grand jury in connection with contracts awarded by a research lab at Eglin Air Force Base. Richard Schaller was accused of helping another retired Air Force officer who worked at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Eglin steer contracts to Schaller's company.

- The National Naval Aviation Museum during the week got a new aircraft for display – an SH-60B Seahawk that has been in continuous duty with the Navy since 1986. It flew in Wednesday and was officially unveiled Thursday. The helicopter flew more than 8,700 hours. Missions included training, counter-submarine and counter-narcotics.

- The Community Based Outpatient Clinic in the first year has chalked up 15,982 visits from veterans. That's according to the facility’s chief medical officer. The clinic, near Eglin Air Force Base’s west gate, offers primary medical care, mental health services, lab work, a small pharmacy and nutrition assistance to about 4,500 veterans in Okaloosa County.

2Q reports
Two companies of interest to the Gulf Coast issued quarterly reports during the week. General Dynamics reported second-quarter 2009 earnings from continuing operations of $621 million compared to 2008 second-quarter earnings of $641 million. … EADS NV reported second-quarter net profit rose close to 70 percent. But the company warned it may take hits on future profits from the delayed A400M military transport program.

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