Saturday, May 8, 2010

Week in review (5/2 to 5/8)

If there's one thing we know how to do in this country, it's creating special interest groups.

One of the newest came to light during the past week when Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., announced the creation of the United States Senate Aerospace Caucus. Its purpose, says Murray, is to fight for the needs of the U.S. aerospace industry.

It might be hard to convince your average Joe and Jane that the U.S. aerospace industry needs the help. It's one of the real bright spots in the economy, chalking up in 2009 sales of $214 billion. That's the sixth record-breaking year in a row.

But Defense News reported that Murray said there are some warning signs that the aerospace industry is heading towards trouble. She claims it could go the way of the U.S. auto industry unless the industry and Congress develop a plan for the future. She wants a comprehensive national strategy for aerospace, formed by industry and government working closely together. Without it, "these companies risk being stagnant just as their foreign competition flies ahead, and we cannot let that happen," she said.

The caucus has some two dozen members, including both senators from Washington, where Boeing is the state’s largest employer. The Seattle P-I ran the list on a blog. The caucus has some representation from the states of the Gulf Coast. Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and David Vitter, R-La., are members, but neither senator from Florida had joined at this writing.

Also missing are Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby of Alabama, who may be uncomfortable with talk about foreign competition. Alabama stands to gain an aircraft assembly plant in Mobile if Europe's EADS beats Boeing and wins the Air Force tanker competition. That's an unlikely scenario, but it's still possible.

"There is a lack of certainty among our aerospace manufacturers about what the future holds and what they should be building for," Murray is quoted as saying in the Defense News article. A lack of certainty? Welcome to the real world of commerce.

How many industries have certainty about what the future holds? Customers of any industry – whether it's Joe Blow average consumer or the deep-pocket Pentagon – can't tell you what they are going to want or need in the future. But that's how commerce works, and the biggest reward goes to those who think ahead of the curve. The U.S. aerospace industry has proven itself up to the challenge.

President Obama's plans for NASA appear in big trouble. Few Democrats have publicly endorsed the entire plan, while opponents like Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., continue to blast the Obama plan as "destructive."

NASA appears to be hedging its bets that the president's vision might not pass muster with Congress. Kennedy Space Center officials and contractors, under direction from Johnson Space Center and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, are pressing ahead with plans for test flights of a multibillion-dollar Ares I rocket that Obama wants to cancel. NASA has operations at Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

- The oil slick floating in the Gulf of Mexico caused a few headaches in the effort to ship an external fuel tank to Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The 15-story tank used in Space Shuttle launches is made at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, and it's sent in a covered barge to Kennedy. But the slick blocked the usual deep-water access. The barge was placed on a barge last weekened and taken to Gulfport, Miss., where it was retrieved by the Freedom Star to finish the 900-mile trek to Kennedy.

The Air Force has launched a new training program for Combat Systems Officer students with the inaugural class of the 479th Flying Training Group. The year-long program combines navigator, electronic warfare and weapon systems training into a single pipeline.

The resulting CSOs will be trained in a common set of core skills to fill any of the roles once filled by navigators, WSOs or EWOs. There will also be a significant increase in hands-on flying. The CSO course will include 38 sorties in T-6 Texan II and modified T-1A Jayhawks, and 40 missions in simulators.

The 479th FTG became the 12th Flying Training Wing's newest group in October, when it started operations in Florida as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Committee directive to relocate Air Force navigator training from Randolph Air Force Base to NAS Pensacola, where the Navy conducts its Naval Flight Officer training. With stand-up of the new group, nearly 35 percent of the 12th FTW is now in Florida.

Unmanned systems
Northrop Grumman and Bell Helicopter have unveiled a new unmanned helicopter, Fire-X, based on the four-blade, single engine Bell 407. The new drone borrows many of the systems that are used in the successful Fire Scout.

The new UAV will be able to keep tabs on adversaries for longer periods of time and deliver more cargo to more remote locations. The first flight of Fire-X is expected by the end of 2010. The new aircraft represents Northrop Grumman's entry in an anticipated U.S. Navy competition in 2011 to demonstrate a new medium-range unmanned system.

Northrop's Fire Scout is built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

A UH-1 Huey set up outside the terminal at Northwest Florida Regional Airport was dedicated during the week in honor of the late Michael J. Novosel Sr., who earned a Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam. Hundreds of people, including family members and soldiers from Fort Rucker, Ala., attended the ceremony. The Huey, which arrived at the airport April 23, will greet visitors at the airport’s entrance.

Is EADS Chief Executive Louis Gallois a betting man? Who knows, but he came up with a bold statement in Frankfurt, Germany, during the week when he said he's certain EADS would win the $40 billion Air Force tanker contract. "I would even bet that we will get the contract," Gallois told German tabloid Bild. EADS wants to assemble the tankers in Mobile, Ala.

- The Pentagon wants bidders for the $40 billion tanker project to be ready to start the contract on Nov. 12. Bids are expected from Boeing Co. and EADS North America. The Pentagon said during the week that it still hopes to award the contract in the fall, but that it set the Nov. 12 start date so that bidders could plan around it. The request for proposals calls for the contract to be awarded on Aug. 12, but that appears unlikely since the Pentagon extended the bidding deadline to July 9 so that EADS could bid.

L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace LLC, Madison, Miss., was awarded a $14 million contract to provide aircraft maintenance and logistics services in support of the Navy's T-34 and T-44 aircraft. Half the work will be performed at the Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla., and half at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, and is expected to be completed in November 2010. … Raytheon Co., Tucson, Ariz., was awarded a $96.7 million contract which will provide miniature air launched decoy low rate initial production contracts for a 24-month effort to include operational test and evaluation. 692 ARSS/PK Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., Rolling Meadows, Ill., was awarded a $79.2 million contract for the procurement of 487 NexGen MWS sensors and 99 NexGen MWS processors, including associated technical data, for the H-53 and H-46 helicopters. Under two percent of the work will be done in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

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