Saturday, July 3, 2010

Week in review (6/27 to 7/3)

The Air Force tanker project, a source of amusement, anger and frustration for the Gulf Coast region for quite some time, just keeps getting more bizarre. Late in the week a new player, Ukranian aircraft manufacturer Antonov and its California partner US Aerospace, said they will submit a bid on the $40 billion to build the 179 planes. The bids are due July 9.

The joint venture is considering offering the An-124, An-122 and An-112. It would be built in the Ukraine with final assembly somewhere in the United States, reportedly in the Southeast or Midwest. Antonov builds some of the largest planes in the world and became a Ukranian company after the breakup of the Soviet Union. You might have even seen one. Antonov AN-124s bring huge Rolls-Royce Trent engines to Stennis International Airport for testing at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center, Miss.

But even if it manages to put in a bid, what kind of a chance to you think this latest player has in the competition? If you think the subsidies bidder EADS gets from the European Union increases the blood pressure of Boeing supporters, imagine what they think of this competitor. Government owned? A U.S. partner with financial problems? Word is the venture wants an extension of the deadline, but will bid even without an extension.

Yeah, that's a horse I’ll bet on.

- On the subject of tankers, a potential game changer is waiting in the wings, so to speak. Ever hear of the KQ-X? Keep that tucked away in your "wave of the future" file.

The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, better known by its abbreviation, DARPA, said last week that it will spend $33 million to have Northrop Grumman proceed with a demonstration of one unmanned aircraft refueling another.

Northrop will refit a high-flying Global Hawk with a hose-and-drogue refueling system to see if it can refuel another refitted drone, this one a NASA Global Hawk. The whole process will be completely autonomous.

The refueling will take place at a much higher altitude than has been previously demonstrated with manned aircraft. It will also be the first time that high-altitude UAVs have flown in formation.

The demonstration will mark yet another milestone in the move to replace manned missions with those that can be performed by unmanned aircraft. As it is, the thinking is that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be the last manned fighter. How long before we see the end of manned refueling aircraft?

Revealing is a sentence that was in the DoD contract announcement: "A successful outcome will allow developers of future unmanned aircraft to produce more cost-effective systems that rely on aerial refueling for the most demanding missions."

So let me see if I have this right. The Air Force will be spending $40 billion to replace 1950s era planes with a plane that's been flying for 30 years (767) or one that's been around for 20 (A330). Nevermind that the tankers are "new" versions. At the same time it's providing tax dollars to replace KC-135s, it's funding a project that points to the future – a drone tanker. Knowing the pace of technological change we've experienced, isn't it possible we'll start replacing manned tankers with unmanned tankers even before all the KC-135s are replace?

I feel certain there are people at the Pentagon that see this and know full well that technology changes exponentially. Look at what's happened with computers and communications. And the advancements in unmanned systems can be mind-boggling. In a relatively short time we've gone from UAVs that provide reconnaissance to those that can kill an enemy. A new generation of microdrones can mimic birds or insects, and yet another category that harks back to years past - airships - will be able to stay on station for weeks at a time, if not longer.

I'm not afraid to go out on the limb. So here goes: The Air Force KC-X tanker project won't last as long as people think. Sure, some of those tankers will be built. But at some point before the last KC-135s is replaced the program will be killed and replaced by a new multibillion-dollar tanker project for drone tankers or airships.

Certainly food for thought.

- Speaking of Global Hawks, the German version of the plane, called the Euro Hawk, successfully completed its first flight June 29. It took off from the company's Palmdale, Calif., manufacturing facility and climbed to 32,000 feet before landing nearly two hours later at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The UAV will be equipped with a signals intelligence mission system developed by EADS Defense and Security.

- In a ruling that could impact the current battle between Boeing and EADS - and the Antonov-US Aerospace team - over building Air Force tankers, the World Trade Organization ruled that aid European governments provided to Airbus violated global trade rules.

The WTO ruled that four decades of government-backed loans to Airbus helped it gain foreign sales, harming Boeing. The ruling was anticipated by the U.S. aerospace industry. The U.S. filed the case in 2004, accusing the European Union of unfair trade practices by subsidizing Airbus with hundreds of millions of dollars in "launch-aid loans."

Airbus officials said the EU would appeal the ruling.

The WTO is expected to rule next month on a countersuit accusing the U.S. of unfairly subsidizing Boeing. EADS, owner of Airbus, wants to assemble its tankers in Mobile, Ala.

- In Mobile, Ala., the city council, county commission, airport authority and city industrial development board modified incentive agreements each made in 2006 in an attempt to lure refueling tanker assembly to Mobile. The deals are similar to those granted at that time.

The Northrop Grumman/EADS team won the $40 million contract in February 2008, but it was overturned after a Boeing protest. Northrop dropped out after it determined the new requirements favored a smaller plane offered by Boeing.

- The Airbus Engineering Center at Mobile, Ala.’s Brookley Industrial Complex will be getting another 90 engineers. The center currently has 150. The employees at the center, opened in 2007, work on cabin interiors, cargo systems and escape systems on a wide range of Airbus jets.

St. Joe, a Florida real estate development company, provided a $1.25 million donation to the National Flight Academy at the National Aviation Museum, located at Naval Air Station Pensacola. The academy, which will provide week-long sessions to students in 7th through 12th grades, is set to open in 2012. Its purpose is to motivate students to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math in what's called a "learning adventure."

- An aircrew from the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., found that a storm that had been upgraded from tropical storm to hurricane status hours before they took off had reached Category 2 status by the time they returned home. They had been in the storm more than seven hours. Hurricane Alex came ashore late in the evening of June 29 on an unpopulated stretch of coast in northern Mexico.

NASA is targeting Nov. 1 for the launch of space shuttle Discovery's STS-133 mission and Feb. 26, 2011, for the liftoff of shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 flight from the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The target dates were adjusted because critical payload hardware for STS-133 will not be ready in time to support the previously planned Sept. 16 launch.

- NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Systems will hold a ceremony at 9 a.m. Thursday, July 8, at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to commemorate 37 years of tank deliveries and the final external tank's rollout. The last shuttle flight, STS 134, is scheduled for February 2011. The tank will travel by barge to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

- A House panel agreed during the week to accept President Obama's proposed funding increase for NASA, but without taking a position on changing the agency's course. The House appropriations subcommittee governing NASA unanimously approved $19 billion for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The panel opted to take to take no position on White House plans to scrap NASA's moon-rocket program and replace the space shuttle with commercial rockets.

- Roy Estess, former director of NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, died June 25 at age 71. Estess had an allergic reaction to an insect string. His career at NASA spanned 37 years, with 25 of that at Stennis Space Center.

Joint Strike Fighter
Northrop Grumman delivered to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Integrated Training Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., the first set of instructional materials needed to train pilots and aircraft maintainers for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The center will open this summer.

The electronic materials include all of the presentation materials that classroom instructors will use to teach pilots how to fly the F-35, and maintainers how to repair and support the aircraft. Northrop Grumman is a principal subcontractor for the Lockheed Martin-built plane that will be used by the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and foreign nations.

L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace LLC, Madison, Miss., is being awarded a $51.3 million contract to provide aircraft maintenance and logistics life cycle support for 54 Navy and 11 Marine Corps C-12 aircraft. Works is at a variety of locations, including NAS New Orleans.

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