Saturday, February 26, 2011

Week in review (2/20 to 2/26)

The announcement during the week that the Air Force chose Boeing, rather than EADS, to build aerial tankers took everybody by surprise, according to press accounts. I suppose that's because everyone was listening to the experts, who for weeks were calling EADS the favorite.

When I first read those predictions, I couldn't help but think back to 2008, when all the experts were calling Boeing the favorite. Predictably, when the Air Force chose EADS three years ago, everyone was shocked.

One thing I learned in more than 30 years as a reporter and editor is to be very wary of the predictions of industry experts and insiders. That was particularly true of the tanker contest, where so many factors were at play.

So now the big question is, will EADS protest the decision? The company will be debriefed Monday, and will then make a decision on whether to appeal to the Government Accountability Office. It will have 10 days to do so after that briefing. You can already find the experts, undaunted by their track record, making predictions. I could make arguments for why EADS should appeal, as well as arguments for why it shouldn't.

On the one hand, it's a huge contract, $35 billion, and establishing a foothold for the production of wide-body jets in the United States would go a long way towards EADS reaching its goal of being a bigger player in the lucrative U.S. defense market. It's already building helicopters in Columbus, Miss.

But on the other hand, Boeing supporters would point fingers at EADS if it does anything that further delays delivering tankers to the warfighters. The warfighters have waited long enough, it's true. Of course, you won't find any Boeing supporters pointing out that the 2008 protest caused a delay.

The decision was based on price, something that drove Northrop Grumman out of the contest. Boeing's bid was more than 1 percent below EADS' price, so non-mandatory capabilities were not taken into consideration. These non-mandatory capabilities were taken into account the last go-around and tilted the contest in EADS' favor.

There was a fundamental shift between 2008 and 2010 in what the Air Force was looking for. In 2008, it appeared to be capability. This time, it was cost. For EADS, the key question will be, is there anything they can do to shift the focus back to capability?

One of the maneuvers that clearly had a huge impact on the final outcome was changing the cost calculation to 40 years from the previous 25 years. Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington State took credit for that. It would be hard not to give a nod to the politics that was behind all of this.

Brookley improvements
Also during the week, Alabama's Mobile Airport Authority said it was considering borrowing $8 million to improve streets, drainage, signs and landscaping at the Brookley Aeroplex, the location where EADS planned to build a $600 million plant to assemble tankers.

Of course, EADS won't be building the plant, but it's still possible the authority will pursue the improvements. Bill Sisson, executive director of the authority, had said that even if EADS didn't win the contract, the work needs to be done to relieve traffic congestion and meet increased demand for industrial space.

Mentor program
A ceremony was held at the end of the week in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., marking the mentor-protégé agreement between Lockheed Martin and Fort Walton Machining. Under the Defense Department program, mentor companies help prepare small businesses with capabilities and know-how to perform as prime or subcontractors to the federal government. Fort Walton Machining is a supplier for Lockheed Martin's F-35, F-16, F-22 and C-130J programs.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: The latest destroyer built by Northrop Grumman in Pascagoula, Miss., has been delivered to the Navy. The William P. Lawrence will leave Pascagoula May 19. … Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., decided to spend more on its latest expansion and will get a bigger tax break than the one previously approved by the city industrial development board.

Marine science: The number of infant dolphins washing ashore in Mississippi and Alabama keeps going up. It's unclear at this stage whether it has anything to do with last year's BP oil spill.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Week in review (2/13 to 2/19)

An announcement will be made soon, perhaps as early as next week, on which company the Air Force has selected to build 179 aerial tankers. If Boeing wins, workers and politicians in Washington and Kansas will celebrate. If EADS wins, workers and politicians in Mobile, Ala., and the immediate Gulf Coast will put on party hats.

But be forewarned. The losing side will probably protest. About the only scenario where a protest won't occur is if the Air Force splits the contract. Don't count out that possibility.

During the past week, the Pentagon's inspector general's office finished a review of an Air Force mix-up that sent details of Boeing's bid to EADS and vice versa, and found no reason to further investigate. The IG said the Air Force handled the mistake in compliance with federal law. Also during the week, EADS North America Chairman Ralph Crosby said the company had lowered its bid price the tanker. Boeing, for its part, had earlier said its pricing was "aggressive."

Boeing is offering a version of its 767, and EADS a version of its Airbus A330. If Boeing wins, the planes will be made in Washington and Kansas. If EADS wins, the planes will be assembled in a still-to-be-built plant at Mobile's Brookley Aeroplex. Boeing isn't keen on seeing its archrival build an aircraft manufacturing facility in the United States. EADS already has a helicopter manufacturing site in Mississippi, and Boeing doesn't want to see further inroads.

But that's the nature of the global aerospace field. Companies from one section of the world team up with companies from another to compete for military and civilian projects. They're all establishing footholds in markets where they hope to sell their products.

The Gulf Coast region is just one of the areas of the world where a lot of international players are looking, and EADS isn't the first and won't be the last. Selex Galileo in South Mississippi is part of Italy's Finmeccanica, and ST Aerospace Mobile is part of Singapore's ST Engineering. A Chinese conglomerate, AVIC, has purchased Teledyne Continental in Mobile. We also have the United Kingdom's Rolls-Royce testing jet engines in South Mississippi and BAE Systems in Northwest Florida.

While the tanker project would be a big win for the Gulf Coast region, the region is already a major player in aerospace, both for companies with U.S. roots and companies with foreign roots. And that's likely to continue, with or without an EADS tanker plant.

Unmanned systems
The Navy is requesting funds in fiscal year 2012 to buy the first 12 Fire-X unmanned helicopters. Called MQ-8C, Fire-X is based on the Bell 407, a larger version of the Fire Scout, MQ-8B, which uses the Schweizer S-333 airframe.

That the Navy would be interested in not surprising. The Fire Scout has already demonstrated its capabilities, so a larger version made sense. In December, Northrop Grumman and Bell flew the company-funded Fire-X demonstrator to show that a new airframe could be integrated into the unmanned architecture developed for the Fire Scout. The MQ-8C is to be an engineering change proposal to the existing system, using the existing avionics, payloads, command-and-control links and ground control station.

But that doesn't mean the Fire Scout will be squeezed out. The Navy Department's fiscal 2012 budget calls for 12 Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, nine more than originally planned. By 2016 the Navy plans to purchase 57, up from the 31 included in earlier budgets. The Navy requested a baseline of $161.4 billion for fiscal 2012, up $800 million from last year's proposal. Fire Scouts are built in part in Moss Point, Miss.

The House during the week approved an amendment that would eliminate funding for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a move that would contribute an additional $450 million to the estimated $61 billion in federal spending cuts that House Republicans have proposed for the rest of the current fiscal year. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the alternative engine as unnecessary and wasteful. The second F-35 engine was to be built by General Electric and Rolls Royce. The primary engine is built by Pratt & Whitney. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is home of the F-35 training center.

The president's proposed $18.7 billion budget for NASA in fiscal year 2012 reflects a commitment to long-term job growth, said Mississippi's Stennis Space Center Director Patrick Scheuermann. "As in the past, the unique test facilities and technical expertise at the John C. Stennis Space Center will continue to play a key role in the development and certification of new rocket propulsion systems," said Scheuermann. He added that the center's Applied Science and Technology Project Office will support essential scientific research while managing the Gulf of Mexico Initiative for NASA's Applied Sciences Program.

The lineup of performers and aircraft is growing for the Angels Over the Bay Air Show at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. The March 19-20 show will celebrate the 70th anniversary of Keesler. Headlining the show is the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. The Army Golden Knights parachute team, which opened the Thunder on the Bay air show at Keesler in 2009, will be back again.

Defense contractor DRS Technologies has laid off 38 people from its Fort Walton Beach, Fla., location in the wake of a staff reassessment. Like with other defense companies, the size of the workforce ebbs and flows based on contracts. The Fort Walton Beach operation specializes in communications, unmanned aircraft and border security products. DRS, based in New Jersey, still has 850 workers in Fort Walton Beach.

BAE Systems Technology Solutions & Services Inc., Rockville, Md., was awarded a $7.7 million modification to a previously awarded cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to exercise an option for the procurement of maintenance, logistics, and life cycle services in support of communication-electronic equipment/systems and subsystems for various Navy, Army, Air Force, Special Operations Forces and other federal agencies. Two percent of the work will be done in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: VT Halter Marine won a $144 million contract to build a second carrier vessel for a Hawaii company. .. The upper part of a mast on the Northrop Grumman-built destroyer USS Gravely broke off last weekend during routine operations.

Advanced materials: BASF SE will cut 250 of the 700 employees and contractors at its McIntosh, Ala., chemical plant over the next two years.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Week in review (2/6 to 2/12)

As expected, both companies competing to build aerial tankers for the U.S. Air Force submitted at the end of the week their best and final proposals to the Air Force. Boeing is offering a variation of its 767 and EADS North America offering a modified A330.

The project to replace the tankers is an Air Force priority. Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb, who heads the Pentagon's Transportation Command, said early in the week that a new tanker would help cut the fuel bill sharply.

Boeing would build its version in Washington and Kansas, and EADS would assemble its aircraft at a planned plant at the Brookley Aeroplex in Mobile, Ala. The project to build the 179 planes is valued at $35 billion to $50 billion. But the subtext of all this is that an EADS win would be a significant addition to the Gulf Coast's already considerable aerospace activities.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's watchdog agency said it will respond "as soon as possible" to a request by seven senators to investigate whether a data mix-up could mar the tanker competition. The Air Force insists the mix-up last November involved no pricing data that could comprise the process.

- Brazil’s Embraer is moving forward on its long-standing wish to establish a production plant in the United States. The company is opening a final assembly plant for business jets in Melborne, Fla., and later this year it will open a customer design center. But that's not all that's in the works for the Brazilian company.

Last month, Embraer said it was teaming with U.S. contractor Sierra Nevada to build Super Tucanos in Jacksonville, Fla., should the Air Force select the Brazilian light attack training over the Hawker Beechcraft/Lockheed Martin AT-6. That contract is expected to be awarded in June. Embraer, like European aircraft makers, wants to play a bigger role in the world's largest aircraft market. (Story)

A 52-second test of an Aerojet AJ26 rocket engine Monday went without a hitch at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center. Executives from NASA, Aerojet and Orbital Sciences Corp. were on hand for the flight acceptance test of the AJ26, which will be the Stage 1 engine for Orbital's Taurus II space launch vehicle. NASA formed a $1.9 billion contract with Orbital to launch eight cargo missions to the International Space Station through 2015. The Aerojet AJ26, originally made in Russia 50 years ago, was tested at the E-1 test stand at Stennis, which had to be adapted to fire the engine in the vertical position.

- Lockheed Martin shipped out the first Orion crew module Thursday from NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It's bound for Lockheed's Denver, Colo., facilities, where it will be integrated with a heat shield and thermal protection backshell, then tested to confirm Orion's ability to safely fly astronauts through deep space missions. It will later undergo simulated water landings at Langley's Hydro Impact Basin in Hampton, Va. This Orion ground test vehicle has already validated advanced production processes, equipment and tools required to manufacture the Orion crew module space flight hardware.

Unmanned systems
The Navy's Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, built in part in Moss Point, Miss., will be busy this year. It will be looking for pirates in the Middle East and gathering intelligence for troops in Afghanistan, according to a report in Aviation Week.

Three aircraft and two ground control stations will participate in the Afghanistan deployment. Builder Northrop Grumman will operate and maintain the system under the guidance of Navy officers. Two Fire Scouts are also aboard the U.S. frigate Halyburton, which sailed to Southwest Asia in early January.

A Fire Scout was recently credited with a humanitarian save when it spotted a wayward boat and hovered until help arrived. The Navy will determine Fire Scout's suitability after operational evaluation in October. A full-rate production decisions would follow. The Navy plans to buy 168 Fire Scouts.

More missions at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will add to highway congestion around the base in Northwest Florida. That's according to the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board. The report looked at Eglin and five other large bases that are expanding as a result of the base realignment plan. Eglin was chosen as the new home of the Army 7th Special Forces Group and the Joint Strike Fighter training center. The 7th SF will bring more than 6,000 people and the JSF center about 4,900. The report urges Congress to consider a special appropriation of federal stimulus money to pay for near-term improvements.

- Officials with Mississippi's Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport are asking Congress to increase a passenger fee and are seeking support from Gulfport, Biloxi and Harrison County. The airport authority wants to increase the Passenger Facility Charge from $4.50 to $7 per passenger in order to pay its debt. The fee hasn't been raised since 2000.

BAE Systems Technology Solutions & Services Inc. of Rockville, Md. was awarded a $15.7 million contract modification to procure 9-QF-4 full scale aerial targets. AAC/EBYK at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. is the contracting activity. … Boeing Co. of St Louis, Mo., was awarded a contract modification not-to-exceed $15.1 million for additional Massive Ordnance Penetrator Integration to include flight test support, three additional test assets, an alternative/modified fuse design and sixteen fuses. AAC/EBDK/EBDJ – MOP Tiger Team at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. is the contracting activity. … Boeing Co. was awarded a $23.1 million contract modification which will procure various test assets and hardware for aircraft integration efforts for the F-16 Block 40/50, F-22, F-35, and the Small Diameter Bomb Increment I programs. AAC/EBMK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. is the contracting activity.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Week in review (1/30 to 2/5)

By the end of the coming week, competitors Boeing and EADS North America will have to submit their best and final proposals to the Air Force in the long-delayed, heavily publicized contest to build 179 aerial refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force. The deadline is Friday.

Under normal circumstances, it would be appropriate to say that the contest is drawing to a close. But this has been anything but normal. Chances are good that the losing side will protest, and that means the replacement of the tankers will continue to drag on. I’ve said for a long time that the only way out of this mess is to buy planes from both companies. That would mean work for Boeing employees, creating of a new aircraft assembly plant in Mobile, Ala., and, most importantly, new equipment for our warfighters.

To recap this past week, the World Trade Organization ruled that U.S. federal and local governments provided billions of dollars in illegal subsidies to Boeing, giving the company an unfair advantage against Europe's Airbus. The findings are similar to those in an interim report released in September.

The WTO has now found that both Boeing and Airbus, a unit of EADS, received illegal aid. But now the two sides are bickering over the size of the illegal subsidies and the importance. Both sides have launched ad campaigns. Boeing's newspaper ad claim the subsidies to EADS dwarf subsidies to Boeing, while EADS's radio ad call Boeing's ads as "misleading."

While all this was going on, Boeing during the week marked the rollout of the 1,000th 767 at the company's Everett, Wash., factory. The 1,000th plane is a 767-300ER passenger model for All Nippon Airways, and was the final 767 to finish assembly on the current production line. The next 767 is being built in a new, smaller and more efficient bay. The 767 is Boeing’s offering in the tanker competition. EADS is offering an A330.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and executives from Orbital Science Corp. and Aerojet will be on hand Monday for a flight acceptance test of an Aerojet AJ26 rocket engine at Stennis Space Center, Miss. The engine will be used in Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Taurus II space launch vehicle.

Once flight acceptance testing on the engine is complete, it will be delivered to Orbital at the Wallops Flight Facility launch site in Virginia for integration with the rocket's first stage core power. NASA has partnered with Orbital to provide eight cargo missions to the International Space Station, with the first scheduled for early 2012.

- Lockheed Martin has been conducting exoneration exercises for A2100-based satellites in various stages of manufacturing to ensure that foreign object debris (FOD) wasn’t introduced during manufacturing, according to Aviation Week. FOD in the oxidizer line is thought to have caused the failure of the liquid apogee engine on the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite. The propulsion system for AEHF-1 was built at Lockheed Martin’s facility at the Stennis Space Center, Miss., in 2006.

- Near Stennis Space Center, Miss., during the week, school children marked the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 14 mission to the moon by planting a "moon tree" near the front promenade of the Infinity Science Center. Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa brought seeds of various species on the lunar mission, and they were later planted and resulted in over 450 "moon trees."

The commander of Air Force's Air Education and Training Command, Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr., recently visited the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. During his tour, the general received a status report on the wing and it's integrated Academic Training Center that is the school house for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilots and maintainers for the Air Force, Navy, Marines and future coalition partners.

Rice said the 33rd "represents the first time we've engaged deeply in joint fighter training and could be a template for future endeavors." It will train fighter pilots for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and affords "a great opportunity for us to demonstrate this concept can work. It's too early to tell whether joint training facilities like the 33rd will be the way of the future."

- Northrop Grumman signed a long-term agreement with advanced materials company Quickstep Technologies, North Coogee, Australia, to produce composite subassemblies that include F-35 lower side skins, maintenance access panels and fuel tank covers. Northrop Grumman is a principal subcontractor on the Lockheed Martin-led F-35 industry team. Australia is one of nine countries, including the United States, contributing to the funding and production of the F-35 aircraft.

Planned upgrades at Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, Fla., will help boost the economy, local officials and business representatives said. Improvements include widening the taxiways up to 75 feet to accommodate any size aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration provided $5.1 million, the Florida Department of Transportation put up $3.6 million and $3 million came from a state infrastructure bank loan. The weather Friday forced the groundbreaking into the BAE Aerospace Solutions hangar.

The Raytheon Co., Tuscon, Ariz., was awarded a $15 million contract for the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile technical support for systems engineering, small software enhancements, test support, maintenance and modification of special test assets, support to the Navy hardware in the loop simulation, aircraft integration, and other technical engineering requirements. AAC/EBAK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: VT Halter Marine in Moss Point, Miss., during the week laid the keel of a multimillion-dollar Navy research vessel named after Matthew Fontaine Maury, the father of modern oceanography.

Advanced materials: Chevron's Pascagoula, Miss., refinery announced during the week that it will begin construction of a $1.4 billion lubricants manufacturing facility at the refinery. The project will generate about 1,000 jobs over two years of construction and about 20 permanent positions.

Marine science: Menhaden landings in the Gulf of Mexico fell 17 percent in 2010 as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill curtailed the season. … Jerry Boatman of QinetiQ North America, former senior manager of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command at Stennis Space Center, Miss., has been installed as president of the Marine Technology Society.