Saturday, March 26, 2011

Week in review (3/20 to 3/26)

EADS may have lost the $35 billion Air Force tanker competition to Boeing, but it's continuing its bid to increase its footprint in the United States, the world's largest aerospace market.

The company said during the week that it's in talks to buy Vector Aerospace, a Canadian company that repairs and maintains civil and military helicopters. Vector Aerospace has an operation at the South Alabama Regional Airport in Andalusia, Ala., which opened in 2008.

EADS, which would have built an assembly plant in Mobile, Ala., had it won the Air Force tanker project, has a helicopter production facility in Columbus, Miss., and two operations in Mobile, including an engineering center at Brookley Aeroplex.

Joint Strike Fighter
Aviators of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., completed four sorties recently in F-16 Fighting Falcons to ensure readiness and efficiency in the transition to the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-16s from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., were brought to the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin because of its flying characteristics are similar to the F-35. The Marine variant of JSF, the F-35B, contains a short take-off and vertical landing engine.

The STOVL variant will replace the Marine Corps inventory of F/A-18s and AV-8s. The F-35B will be the world's first operational supersonic STOVL aircraft. Eglin Air Force Base is home of the JSF training center.

- Turkish Aerospace Industries, Inc., a major international F-35 supplier to Northrop Grumman, has delivered its first production air inlet duct for the jet. The all-composite duct, a major structural element of the F-35's center fuselage, will support Northrop Grumman's production of F-35 center fuselages for conventional takeoff and landing variants at its aerospace production facility in Palmdale, Calif.

TAI produced the air inlet duct at its composites manufacturing facility in Ankara, Turkey, as part of a five-year, $28.4 million contract awarded to the company in September 2009 by Northrop Grumman, a principal subcontractor of the Lockheed Martin-led F-35 industry team.

- The Defense Department during the week issued a stop work order on the F-136 engine being developed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The administration and DoD oppose the extra engine as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The stop work order will remain in place pending final resolution of the program's future, for a period not to exceed 90 days, unless extended by agreement of the government and the contractor. The F-35's primary engine is the Pratt & Whitney F135. GE, however, plans to continue self-funded work on the engine.

Assembly of the first J-2X is continuing at NASA's Stennis Space Center, Miss. Managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the J-2X engine will power the upper-stage of a heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the J-2X engine will generate 294,000 pounds of thrust to propel a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit to the moon, an asteroid, or other celestial destination.

During the week, Stennis Space Center's A-2 test stand was certified ready to support J-2X development testing. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif. is the prime contractor for the design and manufacture of the J-2X. Hot fire testing of the engine is targeted for later this summer at Stennis.

- Last weekend at NASA’s Stennis Space Center an Aerojet AJ26 flight engine was tested on the E-1 Test stand. The engine will power the first stage of Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Taurus II space launch vehicle. The test was done by a team of Orbital, Aerojet, and Stennis engineers.

The test of the AJ26 engine supports Orbital Sciences' effort to demonstrate its commercial cargo transportation system in preparation for future International Space Station cargo resupply missions. Once test data has been reviewed and verified, the engine will be sent to the Wallops Flight Facility launch site in Virginia for integration with the Taurus II rocket's first-stage core. Orbital is scheduled to carry out the first of eight cargo missions to the space station in early 2012.

Vision Airlines during the week announced new destinations from Fort Walton Beach, Fla. In December the airline launched direct flights from Northwest Florida Regional Airport to Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Miami. On Friday it expanded service to 10 additional destinations, with five more to start during the coming week. Service has begun to Atlanta, Knoxville, Tenn., Greenville, S.C., and Huntsville, Ala. Service to Savannah, Ga., Baton Rouge, La., and Louisville, Ky., started Saturday.

L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace, Madison, Miss., was awarded a $7.3 million contract for logistics support for the C-12 aircraft for Pacific Air Force, Air Force Material Command, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Defense Security Corporation Agency. Work will be performed at L3 Communications Vertex Aerospace in Madison.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus was at Austal USA's shipyard in Mobile, Ala., Friday to announce the names to two littoral combat ships being built by that company. LCS 6 will be named Jackson and LCS 8 will be named Montgomery. … A 684-foot amphibious transport dock ship, Arlington, was slated to be christened Saturday at a ceremony at Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding's Pascagoula yard. … Swiftships Shipbuilders LLC, Morgan City, La., was awarded a $42.1 million modification to previously awarded contract for the detail design and construction of three 35-meter patrol boats. Eight percent of the work will be done in Ocean Springs, Miss.

Marine science: Federal officials are taking possession of samples from the 71 dolphins found dead on the Mississippi and Alabama coasts this year. The samples have been stored at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., since mid-January when the animals started dying in high numbers. The concern from the start has been whether it has anything to do with last year’s BP oil spill. … Much of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 never made it to the surface and instead become suspended in the water column, suggests research presented at a scientific conference in Mobile, Ala.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Week in review (3/13 to 3/19)

Although the unmanned Global Hawk has long been associated with flights over combat zones, it's proving itself on the non-warfare front as well. In one of the UAV's latest mission, a Global Hawk based in Guam has flown missions over Japan to collect images of the destruction caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The images provided by the RQ-4 Global Hawk will help authorities in search-and-recovery and the long-term clean-up. The Global Hawk can provide near real-time imagery.

Global Hawks in the past were also used to fly over huge fires in California and over hurricanes. The center fuselage for the planes are built in part in Moss Point, Miss., at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center. That production center also does finishing work on another Northrop Grumman UAV, the unmanned helicopter Fire Scout.

Seven of 10 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter test planes were cleared during the past week to resume flights. All 10 aircraft were grounded when one plane experienced an in-flight failure of two electrical generators and an oil leak last week. The incident occurred during a flight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The incident came just as military officials were reporting significant progress on the program after a major restructuring that slowed development to allow more flight testing before the plane goes into production. The suspension was lifted on seven aircraft with older-model generators.

- In another F-35 related matter, the Navy said it would buy 680 F-35s, half suited for aircraft carrier landings and half short-takeoff and vertical-landing versions for the Marines. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., will be home of the F-35 training center.

Airbus Corporate Foundation during the week announced a $50,000 initial grant to the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, Ala., seeding a new advanced aerospace engineering program for students. Staff members at the Airbus Engineering Center in Mobile will work hands-on with students as mentors.

Blue Angels
The Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration team is performing in Mississippi at the Keesler Air Force Base air show this weekend. It's the first performance at Keesler since 1978. The Blue Angles returned home to Pensacola, Fla., early last week after spending the winter training in El Centro, Calif.

L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace, Madison, Miss., was awarded a $314,000 contract for logistics support for the C-12 aircraft for Pacific Air Force, Air Force Material Command, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Defense Security Corporation Agency. The location of performance is Madison. … L-3 Communications Vertex Aerospace, Madison, Miss., was awarded a $20.3 million modification to a previously awarded contract to provide logistics services and materials for organizational, intermediate, and depot-level maintenance of 14 T39N and six T-39G aircraft at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla. In addition, this modification provides for aircraft intermediate maintenance services in support of Chief of Naval Air Training aircraft and transient aircraft at NAS Pensacola and NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. Most of the work will be performed in Pensacola. … L-3 Communications Systems Field Support, Vertex Aerospace, Madison Miss., was awarded a $25.6 million contract for aircraft maintenance and logistical life cycle support for 65 Navy C-12 aircraft at 21 global locations. … The Boeing Co., St. Louis, Mo., and Raytheon Co., Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz., were awarded a $20 million contract for integrated precision ordinance delivery system Phases II-IV; research and development. AFRL/RWK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … JDA LLC, Concord, Calif., was awarded an $8 million contract for a data replay system. AAC/PKO, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity. … Kaman Precision Products Inc., Orlando, Fla., was awarded a $23.8 million contract modification which will provide the Air Force with 6,000 of the Joint Programmable Fuze systems to meet munitions requirements. AAC/EBDK, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Week in review (3/6 to 3/12)

The story didn't have direct ties to the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor, not yet at least, but it was interesting in light of Mobile, Ala.'s recent loss of the Air Force aerial refueling tanker project. I'm talking about the $33 million DARPA KQ-X project, designed to show the ability of one unmanned aircraft to refuel another.

In late January, a Scaled Composites-built Proteus aircraft owned by Northrop Grumman and a Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk owned by NASA flew within 40 feet of one another at 45,000 feet. No fuel was exchanged, but that wasn’t the point.

The flight was designed to check wake turbulence between the two aircraft, engine performance and flight control responsiveness in the stratosphere. The program could eventually lead to unmanned aircraft refueling other unmanned aircraft, allowing them to stay aloft as much as a week. Two Global Hawks are expected to try out autonomous aerial refueling in the spring of 2012.

The test was jointly conducted by Northrop Grumman, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, a follow-on to a 2006 DARPA Autonomous Aerial Refueling Demonstration that used an F-18 fighter as a surrogate unmanned aircraft to autonomously refuel through a probe and drogue from a 707 tanker.

While the program is designed for UAV to UAV refueling, it's not much of a stretch to think this testing could also determine if an unmanned aircraft can refuel a manned vehicle.

"Demonstrating close formation flight of two high altitude aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, is a notable accomplishment," said Geoffrey Sommer, KQ-X program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "When you add autonomous flight of both aircraft into the mix, as we will do later in the KQ-X program, you gain a capability that has mission applications far beyond just aerial refueling."

You can bet that Boeing, which won the contract to build manned tankers to replace the aging fleet of KC-135s, will be keeping tabs on the progress of KQ-X. If these tests prove to be successful, it's not unreasonable to think unmanned aerial tankers may go into production even before all the Boeing KC-46As are built. Even if UAV tankers are used only to refuel other UAVs, it's obvious with the increasing use of UAVs that this is a growth field.

That could bode well for the Gulf Coast region. Global Hawk fuselages are already being built in Moss Point, Miss., at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Center, and it has room to grow. Could it one day do work on Global Hawk unmanned tankers? Just a thought.

- Speaking of Moss Point, the first Global Hawk fuselage that will be used for a Navy BAMS aircraft has been finished and will be shipped to Northrop Grumman's Palmdale, Calif., facility for finishing work. The fuselage was finished a week ahead of schedule. The Navy plans to have more than 60 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft providing watch for the fleet.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver was in South Mississippi during the week to reinforce the importance of NASA's Stennis Space Center, Miss., and to meet with employees. She said Stennis Space Center is a unique facility that should be fully utilized. She held up Stennis, where up to 30 percent of the costs are borne by other government agencies and companies, as an example of how capabilities can be shared.

- Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne completed a series of Hardware Acceptance Reviews on the first RS-68A production rocket engine, validating the hydrogen-fueled engine is ready to power a heavy-lift vehicle into space. Engine 30003, the first of three RS-68A production engines to undergo a review, has been shipped to Decatur, Ala., for integration onto a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle. RS-68A production engines 30004 and 30005 will undergo hardware reviews in March and April 2011 after completion of hot-fire testing at Stennis Space Center, Miss.

- The failure to devise a spaceflight plan for NASA after the shuttle fleet is retired raises the specter of more workforce cuts in the U.S. launch industry, according to the head of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Jim Maser estimates there are "four to eight months" to choose a way forward. After that, he expects layoffs at PWR as he begins to roll up unfunded rocket engine programs like the J-2X cryogenic upper-stage engine. The first full-up J-2X is set to begin testing at Stennis Space Center, Miss., next month.

Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans has been approved to schedule charter flights to and from Cuba. In addition to New Orleans, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said the charter flights can now be scheduled as well from airports in  Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Tampa, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Previously flights were only allowed from Los Angeles, Miami and New York.

- A Navy plan to extend four runways at outlying fields in Baldwin County, Ala., is moving forward. Naval Air Station Whiting Field, in Milton, Fla., said the project's environmental assessment is finished. The 1,000-foot runway extensions would cross land now occupied by 23 homes and 203 acres of other people's property in Foley and Summerdale. After a review by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, the Navy will begin talking to residents about land acquisition. The Navy is replacing T-34C training aircraft with the T-6A, which requires longer runways.

- Northrop Grumman and the Air National Guard's 190th Air Refueling Wing finished the first round of flight testing with the company's Guardian anti-missile system on a Boeing KC-135. The laser-based Guardian System, contained almost entirely in a single pod on the underside of the fuselage, is designed to detect launched missiles and then disrupt their guidance signals using a non-visible laser. The Air Force is scheduled to continue an Operational Utility Evaluation through the second quarter, with additional flights and system tests at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

The Marine Corps' top general said he wants and early end to the two-year probation imposed on the Marine version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Gen. James Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee during the week that the Marines need the short-takeoff version to carry out the Marine mission. The Marine variant was put on probation because of technical issues. But Amos said he's encouraged by its progress. Meanwhile, the Navy version of the F-35 broke the sound barrier during the week. The carrier variant is the last of the three variants to break the sound barrier. The F-35 training center will be at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Week in review (2/27 to 3/5)

Hard as it is to believe, it appears the competition to build aerial tankers for the Air Force is finally over. The Air Force and Boeing signed the contract, and Europe's EADS at the end of the week decided not to protest the decision.

The Boeing win was good news for aerospace workers in Washington and Kansas, as well as the other locations that will be involved in getting these planes to our warfighters. But it was a disappointment for the Gulf Coast, which had hoped to get a $600 million, wide-body aircraft assembly plant in Mobile, Ala.

The good news is that our warfighters will finally be getting something they've needed for a long time. The Boeing KC-46A should have no problem handling the required missions. But I'm not nearly as convinced they're getting the best aircraft.

During the previous contest, the Air Force appeared willing to pay more for an aircraft that could do more. But this time it was a price shootout. That's why Northrop Grumman, which had partnered with EADS in the previous competition, decided to drop out.

The whole issue seemed to boil down to a question of fit. In an age where the government is trying to spend less, it opted to purchase the plane that could perform the mission and do so at a lower cost. Additional capabilities were not considered since the difference in price was more than 1 percent. The difference was, in fact, a huge 10 percent.

While the Gulf Coast is smarting over what "could" have been, it shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it has consistently been in the running for aircraft assembly plants. As far back as 1993, Mobile was chosen to build turboprop aircraft for an Indonesian company. That deal fell apart, but a decade later Boeing had at least two sites on the Gulf Coast on its list of finalists for a Dreamliner assembly plant. Boeing opted to place it in Washington State, but the fact remains, this region was, and remains, a contender.

And I'll add one more thing to ponder. Aerospace companies working closely with the military are rapidly developing the capabilities of unmanned aircraft. Already unmanned systems are being tested as aerial tankers. I can't help but wonder how many KC-46s will be built before robots become a better option.

The first production model of the Lockheed Martin F-35 made its inaugural flight late last month in Texas in preparation for delivery to the Air Force this spring. The jet will head to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to support developmental testing shortly after the Air Force takes delivery.

During the flight, the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A variant underwent basic flight maneuvering and engine tests. The jet will continue flight tests in Fort Worth for about a month before it is accepted by the Air Force. Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is home to the F-35 training center.

The E-2 Test Stand team at John C. Stennis Space Center, Miss., is preparing to test a vital component designed for another rocket engine test stand under construction at the NASA facility. Testing on the three-module chemical steam generator (CSG) is designed to confirm it will perform as needed. The tests also will provide critical data about operating the unit.

The new A-3 Test Stand will use nine three-module CSG units to generate superheated steam needed to create a vacuum. The vacuum will allow operators to test next-generation rocket engines at simulated high altitudes up to 100,000 feet. Testing at such simulated altitudes is critical for next-generation engines necessary to carry humans into deep space.

Tidbits from other fields
Shipbuilding: A $26.4 million contract is awarded to Arete Associates of Arizona for the engineering, manufacturing, production and delivery of three Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis systems for littoral combat ships.

Marine science: New born and stillborn baby dolphins continue to wash ashore in Alabama and Mississippi. Scientists with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama say cold water may have killed them. … The Northern Gulf Institute's annual conference will be held May 17-19 in Mobile, Ala. NGI is a NOAA cooperative institute that includes Mississippi State University, Florida State University, the University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State University and Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Mobile, Ala.