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.