Air Force tanker jet made By Boeinghas local links

March 13, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The U.S. Air Force announcement in late February that it will order a new fleet of in-flight refueling tankers from Boeing — a long-term $35 billion contract — will mean work for some Michigan companies for years to come, including GE Aviation in Grand Rapids.

Boeing will build the new Air Force KC-46A air refueling jet using its platform for the new Boeing 787 commercial airliner. Also called the Boeing Newgen tanker, it will replace 179 KC-135 tankers that were designed in the 1950s.

The Air Force wants the first 18 combat-ready KC-46As delivered by 2017.

GE Aviation Systems, which is based in Cincinnati but has a fabrication facility in Cascade Township, said it will provide the advanced flight management system to Boeing. The Boeing tanker contract will not result in additional hiring at GE Aviation in Cascade Township but will mean steady orders for years to come, according to a local spokesperson.

Gavin Brown, president of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association based in Grand Rapids, said Parker Hannifin Corp. in the Kalamazoo area and Honeywell Aerospace in Boyne City are two other companies on the west side of Michigan that will supply the Boeing tanker production. Still other companies are in central and southeast Michigan.

“The interesting story here is the amount of jobs this is going to bring to our state and the financial impact,” said Brown. He believes it may eventually equate to “upwards of over a thousand new jobs in aerospace for Michigan manufacturers.”

Brown added, however, that there is “one thing about aerospace: Nothing happens quickly.” He said the real buildup for the tanker project probably won’t begin for two or three years.

For decades to come, however, the tanker fleet also will require a steady stream of replacement parts from those suppliers, said Brown.

Boeing has been in a bitter and protracted struggle with a European consortium — European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. — over the tanker contract. The contract was originally won by EADS in partnership with Northrop, an American aerospace company, using the European Airbus commercial jetliner platform. Later, the contract was canceled and then put out to bid again in 2008 after a report from the General Accounting Office identified errors in the bidding process.

Brown said the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association has backed Boeing since the competition for the contract when into high gear in 2007.

“Not that EADS is a bad company. We just felt all along that Boeing had a superior tanker to offer the Air Force,” said Brown.

The Newgen tanker engines are much more fuel efficient than the existing tankers, said Brown. “The savings on fuel alone is about 25 percent, so that really equates to billions for fuel cost” over the decades that the tankers will be in use, he added.

Lorraine Bolsinger, president and CEO of GE Aviation Systems in Cincinnati, said the GE "flight management system will enable the aircraft to perform with navigation precision not currently available to the tanker fleet. Our technologies will help enhance operational efficiencies and will enable the aircraft to perform to the demanding mission requirements of the USAF tanker."

The GE flight management system is so sophisticated and precise, it will allow aircraft to fly shorter flight paths and use idle-thrust descents, which will reduce fuel consumption.

Brown said the GE technology also will improve the process of in-flight refueling. In the existing tankers, he said, a crew member has to be prone on the deck in the rear of the tanker to visually observe the connection of the tanker boom with the other aircraft’s refueling port.

The new flight management system incorporates cameras and avionics to ensure a quick and secure connection between the two aircraft.

Brown said reduced cost is one of the major driving forces in aerospace today. On Feb. 11, he said, Boeing “went in with their revised budget per plane, which was greatly reduced from their original bid.”

“In order to achieve that, they’re going to have to have new partners that understand how to do business on a long-term, fixed-cost basis, as opposed to what was current in the defense/aerospace industry, which was cost-plus. And that’s where our supply chain really resonates with them,” said Brown.

Michigan has new aerospace-parts firms that once were focused entirely on the automotive industry, and companies that have dealt with the automakers “are used to fixed-cost, long-term agreements,” noted Brown.

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