August 21, 2009 in City

General says tanker contract should be finalized next year

By The Spokesman-Review
Sun-God story
Gen. Arthur Lichte was at Fairchild on Friday partly to celebrate the 80 anniversary of flight of the Spokane Sun-God, which in 1929 flew the first round-trip, nonstop transcontinental flight. Without landing, the plane flew from Felts Field in Spokane to San Francisco and New York and back to Spokane. The plane was refueled in flight several times to complete the feat. On Friday, a KC-135 took off from Fairchild and took the same route as the Sun-God to commemorate the trip. Instead the five days it took for the Sun-God, however, it was scheduled to only take about 12 hours. “The Sun God made it all the way back to Spokane, proving that air refueling is not just a flash-in-the-pan,” Lichte said. “It was here to stay and that it really could extend the range of all our aircraft.”

The selection of new plane to replace the Air Force’s aging tanker fleet could be finalized within a year, a four-star general said Friday at Fairchild Air Force Base.

Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, who leads the Air Mobility Command, said a draft proposal seeking bids from plane manufacturers will be released next month.

“We’re hoping that by this time next year that we’ll be on contract,” Lichte said at a news conference near Fairchild’s runway.

Lichte, whose oversight includes the Air Force’s tanker program, said the first few new tankers, which refuel planes midair, will go to Edwards Air Force Base in California for testing “and then we’ll have to figure out how many we’ll get per year.”

Fairchild is home to 35 KC-135 Stratotankers. The Air Force has 415 of the planes, which were built from 1956 until 1963.

Replacement of the planes has been marked by controversy. In 2004, a plan to lease new tankers from Boeing was scrapped after a Pentagon official admitted she inflated the tankers’ price just before taking a job at Boeing. Last year, Northrop Grumman and its European partner, which builds Airbus, beat out Boeing Co. to win a $35 billion contract for 179 tankers. But that contract was withdrawn and government auditors ruled that the Air Force mishandled the selection process.

At a Spokane Rotary Club luncheon Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said it’s critical to the military for Boeing to win the contract.

“If we allow this contract to go overseas, we will lose our engineers, we will lose our developers, we will lose our design. We will lose our capability to build these tankers that are the backbone of our military,” Murray said in response to a question from state Rep. John Driscoll, D-Spokane. “Once that’s gone we are not going to be able to rebuild it 10 years down from the road when we find out that, ‘Gee, maybe that wasn’t so smart to let France build the backbone of our military.’”

Those who supported the Northrop bid noted that much of the plane would have been built in Alabama.

Responding to criticism about the selection when the contract was announced last year, Lichte called the proposed Northrop tanker “an American plane flown by American airmen.”

On Friday, however, Lichte said all he wants is new tankers.

“What’s important is we get a new tanker. I do not care which tanker wins,” he said. “It’s unconscionable for me to think that we’re sending men and women into combat in 50-year-old aircraft.”

He added that with intense maintenance, the KC-135s still do their job. The problem, he said, is even if replacement starts next year, it will take years to replace all of them.

“I feel very strongly that these airplanes are safe and that they’re capable of doing the job tonight,” Lichte said. “What I get worried about is when they start talking about being 80 years old. I’m not sure if we would want any of our sons and daughters flying in those airplanes.”

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