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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Is the tanker sweepstakes over? We’ll see

With all the celebrating that has taken place since Boeing was declared the winner in the Air Force’s New Tanker Sweepstakes, it may be wise not to start adding all those jobs and money into the state’s moribund economy just yet. After all, the new tanker has the qualities of a reverse vampire – it is very hard to bring to life, and easy to kill.

The smart money, if there is such a thing in this long-running saga to replace the venerable KC-135, was actually on European Aerospace Defence and Space Inc. prior to the Pentagon’s announcement Thursday.

So worried were members of the Washington congressional delegation that at least one prepared a scathing response to an Airbus victory. A press release from Rep. Jay Inslee, whose district includes many once and future Boeing workers, hit e-mail inboxes just minutes after the announcement with a subject line of “Decision Will Not Stand”.

Whether Inslee was channeling Desert Storm-era George H.W. Bush or the Big Liebowski isn’t clear, for the text was appropriately celebratory of Boeing as “the best choice for the next gen tanker.” His staff apparently learned the dangers of something news outlets around the region were doing, preparing a story for each eventuality, and put the wrong headline on the right story.

But it brings to mind the fact that in 2008, the “smart money” was on Boeing winning the previous contract. When Washington’s favorite aerospace giant who has its headquarters elsewhere did not win, it appealed and won. EADS Airbus could do the same in the next week or so, and then where will we be?

About the same place we’ve been since the fall of 2001. . .

 That’s when several Washington congresspersons, most notably for Spokane Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. George Nethercutt, started talking up the idea of leasing converted 767 tankers for the Air Force’s air refueling needs, solving a plethora of post 9/11 problems, from a slowdown in demand for commercial jetliners to an economic downturn to the fact that the KC-135 was designed when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn and Eddie Haskell trying to BS Mrs. Cleaver about what a nice dress she was wearing.

It was never quite clear what Boeing would do with the tankers after they were returned by the USAF at the end of the lease. One could envision a used tanker lot, similar to the car lots operated by Hertz and Enterprise, with generals from our European allies walking around, kicking the tires and asking for the aerospace equivalent of a car fax.

Those tankers were supposed to be deployed by 2006, with the first ones at Fairchild. While that seems like an extra political inducement for the Washington delegation, it does seem to make sense that the lessees would keep their vehicles close enough to the lessor to take them in for scheduled maintenance.

The parade of horribles – bribes, political wrangling, contract bungling – that resulted in the KC-135s NOT being replaced for the next 9 ½ years isn’t worth detailing here. Suffice to say, the new tanker fight brings to mind nothing so much as Yogi Berra’s line about when it ain’t over.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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