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Mystery Surrounds Air Force Decision, But It's Happened Before

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What Were They Thinking?

The mystery surrounding the Air Force's abrupt dismissal of Hawker Beechcraft's AT-6B as a candidate for its potential light attack aircraft invites speculation since the Air Force itself isn't talking. In fact, the Government Accountability Office seems to support the Air Force's lack of accountability in handing the $1 billion contract to Embraer and its Super Tucano. The GAO, whose mandate is to ensure that everything is on the up and up with government spending, has refused to even look into a set of circumstances that would seem to warrant some scrutiny.

By all accounts, the Embraer and the T-6 have a lot in common and each do some things better, or differently, than the other. It's about what you'd expect in a competition of this nature and it seems like the Air Force could have justified the choice of either at the end of a fair and comprehensive evaluation. Instead, the Air Force went out of its way to exclude the T-6 from the competition, seemingly within hours of awarding the deal to Embraer, and a political stench is now rising as lawyers circle overhead.

At its most basic level, it's hard to imagine the Air Force cares much which airplane it gets as long as it does the job. In fact, from the Air Force's perspective, assuming everything else is roughly equal, the edge would seem to go to Hawker Beech since the Air Force and the Navy already have T-6s in their inventory as a successful trainer. The continuity in maintenance, repair and training should save the military the money that inevitably is spent in introducing a new type.

So, that leaves political interference as a logical possibility for the Air Force's odd behavior and that's where the guessing games get interesting.

Given the jobs agenda set out by the administration and the growing America-first sentiment in the unemployment-ravaged country, what could possibly be the political motive for giving this contract to a Brazilian company? Well, the truth is that in the four-year horizon of politics, the Embraer deal is a net creator of jobs because 50 positions will be needed in Jacksonville, where the planes will be assembled from parts made in Brazil. It's a good bet that many of those jobs will be filled with NASA workers laid off with the demise of the space shuttle program. Hawker Beech's T-6 line is busy until 2015 when the last of its training orders will be filled and the Wichita company is no doubt looking for more buyers to keep it going beyond then.

Then there's Brazil itself. Would it surprise you to know that by some estimates Brazil has surpassed the UK as the world's sixth biggest economy? Did you know that it has about 700 aircraft in its Air Force and will likely have a frontline force of Gripen fighters before long? it also boasts an aircraft carrier and an active nuclear submarine development program. Clearly, the presence of an emerging power on the U.S.'s southern flank deserves some attention and this may be as much a foreign policy statement as it is a procurement program.

It's also possible, but not likely, that Hawker Beech's tough-talking CEO Bill Boisture's penchant for speaking his mind in front of reporters has something to do with this. As we reported from NBAA last October, Boisture launched a partisan tirade against the Obama administration, blaming its public disdain for business aviation for much of the industry's problems. Did Boisture's attack ricochet and hit him in the foot? Again, it's not likely his intemperate comments scotched his company's chances on this contract but I'd wager they didn't help, either.

— Russ Niles

Same Movie, Different Players?

Hawker Beechcraft's tiff with the Air Force over the use of its AT-6B light attack trainer is a movie I've seen before. This sort of thing isn't exactly unprecedented.

The first military aircraft program I wrote about was the A-10, which was built by Fairchild Republic in both New York and Maryland, where I was a news reporter. The A-10 program was perking along to a final contract –this was in the mid-1970s—when a couple of challengers came along after the initial proposal had been floated and performance specs established.

One was based on the P-51 Mustang. As I recall, the airplane was an outgrowth of what had been called the Cavalier Mustang, the attempt of a Florida newspaper publisher named David Lindsay to transform surplus P-51s into executive aircraft. This is not quite as improbable as it seems, since in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were a lot more P-51s floating around than there are now. As this project developed, the Air Force contracted with the company to build what became the Cavalier F-51D, which the service thought could do the very light attack/countinsurgency role Beech is now proposing for the AT-6B. It had the export market in mind.

That project kind of muddled around and eventually Cavalier fitted a Rolls-Royce Dart to an improved Mustang airframe, but it fizzled as a business plan and the company closed in the early 1970s. But the project re-emerged in the mid-1970s as the Piper PA-48 Enforcer. That's right, Piper.

Like Beech, Piper lobbied congress to consider the Enforcer, at one time pitching it as an alternative to the A-10. I can't recall if lawsuits were threatened, but probably not.

By then, the airplane had little in common with the Mustang, but it kind of resembles a taildragger version of the AT6-B, probably with similar capabilities. Piper got the Air Force to fund a couple of airframes, but after tests, it decided not to buy them and Piper's attempt at being a tactical aircraft manufacturer ended.

Hawker Beechcraft may end up in the same place. If it does, it won't be the first.

— Paul Bertorelli

Comments (40)

Paul~

You left the Northrop YA-9 out of your discussion. The Air Force selected the A-10 after a flyoff between the YA-9 and the Fairchild YA-10 in 1972. The project was part of the A-X competition to select a replacement for the Douglas A-1 Skyraider that proved so useful for close air support (CAS) and search and rescue missions in the Second Indochina War.

Piper and Cavalier sort of threw their entries in as afterthoughts, but the real competition was between the YA-9 and YA-10 entries. Both the YA-9 and YA-10 were designed with numerous inputs from A-1 pilots who had flown combat missions in Indochina. Both jets were to be built around the GAU-8 30 mm anti-tank cannon, although during the flyoff, both carried the M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon since the GAU-8 wasn't ready.

From my viewpoint and what I heard at the time from test pilots at Edwards, the A-10 won the flyoff because Fairchild had built more survivability features into their jet. (The A-X's primary job was to kill Soviet armor in Germany's Fulda Gap - a mission for which survivability was paramount, and something that was not a strong suite for either the Cavalier of Piper airplanes.) The A-10's two engines were more widely separated, as were the twin vertical stabilizers, and the A-10 was a good selection -- the Warthog has proved itself to be survivable in combat. (See http://www.youtube *dot* com/watch?v=1BecNTYPYbU)

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | January 5, 2012 12:13 AM    Report this comment

Of the two YA-9s built for the flyoff, one is on display at the March Air Force Base Museum at Riverside, CA. The other is in storage at Edwards AFB.

The performance of the A-9 and A-10 was similar, and the Piper and Cavalier afterthought entries were not competitive. The A-9 design was intriguing enough that the Soviet Union copied much of it for their Su-25 Frogfoot CAS jet.

Had either the Cavalier or Piper models won, they would have been little more than highly-sought after "flying club" assignments for the Air Force pilots in those squadrons, but the Air Force and Army can both be thankful the A-10 "Hawg" won -- it is till doing a great job, and will be for years to come.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | January 5, 2012 12:14 AM    Report this comment

I'll be interested in seeing whether Hawker-Beech actually files a formal protest. That is when there will be more 'visibility' into the decision process.

I haven't closely followed the relative merits of each aircraft, but unless someone can show me the Embraer version was significantly better (at at better price) I think the Air Force is going to be hard pressed to justify awarding a contract of this size to a foreign manufacturer - regardless of the 50 job 'benefit' to Florida in lieu of a 500+ job benefit to Kansas.

Posted by: Richard Norris | January 5, 2012 6:10 AM    Report this comment

The long history of military trainers and light attack aircraft is littered with naive wannabies, such as the Mustang variants. As far as the Air Force is concerned, if you're not involved in the lovemaking (years of groundwork to get the funding through Congress and the program/specs through the DOD) you don't have a chance to get the baby. Companies who show up with their pet project only after they smell the money have no credibility. It's just the way that world almost always works.

The above comment does not apply to Hawker Beech. They played the game long and well. It looks like HB has been royally screwed by what appears to be yet another bungled and/or corrupt government procurement fiasco with way too much politics behind the scenes. Maybe not. We'll see.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 5, 2012 6:58 AM    Report this comment

Keep in mind, the "Hawker Beech T-6" is actually a Pilatus design. Check out the PC-21 if you want to see the best in the world in this category. If you research the history of the T-6 / Pilatus connection it gets real interesting.

Posted by: John Martin | January 5, 2012 7:01 AM    Report this comment

It's the American way....he with the most lobbiests win. Winning on merit is so "yesterday".

Posted by: Charles Jensen | January 5, 2012 7:07 AM    Report this comment

I remember a time when the USA was a big enough country to be able to manufacture airplanes...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 5, 2012 7:58 AM    Report this comment

The Air Force's original T-6 spec required that the airplane be based on an existing, off-the-shelf design; and then went on, in typical Air Force fashion, to require an off-the-shelf airplane that didn't exist. The closest airplane in the world to the requirement was the Pilatus PC-9 trainer, which Beech extensively upgraded to become the T-6. I am told that there are no Pilatus parts in a T-6, though the genealogy is obvious.

In that competition, Cessna pushed its CitationJet through a knot hole in order to make a twin jet trainer out of it. They did this knowing full well that it would be much more expensive than a single engine turboprop -- but Russ Meyer (Cessna's then CEO) was assured by the AF Secretary that the competition would be based on best value, not lowest price. So, Cessna spent $60M+ of its own money and showed up with a dynamite twin-jet trainer that blew the socks off all other entries -- and, of course, Cessna lost on price.

In any case, the Pilatus PC-21 is a trainer with some hard points for some stores or weapons, but it is not in the same Light Attack category as the Super Tucano or Texan II.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 5, 2012 8:24 AM    Report this comment

Paul Comparing the AT-6B / Tucano issue to the A-10 / Enforcer contest, is senseless. The former are quite comparable, while the latter were definitely not.

Posted by: Michael Gurman | January 5, 2012 8:29 AM    Report this comment

Not quite, Michael. Both represent challenges after a proposal/contract was agreed upon. The story is the challenge, not the airplanes.

I recall Piper saying about the same thing Beechcraft is...not treated fairly, overlooking the best deal and so on. This has the added dimension of the U.S. jobs issue.

It's the same. Only different.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 5, 2012 9:10 AM    Report this comment

disagree. never mind.

Posted by: Michael Gurman | January 5, 2012 9:19 AM    Report this comment

The A-10/Enforcer story is an interesting one, but it does strike me as a half-hearted effort on Piper's part. The fact that the A-10 was designed from day one around the GAU-8 made it a truly purpose-built aircraft that a modified P-51 couldn't compete with in the anti-armor role.

As an aside, I'm curious how the Enforcer managed to look relatively unmodified. Normally piston to turbine conversions require lengthening the nose to offset the lighter turbine and keep the plane in CG limits. Pilatus' PC-6 comes to mind.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | January 5, 2012 9:45 AM    Report this comment

The argument Cavalier/Piper made was this: It thought the world needed a counter-insurgency airplane. Remember, this was being proposed around the end of the Vietnam war, when counter-insurgency was still being discussed. (As it is again.)

I recall the argument being that Cavalier/Piper claimed the Enforcer was better for this job but the Air Force said it already had the A-10. Piper had enough pull to tease a few million out of the Air Force or prototypes, but that was as far as it got.

But I clearly recall the same arguments being made. that being that the Air Force overlooked certain things in making the decision to stay with the A-10. It's probably good that it did. The Enforcer would have been shredded in the Gulf wars.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 5, 2012 9:56 AM    Report this comment

The PA-48 Enforcer nose WAS extended substantially. It was "forced" upon the USAF by a Florida politician and lobbyists and when it came time to test the two that Piper produced at Edwards AFB, the job was given to the USAF Test Pilot school rather than institute a new Combined Test Force. Once the TPS pilots got their hands on the thing, they went nuts over it. It was precisely what the latest light attack airplane is attempting to do ... albeit 30 years later. This USAF retiree has always felt that an a low cost simple and rugged airplane built in large numbers and maintained by autonomous teams of pilots and maintainers is exactly the direction we should have gone. If the Enforcer would have been built, we'd already have the airplane they're now seeking. The PA-48 could NEVER have been a competitor to the A-10 but was an airplane which had a place in the USAF except for the druthers of senior officers who don't like anything that has a propeller on the nose. I wish the readers could stand next to one ... if you think a P-51 is beautiful, you'd be in love with it except for that long nose.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 5, 2012 10:01 AM    Report this comment

Oh come on, if you cannot even organize a post room, what hope have you of building fighting aircraft? Not really surprising though when you have a CEO who attacks the ruling party in a bi-party country. No wonder when you reach post room level things are a little slow....

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | January 5, 2012 10:05 AM    Report this comment

Larry, do you remember any of the details of the Enforcer testing? I reported it on it at the time but can't recall. I thought it was done at Eglin.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 5, 2012 11:11 AM    Report this comment

"It's also possible, but not likely, that Hawker Beech's tough-talking CEO Bill Boisture's penchant for speaking his mind in front of reporters has something to do with this." Not likely? Are you kidding me? This administration is known for taking revenge against anyone that publicly disagrees with them.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | January 5, 2012 12:27 PM    Report this comment

Duane, Duane, Duane, save your sore loser comments for another day. Get used to it, you've got 5 more years to go.

Posted by: Charles Jensen | January 5, 2012 12:40 PM    Report this comment

It's too bad the Scaled Composite is never considered/consulted for light attack aircraft.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 5, 2012 12:42 PM    Report this comment

There's an element of poetic justice in this. The Super Tucano was one of the finalists in the USAF trainer competition - with Northrop as the modifier/marketer - back in the 90s. When the Pilatus/Beech entry won, there was lots of talk that the decision was based more on politics than performance. What's good for the goose . . . .

Posted by: Bob Spofford | January 5, 2012 1:07 PM    Report this comment

Charles you better hope not. If that happens I would be surprised if there was a United States aerospace industry left at the end of five years.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | January 5, 2012 1:34 PM    Report this comment

Charles you better hope not. If that happens I would be surprised if there was a United States aerospace industry left at the end of five years.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | January 5, 2012 1:36 PM    Report this comment

Duane, not to get into the politics of it, but I fail to see any policies in the last three years that impacted the aerospace industry....or should I say NEW policies.

Shuttling the Shuttle was already in the works. The current Admin is attempting to privatize space travel, and we all know that all things privatized is good!!!

Posted by: Charles Jensen | January 5, 2012 2:31 PM    Report this comment

Charles, aerospace does not just mean space travel, it includes aircraft and aeronautical research, development, and manufacturing. Unfortunately it is impossible to leave the politics out of it. Much (if not most) of our research and development is headed out of the country. Not just because of this administrations policies, previous admins have done their part also. However this one promised to be the most open and transparent, that surely hasn't happened. In fact I would say quite the opposite. But that's just me.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | January 5, 2012 4:50 PM    Report this comment

Your right, S. Lanchester, the PC21 is not in the same category as the two mentioned aircraft. It is faster (much), higher max altitude, higher gross weight, more range, 0 altitude ejection seats etc...The only place I see either of the 2 aircraft being ahead of the PC21 is the Tacano has internal (wing) guns. Big plus for a low level attack aircraft. I think given HB's propensity for "over budget" programs and their overall financial health, plus the fact that the PC21 was not entered in the race; the best aircraft got the contract.

Posted by: John Martin | January 5, 2012 8:28 PM    Report this comment

Don't have the details, but the Air Force has the responsibility to explain their decision to the public.

We should not have forgotten how messed up the tanker process was. (And how long it took!)

Show the report that was created and explain why the chosen aircraft is best for the mission At least until the program is cancelled due to budget cuts.

Posted by: Ray Damijonaitis | January 6, 2012 2:02 PM    Report this comment

Paul, In a similar situation, the airforce reversed itself and dropped a joint AirBus/Grumman proposed aerial refueler and went with the Boeing submission; this after the AirBus looked like a done deal. Even though Grumman, who is based in my area, would have added some jobs, I was happy to see Boeing get the deal. We limit these American companies as to where they can sell their technology, so why should we not compensate them by giving them the edge when selling more mundane materials, as long as their costs are competative?

Posted by: Steve Tobias | January 6, 2012 3:51 PM    Report this comment

Perhaps not the mystery Russ and Paul think.

Reportedly the Empraer Super Tucano is the better flying airplane and the earlier decision buy the AT-6 was driven by politics and the prospect of being built in Kanas.

The Super Tucan is to be built in Florida (Politics? What? No, way! Aw Geez?) and would actually have more U.S. content than the AT-6B.

My independent sources say the Super Tucan is a pretty good light combat aircraft, and several would be used to equip the Afghan Air Force. (Something I went through in the 1970's when Afghan cadets came to the U.S. and I and several others trained them to fly the T-38 and we equipped the Afghan AF with Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighters. Wonder where those F-5's are now?)

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | January 6, 2012 10:34 PM    Report this comment

Mr. martin, the PC-21's low gross weight and high power assure it of a high top speed, high max altitude, a useful load well below that of the Tucan, and less range than the Texan II; so most of your comparison points are either wrong or irrelevant to the contract ground attack mission spec. The PC-21's 38,000 ft altitude capability, for example, is hardly relevant to the ground attack mission. I emphasize the contract spec because it matters naught what we think is better. The spec states the actual requirements, and I assume that HB made a good faith proposal to meet those spec requirements. Did Pilatus even bid? If not, did Pilatus decide that their airplane did not meet the full specifications?

The most relevant point on this overall topic is that the govt. always has a political Favorite going into an airplane procurement of this size(otherwise there wouldn't even be money allocated by Congress for the procurement). The DOD works tirelessly to set the specs low enough to either squeeze their political Favorite into the competitive range or to make sure there are enough stalking horses to give the appearance of a fair competition. At the end, they pick their Favorite with the claim that the Favorite had either the best price or the best value.

It's usually an easy sham to manage, although in the recently-ended tanker flailex, thousands of government procurement bureaucrats and military officers needed about two decades to untangle the backroom politics.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 8, 2012 2:47 AM    Report this comment

Mr. martin, the PC-21's low gross weight and high power assure it of a high top speed, high max altitude, a useful load well below that of the Tucan, and less range than the Texan II; so most of your comparison points are either wrong or irrelevant to the contract ground attack mission spec. The PC-21's 38,000 ft altitude capability, for example, is hardly relevant to the ground attack mission. I emphasize the contract spec because it matters naught what we think is better. The spec states the actual requirements, and I assume that HB made a good faith proposal to meet those spec requirements. Did Pilatus even bid? If not, did Pilatus decide that their airplane did not meet the full specifications?

The most relevant point on this overall topic is that the govt. always has a political Favorite going into an airplane procurement of this size(otherwise there wouldn't even be money allocated by Congress for the procurement). The DOD works tirelessly to set the specs low enough to either squeeze their political Favorite into the competitive range or to make sure there are enough stalking horses to give the appearance of a fair competition. At the end, they pick their Favorite with the claim that the Favorite had either the best price or the best value.

It's usually an easy sham to manage, although in the recently-ended tanker flailex, thousands of government procurement bureaucrats and military officers needed about two decades to untangle the backroom politics.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 8, 2012 2:49 AM    Report this comment

In the end, what rankles the most is our spending huge amounts of money (that we don't have) to buy Brazilian airplanes (when we have both a perfectly suitable US alternative and a near-desperate need for good jobs) for, of all places, Afghanistan (a dysfunctional non-ally that hates us). These are three strong reasons not to do this. Why is it happening?

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 8, 2012 3:28 AM    Report this comment

Back to Step One...Why in the world does the Air Force need a light attack aircraft? The only reason might be to sell to third world countries that cannot afford jets. Unfortunately, these countries will use US foriegn aid funds to purchase these airplanes. The US taxpayer will be on the hook for worthless airplanes. A light attack fighter/bomber must have a no threat or low threat environment to operate. Where would that be in today's world of MANPADS? The whole concept is a waste of money and a sick joke played on the US taxpayers.

Posted by: Steven Ravine | January 10, 2012 9:07 AM    Report this comment

Steven, you are correct that these countries will buy the armaments with credit extended by the U.S. Of course, a few years down the road, the debt will be forgiven with the net effect of free weapons for countries that don't need them and big payments and profits to the defense industry from the U.S. taxpayer.

Selling weaponry around the world is big business. The weaponry is then used to start skirmishes, conflicts and civil war, which further increases the demand for more weapons.

Good for us? No. Good for them? No. But very good for our military industrial complex, who gets more business, and makes more profit, thanks to the U.S. taxpayer. If that sounds like an over-simplification, it probably is. If you don't think that is the essence of the game, you are probably a tad naive.

Posted by: Charles Jensen | January 10, 2012 9:24 AM    Report this comment

Fred George, the highly respected (flying) editor put both places through their paces on a side by side comparison, and the T-6 wasn't exactly the run away favorite.

On another note, Boisture's loud-mouthed arrogance and ego probably didn't serve the investors of his employees. Imagine a senior (professional) CEO at Boeing doing pulling his stunts. Nope.

Posted by: Michael Sheridan | January 10, 2012 9:21 PM    Report this comment

"Why in the world does the Air Force need a light attack aircraft?"

Steven,

The plan was to buy 20 of them for the Afghan Air Force to get them stated again. Good idea or not? Who knows. What is the Afghan AF going to do with 20 x Super Tucanos?

It's all on hold know , but -- politics aside -- the Super Tucano is apparently the better of the tow airplanes.

Would our Air Force have been well-served by having squadrons on Super Tucanos or AT-6's as part of our warming capability? Probably not? Such squadrons would be less expensive to operate, and the pilots would certainly enjoy flying them, but our real capability would come from A-10s, AC-130s, F-16s, F-15's, F-22's, and the F-35s.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | January 11, 2012 5:21 PM    Report this comment

"It's too bad the Scaled Composite is never considered/consulted for light attack aircraft."

they were. i was at the rollout party for ares, watched it fly. great idea. adequate firepower, simple systems, field maintainable (boat fiberglas and polyester resin to fix holes fast, not set up overnight), readily available parts (learjet engine, aztec landing gear):

http://www.scaled.com/projects/ares

the admiral told me, "the marines can like this all they want, the navy ain't buying it for them"

free lunch was great.

Posted by: Michael Muetzel | January 13, 2012 9:09 AM    Report this comment

wikipedia.org/wiki/Scaled_Composites_ARES

Posted by: Michael Muetzel | January 13, 2012 9:10 AM    Report this comment

The piper Enforcer nose was NOT exstended. The prop was in the same plane as the original Mustang. A proof-of-concept prototype with a different engine had an extended nose. The CG was maintained because the Enforcer had armor for the entire lower hemisphere of the engine. It was much more heavily armored than the A-10 (pilot, engine and most critical systems vs pilot only in the A-10). It was also faster and half as big a target as the A-10 and had a lower IR signature.

Posted by: Robert Lindsay | February 15, 2012 9:34 PM    Report this comment

WOW! The USAF is really the U.S. Airforce afterall!! Cancelled the deal with Embraer! Russ Niles mentioned politics as playing a part in getting Hawker/Beech excluded from the deal. Well, hopefully this means that American manufacturers have some political cache as well.

Posted by: Steve Tobias | February 29, 2012 2:17 PM    Report this comment

Now it will take 6-12 months to release a new RFP, 6-12 months to award the program, and at least 6 months to reply to the protest from the loser(s)! I would like to see this awarded to an American company, but the reality is it should be awarded to whatever company can provide the best value for the money - if that is possible.

Posted by: Richard Norris | February 29, 2012 2:42 PM    Report this comment

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