February 8, 2012
By Thomas A. Horne
After President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, Hawker Beechcraft put out a press release arguing that the current administration’s actions don’t follow his words. “He made very convincing statements that he wants to protect American manufacturing jobs and called for more highly skilled jobs in the U.S. and for more products to be made in America,” it read. “If this is true, then the actions of the U.S. Air Force are in direct conflict with those objectives. The Air Force recently excluded the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 from a competition for a Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft.”
Hawker Beechcraft has a sizeable and successful military/government division that sells reconnaissance, trainers, and light attack airplanes to the U.S. Air Force and allies such as Israel, Greece, Iraq, and others. This business accounted for some $681 million of the company’s 2010 revenues. One of the main military revenue streams comes from sales of Hawker Beechcraft’s T-6A Texan II single-engine turboprop trainer. The T-6A is based on the Pilatus PC-9; the company purchased rights to the PC-9 and made significant changes to create the T-6A. The airplane has a 1,600-shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-68D engine.
Since the model’s introduction in the early 2000s, Hawker Beechcraft has sold 740 T-6As—most of them to the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, where they serve as trainers. A new variant of the T-6A is the AT-6, which is weaponized to serve as a light attack and armed reconnaissance (LAAR) platform. Essentially, it’s a T-6A that’s been given under-wing hard points, drop tanks, machine guns, and other equipment necessary to support combat missions. The airplane has been tailor-made for ground attack by its plug-and-play integration with the Lockheed Martin systems architecture already used to accommodate the Air Force’s A-10C Thunderbolt’s (better known as the “Warthog”) Hellfire missiles and other weapons stores, and is compatible with L-3’s WESCAM MX-15Di camera and sensor systems. The AT-6 also has a CMC Esterline glass-cockpit avionics suite.
Recently, a bidding contest worth $355 million was opened for a 20-plus airplane contract to sell light attack airplanes to the U.S. Air Force for use in Afghanistan. Hawker Beechcraft jumped into the competition, offering its AT-6, and Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC), partnering with Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, advanced its entry—Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano. SNC is a 2,100-employee company based in Sparks, Nev. It specializes in technology solutions for avionics, space, propulsion, solar energy, aircraft communications, and other applications.
On Dec. 22, the winner was announced: the Super Tucano. According to a Feb. 2 report in The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch, the Air Force awarded the contract to SNC, “…having disqualified the other contender for the contract, Hawker Beechcraft, as being not in the competitive range based on the finding that ‘multiple deficiencies and significant weaknesses found in [Hawker Beechcraft’s] proposal make it technically unacceptable and results in unacceptable mission capability risk.”
Hawker Beechcraft was stunned and launched an all-out effort to review and reverse the decision. It’s appealing the decision to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “The airplane is proven, ready for the mission right now, performs better, and will provide much-needed jobs in Wichita,” said Hawker Beechcraft Chairman Bill Boisture. “Plus, it’s made in America.” Boisture notes that Embraer’s A-29 is slower, not ready for weapons installation, has a less favorable power-to-weight ratio, and that the AT-6 has a lower acquisition cost. The AT-6 also has 40-percent more fuel in its internal tanks than the A-29, Hawker Beechcraft says. Add the fuel capacity provided by external tanks and the AT-6 is capable of loiter times up to 20 hours. “It’s also interesting that Embraer has been selling airplanes to the Iranian military,” Boisture said.
Fatih Ozmen, CEO of SNC, said that “It is essential that the full facts of this situation are presented clearly and transparently to the American public. There is too much at stake.”
SNC argues that the Super Tucano is a clean-sheet, purpose-built attack airplane with 173 units serving in six air forces that have logged more than 16,000 combat hours, while the AT-6 has yet to be proven in combat. Only two prototype AT-6s exist, SNC argues, and the AT-6 is not currently in production. SNC says that other advantages of the Super Tucano include its two internally mounted .50-caliber machine guns; the AT-6, SNC says, will need to add an external gun pod, which will add drag and reduce loiter times. SNC says that Embraer’s Super Tucanos will be built at a facility in Jacksonville, Fla., which will create 50 American jobs.
A ruling on the GAO appeal could come as early as March 2012, Boisture said in an interview with AOPA Pilot. A reversal of the Air Force decision would be welcome news at Hawker Beechcraft. During the post-2008 economic downturn the company has suffered from slow sales, a downgrading of its credit rating, a high debt burden, and layoffs of 2,000 employees in recent years.
Hawker Beechcraft’s and SNC’s sides of the story are presented online.
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
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