A little surprise in the refueling tanker competition

Today is the final day for submission of bids in the US Air Force’s competition to replace its aging fleet of 707-based KC-135 tankers — aircraft that are now considerably older than most of the pilots who fly them. As expected, both Boeing and EADS submitted proposals. Boeing’s bid is based on its 767 commercial airliner, while EADS is offering a tanker based on the Airbus A330-200.

Full details on the two offerings have not been made public. Boeing said it’s 767-based tanker would have a digital flight deck featuring “787 Dreamliner electronic displays,” but has not announced which of its 767-series aircraft will be used, or whether the tanker will combine features of more than one. It is known that the EADS offering will be based on the Airbus A330-200 airframe, and since the bid was made in partnership with AAR Cargo Systems it is safe to assume that the cargo loading system will be made by AAR. EADS also said that if it won the competition it would build the tanker in Mobile Alabama, and would build its A330 commercial freighters at the same location.

However, while Boeing and EADS submitted bids more or less as expected, drama was provided by a surprise request from California-based U.S. Aerospace Inc, in partnership with Ukraine-based aircraft designer Antonov. The two submitted a request to the US Department of Defense for a 60-day extension to the submission deadline in order to give them time to prepare a bid in competition with Boeing and EADS.

U.S. Aerospace, according to its website, is “engaged in the production of aircraft assemblies, structural components, and highly engineered, precision machined details” for the US Air Force and for many of the major defense contractors and manufacturers of military aircraft. For its part, Antonov is well known as the designer/manufacturer of aircraft such as the An-12 and An-124, both of which were originally designed as military freighters. However, while the companies have some aerospace pedigree, the proposed bid is odd, to say the least. In its request to DoD, U.S. Aerospace said the partners would bid three models in the KC-X competition, with manufacture in Ukraine and final assembly in the US. The aircraft to be offered are:
• An-124-KC (Based on the existing An-124)
• An-122-KC (A twin-engine variant of the An-124)
• An-112-KC (An updated airframe designed specifically to meet the tanker program requirements)

But the An-124 has not been in production since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and a twin-engine version is an unlikely concept. As for the An-112, who knows? It is thought to be another concept aircraft, based on the quad turboprop An-12.

It seems unlikely that DoD will grant any extension, and even if the U.S. Aerospace/Antonov partnership does manage to make a submission by the end of today, it is unlikely that a tanker based on a Soviet-era military transport is going to get serious consideration.

So, good luck to both Boeing and EADS — may the best tanker win!

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