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Competition Heats Up for Billion-Dollar Program to Train Air Force Tanker Pilots
By Sandra I. Erwin

A new Air Force refueling tanker competition is under way. This time, it is for a potential billion-dollar deal to train thousands of pilots over the next two decades.

Air Force leaders and Boeing Co. executives breathed a sigh of relief last year when the Pentagon gave the service the green light to acquire a new generation of aerial refueling tankers. With Boeing on track to begin delivering new KC-46A tankers in 2017, the next step is to ensure that there will be enough trained and qualified pilots to fly the airplanes, operate the refueling equipment and maintain the fleet.

The stakes are high for competing vendors. Opportunities to build big-ticket flight simulators and high-tech schoolhouses do not come around often, and will become increasingly scarce as Pentagon budgets dip in the years ahead.

The tanker’s manufacturer, The Boeing Co., will be in the running for the training contract. Contenders also include Lockheed Martin Corp., CAE USA, L-3 Link and FlightSafety.

Bidders for the KC-46 “aircrew training system” have submitted proposals on how they would prepare pilots and boom operators to refuel fixed-wing aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied forces. Tanker crews also have to learn to perform non-traditional roles such as cargo airlift and medical evacuation.

The Air Force said it plans to award a firm fixed price, 15-year contract. Air Force officials told a bidders’ conference in January that the goal was to select a winner by Oct. 1, and schedule the first aircrews to begin training in 2016. Industry sources said they suspect the Air Force might slip the award into the first quarter of 2013.

The project is estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion — split evenly between hardware and schoolhouse services, also referred to as “KC-46 University.”

Boeing is under contract to deliver as many as 179 aircraft — 15 a year through 2028 — to replace aging KC-135 tankers. Supporting a fleet that size fleet would require the Air Force to train 1,000 students per year at the primary training unit and more than 4,700 per year at as many as nine anticipated operating bases, according to Air Force briefing slides.

The formal training unit and first main operating base will be led by active duty commanders. The second main operating base will be run by an Air National Guard unit. They expect to begin receiving new aircraft between 2017 and 2018.

KC-46 boom operators will be the first to use a new aerial refueling technology known as “remote refueling.” It allows operators to fill up aircraft while sitting near the tanker cockpit at a console outfitted with cameras and remote controls. Older tankers require boom operators to maneuver the boom while looking out the back of the aircraft, through a window, at the receiving aircraft.

Companies bidding on the training contract must prove that they can develop realistic simulators that model the consoles for boom operator training. That technology currently does not exist. Simulators also will have to replicate the new KC-46 digital cockpit.

Lockheed Martin Corp. — the only competitor that publicly announced that it submitted a proposal — teamed with the manufacturer of the boom, Acme Worldwide. The company is a Boeing subcontractor for tanker production but chose to join the Lockheed team for the training program.

Lockheed spokeswoman Sharon Parsley said company officials predict a tough competition. “This is one of the major, if not the largest, acquisitions by the Air Force this year,” she said. “And the training competition is just as hot as the tanker competition was.”

Technology alone will not be enough to win this award. With the Defense Department under budget pressure, the Air Force will be looking to minimize costly live flight training and rely more on simulators, said Bridget Medeiros, Lockheed Martin director of business development. KC-46 simulators also must be able to plug into a larger network of flight training devices that replicate a real-world military operation, Medeiros said. Another requirement is to provide mobile learning options so students can take courses online and stay connected to instructors via portable devices such as iPads, said Medeiros.

At the January bidders’ conference, Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan — the KC-46A program manager who recently was nominated for promotion to lieutenant general and tapped to become director of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program — told contractors that the Air Force expects “quality proposals” that are mindful of the Pentagon’s budget crunch. “Sharpen your pencils,” Bogdan told the conference.

In the flight simulation world, the tanker program will be closely watched as an efficiency barometer. For decades, the U.S. military has sought to save fuel and other flight costs by shifting live flying to ground-based simulators. Defense officials insist that virtual training is far cheaper than live rehearsals, but they have had difficulty quantifying those savings.

Air Mobility Command officials told government auditors that approximately 50 percent of aircrew training is conducted in simulators, including all training related to takeoffs, landings, and instrument approaches. In a July report, the Government Accountability Office said simulation technology still is not advanced enough for refueling training. “Due to limitations in simulator fidelity, training for some special qualifications such as aerial refueling, formation flying, airdrops, and assault landings must periodically be conducted live in the actual aircraft,” said GAO.

For aerial refueling, there are differences between what the fighter pilots see in their simulators and what air-refueling crews see in theirs, the report said. Simulators are not able to accurately replicate the aerial refueling environment, so simulated training cannot yet replace live training, GAO said.

The Air Force estimated potential cost savings of $1.7 billion for fiscal years 2012 to 2016 by, among other things, reducing flying hours across the board by 5 percent, the report said. One flight hour can range from $10,000 to $30,000, depending on the aircraft. The savings the Air Force calculated are overstated, said GAO, because they do not factor the costs of increases in virtual training.

Those costs are tough to estimate, said GAO, because the Air Force has not developed a methodology to collect and track information on the cost of virtual training. “According to Air Force officials, some training costs could increase as a result of increases in virtual training,” said the report. “These costs could include expenses for aircrew to travel to simulator locations, additional contractor personnel to schedule and operate simulators, and the purchase of additional simulators to meet increased demand.”

Photo Credit: Air Force


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