The Best Aircraft Never Considered

Duncan Hunter

4/9/2008 5:10:18 PM - Duncan Hunter

The most remarkable aspect of the recent competition for the next Air Force refueling tanker contract was the absence of the best aircraft: the Boeing KC-777.

The CEO of FedEx, Fred Smith, had it right when he briefed Members of Congress on his choice. Smith argued that the KC-777 is clearly superior to Boeing’s 767 and the Airbus 330.

For Smith, one of the most compelling factors is the fuel offload of the KC-777 ER (with additional under floor body tanks) at 2,000 nautical miles, which is the amount of fuel available to feed fighters and bombers after flying this distance. At 2,000 miles, the KC-777 ER can offload an astounding 240,000 pounds of fuel. This is nearly three times as much as the “winning” A330.

With a maximum fuel load of over 320,800 pounds, the KC-777-200 carries 30% more fuel and 62% more cargo than the A330. And when you compare payload, passenger and aero-medical evacuation capability, the KC-777 is the clear winner at 39% more payload, 94 more passengers and 30 more patients than the A330.

In a world of cutting edge weapons technology, tanker aircraft do not qualify as high-tech systems. They are simply trucks in the sky, supplying the warfighing platforms with fuel and, presumably, filling in as cargo and passenger carriers.

Nonetheless, at $40 billion plus, the dollars associated with the “tanker buy” are huge. And the profits reaped from the sale will be available for reinvestment by the winning competitor for new generations of aircraft.

Further, the job displacement factor means that American taxpayers will be financing a European “stimulus package” of about 100,000 jobs. But it does not have to be this way.

There is no contractual right of Europe to take this $40 billion slice of U.S. tax dollars. The tanker competition is subject to the authorization and appropriation of dollars. The taxpayers, should, through their elected representatives, make the KC-777 the next Air Force tanker.

It beats the A330 in range, payload and fuel efficiency. Its dominance of the A330 is reflected in existing orders of 1,059 aircraft, awarded in direct competition with Europe’s A330 around the world.

The taxpayers and Congress should take Fred Smith’s advice and make the 777 the next Air Force tanker. And Boeing’s leadership should learn a lesson. Having “outsourced” materials and components extensively for the past several years, they have now found themselves on the verge of being outsourced.

A little patriotism in the Boeing front office in using American vendors, workers and sub-contractors would go a long way toward restoring confidence in America’s plane builder.