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Aerospace firms compete for Air Force contracts at air show

Two defense aerospace giants showcased front-line products at the recent Vectren Dayton Air Show, and one senior defense expert says the showcase of the Lockheed Martin T-50 jet trainer and the Boeing MH-139 helicopter had a purpose beyond spectators seeing the aircraft up close.

Both firms are expected to compete for separate, billion-dollar Air Force contracts — the T-50A in the T-X jet trainer replacement program — and the MH-139 helicopter to guard nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile bases on the Great Plains and to transport high-level government leaders in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base manages both aircraft programs.

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“Defense contractors would not be spending their money to display at the air show unless they thought there was some chance of influencing competitive outcomes,” said Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant.

“The Air Force runs such a rigorous process in awarding contracts that it would be hard to prove a connection between displaying and winning,” he added in an email. “However, it makes an impression when you see the product in real life, rather than seeing a pile of charts on a projection screen.”

Lockheed Martin chose Dayton for the T-50A’s first “demo debut” at a U.S. air show and no other show demonstrations were planned, a company spokesman said.

One of the jets was on display on the tarmac and a Lockheed pilot and a program leader hosted a Facebook Live during the June 24 show to tout the T-50A’s capabilities and answer audience questions.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Rob Fuller said the jet was sent to Dayton for two reasons.

“First, this show in one of the greatest aviation stages in America and we wanted to showcase just how ready our offering to the U.S. Air Force is in a very public forum, close to Wright-Patterson AFB so that officials there could have an opportunity to witness its performance as well,” he said in an email.

“Second, we took the opportunity to fly the final test data to the Dayton area in the T-50A,” he added. “… We could not think of a more appropriate way to deliver it than in the very aircraft we are offering in this competition.”

The Air Force has estimated the value of the contract to produce up to 350 jet trainers to replace the aging T-38 Talon would be $16.3 billion. A winner is expected to be declared early next year.

Lockheed teamed with Korea Aerospace Industries to design the T-50, which would be assembled in Greenville, S.C. Boeing, teamed with Swedish-based Saab, and Italian-based Leonardo announced they would offer their own aircraft in the competition. Boeing would build the T-X in St. Louis, Mo., and Leonardo would construct a new factory in Tuskegee, Ala., to assemble the T-100 jet trainer, the companies have said.

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Boeing displayed the MH-139 on the grounds at the air show, and local media representatives flew aboard the helicopter at Greene County-Lewis A. Jackson Regional Airport.

The aircraft is one of at least two expected to be entered to replace the UH-1N Huey, which the Air Force flies to guard nuclear missile bases and to transport government leaders. Lockheed’s Sikorsky announced it would enter the HH-60U Black Hawk helicopter, assembled in Connecticut, to grab the Air Force contract for 84 aircraft. A final request for proposals was expected this summer. The Air Force has not released a contract cost estimate.

“The Dayton Air Show, one of the nation’s biggest air shows with tens of thousands of attendees, represents a unique opportunity to showcase the Boeing MH-139’s capabilities,” Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said in an email.

“The show’s close proximity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base gives Air Force personnel and the public an opportunity to experience the aircraft up close, and learn why it is well-suited to replace the venerable UH-1N, known as the Huey helicopter,” he added.

Based on an Italian-design from Leonardo, the MH-139 would be built in Philadelphia, Pa., in a Leonardo factory currently building the commercial AW139.

RELATED: Air Force wants to replace jet trainers

Some observers have said offering existing aircraft in both competitions cuts development risks and production costs. In several cases, that meant U.S. companies teamed with foreign aerospace firms.

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace defense analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said the military wants aerospace makers to export their aircraft to lower the price tag the Pentagon faces.

“The problem is that exhibiting in Dayton doesn’t really help make the case for foreign customers,” said Aboulafia, who attended the Paris Air Show in June. “It helps make the case for people who are already your customers. In other words, Paris is always going to be the big, global bazaar.”

Despite the aerospace giants show of force in Dayton, an Air Force Life Cycle Management spokesman said it doesn’t influence who wins contracts.

“The bottom line is they hold these competitions fair and open to give everybody an equal opportunity to compete for the awards,” said AFLCMC spokesman Daryl Mayer.

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