Home / Boeing vs Northop, Round 783. Fight!

Boeing vs Northop, Round 783. Fight!


Yes, its yet another in a series of “when is he coming back, I can’t stand this new guy” posts. We probably all know Farley’s views on the Air Force, and just why it needs to be folded back into the Army and Navy (and no, I don’t mean the department store). The poor old USAF has been having a torrid time recently, what with the firings and all.
Now the GAO has decided to get in on the action, weighing in on the matter of the proposed air-to-air refuelling tanker. Originally this contract was to go to Boeing. Then it turned out there’d been some skullduggery and kickbacks involved, and massive fines were levied, along with jail time.

Then the contract was handed over to the foreigners, EADS/Airbus, although in truth the primary contractor was Northrop Grumman and the planes were going to be built in the US. Not only that, they were better planes in just about every way. Every way but one; they didn’t come with Boeing’s crack team of lobbyists. Boeing whined and whined, and the GAO decided to look into their claims, and has actually upheld Boeing’s complaints. Which I guess puts us back at square one.

Expect much chest-beating jingoism to be brought to bear on Boeing’s behalf; I wouldn’t be surprised if they get the contract after all. Good news for Washington, not such good news for Alabama, since Airbus was going to build a massive new plant there to assemble all their A330s. If they’ve lost the contract, I can’t see any reason for them to continue with that plan, and that means a loss of hi tech jobs in a state that probably needs them.

It’s also bad news for the Air Force, who might not get the plane they want, which was also the best one for the job. But then I might just be biased towards Airbus since:

  • A: I’m one of those communists from across the pond
  • B: when I fly back across that pond I prefer to do it in an A333 since they have nice seats and real live 110v AC sockets under them in coach
  • C: Northrop built a way cooler-looking fighter (the YF-23) than Boeing (the YF-32)

Expect this mess to get sorted out sometime by 2014. I hope those old converted 707s can keep flying until then!

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  • Brad Holden

    A friend of mine, who worked on the Boeing JSF offering described it as looking like “a pregnant moth”. He figured it was doomed.
    The fuselage of the 787 are made in Europe now (Italy no less), so it is not like Boeing is necessarily going to generate a lot of jobs for Americans.

  • CWD

    As I understand it the original specs were for a medium tanker and the A330 is a jumbo. It was explained to me that the AF would have to perform some major airfield renovations to handle the airbus thus adding many many dollars in hidden costs to adding the aircraft to inventory.
    The other weakness of the airbus design (as explained to me) is the refuling boom has never actually flown, its all still in design phase.

  • I like the A330 for reason B, too (even though the power supply is marginal for a MacBook Pro in a low state of charge).
    It strikes me that the base infrastructure issue is conceivably overstated. The number of new tankers to be procured in any event implies that they will be in fewer places than the larger current KC-135R fleet. The obvious thing to do (though one for the base closure commission) is to base the KC-X at places can accommodate the USAF’s other large jets.
    (Also, IIRC, the KC-135 is more accurately termed a cousin of the 707 (different fuselage cross-section). The C-137 is the militarized 707-320B.)

  • While the Airbus is probably a more comfortable wide body for passengers, I’m not so sure that makes it a better tanker conversion. The main reason I could see to go with EADS is that they are sold well below costs so to create jobs in Europe. I think we should insist they give the planes to us.

  • Speaking as an incurable airplane geek with long-standing affection for the Boeing corporation, but who now lives in Alabama, the A330 MRTT (from what I’ve read) is the better choice here due to its higher fuel capacity and marginally higher cruising speed, though it’s heavier and less fuel-efficient than the KC-767.
    I don’t think the infrastructure issue is that big a deal at this point; the A330 is substantially heavier than a 707, but it’s not that much bigger than the 767. If an airfield can handle a B-52, it can handle a KC-45.
    One last bit of aviation nitpickery and then I’ll shut up: Jonathan, the Northrop YF-23 and the Boeing YF-32 aren’t really comparable because they were submitted for different contracts (the Advanced Tactical Fighter and Joint Strike Fighter, respectively). That said, the YF-32 was indeed one goofy-looking airplane, and book/cover judgment rules notwithstanding, Boeing should’ve had some idea that the Navy was never going to go for it.

  • JP

    I believe he meant to compare the YF-23 and the YF-22. And yes, the YF-23 was (at least) better looking.
    The A330 is NOT a jumbo aircraft. It is still considered a medium-size aircraft, and it has one merit over the KC-767. It exists!
    The KC-767 is still a paper aircraft, made of parts of the 767-200, 767-300, 767-400. It has never been built!
    The A330 is better than the 767 in every category (last 767 sold to an airline was in 1998) but ONE:
    767 comes with expert lobbyists.

  • Actually, Boeing has received well over 100 civilian orders for 767s since then.
    I personally prefer the Boeing to the Airbus because it has a 2-3-2 seating configuration in coach as opposed to a 2-4-2, so you’re more likely to get an aisle or a window that way, but YMMV.

  • American Citizen

    One disadvantage about Airbus is that, according to aircraft mechanics I’ve spoken with, their planes aren’t as durable as Boeing’s.

  • Jonathan

    Oh, I know the YF-23 and YF-32 were for different competitions, but they’re the most recent fighters either company has made, even if they did both lose to terribly vanilla-looking Lockheeds. Northrop also get points for their flying wing obsession; Farley and I were surprised to find one on display at Wright Patterson AFB.
    Regarding the Airbus boom, I think it’s actually the other way round; I believe it’s the Boeing system that’s still only on the CAD screens at the moment. Their 5th generation boom, designed for the Japanese, doesn’t work right, and the USAF would get a 6th generation model.

  • Richard Welty

    Re: Converted 707s?
    The KC-135 is not a converted 707. It is an older design, with few common parts. Boeing leveraged their contract with the Air Force for the KC-135 to fund the ongoing development that led to the 707.

  • Gowron

    Boeing did get robbed because Air Force changed specs mid bid for political gain with Alabama cracker senators. Boeing often get screwed by hillbillies, Ferengi, and California, had to buy California and still get screwed, move to Chicago, same patak!
    Boeing stealth fighter look like cool 60s spaceships of earthers! Stylish for device of mass killing! easy to clean off the blood of the vanquished once the glory of battle is over!
    Alabama should stick with exploding rockets and orbital landers that explode on entering atmosphere! Maybe they could make deal to buy radioactive parts of Tennessee, too!
    AS for human civilian transport atmospheric craft, it is airlines, not manufacturers, that demand inadequate and weak aircraft designs. You human hahdebah are lucky they let air into the passenger spaces! The Ferengi would charge for breathable air and water! And even their males would fly naked for security! ha! They should all die in their sleep in comfortable beds!
    May not reflect opinion of the Klingon High Council

  • CWD

    It appears that there are rumblings in the airforce about the airbus boom. According to the article the questions about the boom were not considered durring the bid process.
    Also this article about the aussie airbus tanker. Seems its grounded until September with boom refits.
    I also beleive that not all US air bases can handle b52’s here is an article about the US spending $200 million to upgrade a field in the mid-east to handle b-52’s. I can’t find a list online of us airbases that can handle the b-52 its either controlled information or more likely I am not patient enough to find it. I also recall that durring GW1, B-52’s operated from the US or Diego Garcia because there were issues of where the monster could fit.
    On the size front I’ve found that the wingspan of the A330 is larger than the B-52’s. A330=198ft, B-52=185ft, 767=156-170ft (depending on variant). all from Wikipedia, but you work with what you’ve got.
    Wiki also lists the max takeoff weight of the A330 as 6 tons more than that of the B-52.
    Seems to me that you really don’t want to limit tanker operations to bomber bases, but want the freedom to use a majority of your own and your allies airfields.

  • CWD

    Not to burn up the thread, but something just occured to me.
    Does it seem logical that Airbus can build a brand spankin new aircraft factory, with all that it entails, in Alabama and still come in with an economical product when compared to an aircraft with an existing production line, trained workforce and extant supply chain? Sure the 767 will require mods, but that cannot be nearly as costly as building an entirely new production chain.

  • Jonathan

    CWD; Yes, because they have a much more modular way of building things compared to Boeing, and I believe they’ve done just this thing before. Setting up new plants in Europe. They’ll just be doing final assembly in Alabama I think.
    Plus it makes sense for them to do so; if they’re paying their staff in dollars instead of euros then that’s a big plus right there.

  • “One disadvantage about Airbus is that, according to aircraft mechanics I’ve spoken with, their planes aren’t as durable as Boeing’s.”
    Yep. I have worked on just about every Boeing product, and a number of Airbus aircraft as well ( I was a structural mechanic until I was injured. I have done my share of A&P work as well). I consider Boeing to make a far superior and safer aircraft.

  • Actually, Boeing has received well over 100 civilian orders for 767s since then.
    But not tankers – so none of the mix’n’match with bits from three different versions. In the UK, the KC767 is known as the Frankentanker.
    The base infrastructure thing is a furphy, by the way. Even when the A330 is field-limited it still uplifts more fuel than a 767 tanker would at full load. But if you wanted a smaller and cheaper one, they could do you an A310MRTT off the shelf tomorrow.
    Regarding the durability thing, this is crap. It goes back to the days of the A300 when the Royal Regiment of Wiseacres didn’t believe in composite materials; now Boeing uses them everywhere, but the propaganda doesn’t change.
    The good news, from my point of view, is that if the USAF is backing out, well, there’s an order for A330 tanker/transports for the RAF outstanding. The slots already reserved on the A330 line would come in handy (especially as the RAF didn’t specify the full A330MRTT monty with link-16 and a cargo door).

  • Italy and Japan have both ordered four KC-767s apiece, and the 767’s refueling boom has already been tested successfully in both “dry” and “wet” runs.
    The USAF version of the KC-767 would be based on the 767-200LRF (the Long Range Freighter version) as opposed to the -200ER that Japan and Italy got, but that’s the only difference.

  • The real problem with trying to compare the 767 tanker with the 330 tanker is this: They’re really different airplanes.
    The 330 and 767 are both in the “heavy” category for the purposes of wake turbulence (take it from an air traffic controller- me!) but the reality is that the 330 is a bigger a/c.
    Boeing has often said that if they’d known the Air Force was going to give as much “extra credit” as it did for things like overall size, ability to carry other things (troops, cargo) than merely fuel, and so forth, they (Boeing) would have strongly considered putting forth a tankerized version of the 777.
    The numbers that we should be looking at here:
    B767: length, 48.5m
    width: 5.03m
    wingspan: 47.6m
    Max Take Off Weight(MTOW): 179,170 kg
    Empty Weight(EW): 82,380 kg
    A330: length, 58.8m to 63.6m
    width: 5.64m
    MTOW: 230,900 kg
    EW: ~120,000 kg (ranges from 109K to 122K)
    B777: length 63.7m or 73.9m
    width: 6.19m
    wingspan: 60.9m
    MTOW: from 247,000 kg to 351,534 kg
    EW: from 139,000 kg to 166,881 kg
    (The ranges are based on the various passenger variants; a better chart of the actual proposed tanker models can be found here.)
    That’s a lot of numbers, but what it boils down to is pretty simple- depending on how you write the requirements, you can come up with a “favored” a/c quite easily.
    They’re three quite different sizes. Want the 767 to win? Write the requirements to give a lot of credit for not having to tear up your airfields, because the 767’s smaller weight and size means that it’ll fit into more existing infrastructure.
    Want the 330 to win? Set up the competition to make it sound like the 767 meets the minimum size, but then give extra credit for being able to carry additional cargo/troops in addition to the specified fuel load.
    Want the 777 to win? Give the most credit for sheer size and carrying capacity, operating costs, and don’t sweat it if you have to tear up and reinforce runways and taxiways.
    The point is that comparing the 767 with the 330 is almost comparing apples and oranges. (This goes for people comparing them from a passenger point of view, too.) The 767 was first flown in 1981 and is a considerably smaller design than the 330 or 777.
    The 777 and 330 first flew in 1994 and 1992, respectively, and are really direct competitors to one another. They came out in the same era, have much more similar specs to each other, and are used by airlines in pretty much the same way.
    And the 777, despite being introduced later, wins out- Boeing has sold 720 of them, compared with Airbus selling 530ish of the A330.
    The reality is that terming Boeing’s complaint as “whining” is pretty unfair. The GAO clobbered the AF on 7 separate items, and Boeing was making some points on other stuff that had some validity.
    Now, I’m a Seattle native, and I’ll freely admit

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