The PJ Tatler

Air Force Eliminates Test Flights for New Light Attack Plane

Would you buy a car without test driving it?

Would you buy combat airplane without knowing whether it can even fly? The guys on Pawn Stars wouldn’t do that — but apparently the United States Air Force will.

“The Air Force’s rush to get critical combat aircraft into the hands of Afghan forces could end up endangering both American trainers and Afghan pilots, writes The Hill. “Sub-standard equipment built into the planes coupled with the decision to eliminate flight demos for those aircraft are raising serious concerns over the Air Force’s strategy, according to industry sources.”

“…the decision to eliminate flight demos…” Let that sink in. As a former airman myself, that’s appalling, and it endangers pilots and crews. In this case, it endangers Afghan pilots who will end up flying these planes against terrorists.

The process by which the Air Force has gone about selecting the light attack aircraft contract has been riddled with controversy. The Air Force summarily eliminated US manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft from the competition in November 2011, leaving just Brazilian manufacturer Embraer in the running. But Embraer has ties to the Iranian government. Embraer got the contract despite this odious connection. Hawker’s T-6 trainer, which is the platform upon which the company proposed building the light attack plane, has been in the US inventory for years and has an exemplary safety record. If Hawker lands the contract, it will create hundreds of jobs in the US; if Embraer lands it, it will create most of those jobs in Brazil.

But at the end of the day, what we really want is the best aircraft for the job. How do we get that, though, when the Air Force eliminates comprehensive test flights? The Hill writes that there is a potential problem with the design of the ejection seat, as planners failed to take into account the fact that Afghan pilots tend to be smaller than American pilots. Test flights would help find any problems with the design, and help designers correct them.

After the Air Force cancelled the contract with Embraer, they said they were going to rejigger the RFP. Embraer started hurling threats at the United States; Hawker Beechcraft was forced to lay off 350 American workers (who’s jobs would likely have been saved if they hadn’t been inexplicably aced out of the deal in the first place).

In February, Gen. Norton Schwartz cryptically stated that the contract award process was an “embarrassment” and that there would be “hell to pay” if the original decision was anything other than an honest mistake. The remarks left most observers believing a new bidding process would be significantly reformed. It wasn’t. The Air Force reopened the bidding process with bafflingly few changes.

Now the Air Force has eliminated flight tests? What kind of reform is that?

And there’s more. Earlier I noted the ejection seat issue. Hawker Beechcraft Chairman Bill Boisture noted that in the original proposal, the requirements for the ejection system “were lowered from what they are in every other fixed-wing solicitation the Air Force has put out.” This undercutting of Air Force standards seemed to be unfairly tailored to help Embraer win the contract. That’s certainly “an embarrassment” for which there would be appropriate “hell to pay,” if true.

The light attack aircraft contract is worth $400 million, and the aircraft will play a role in stabilizing Afghanistan long after American troops leave. We have to get this right. The Air Force has to stop playing games on this, and it has to stop now.