EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — Cruising at 35,000 feet above the Mojave Desert, Staff Sgt. Cy Eckhardt peered out the back of a KC-135 aerial refueling tanker and spotted the approaching F-22 fighter jet.
Using two joysticks attached to a cockpit-like panel, Eckhardt remotely lowered a long telescopic boom from the tanker's rear and gingerly guided it to a fuel receptacle behind the fighter jet's canopy.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Refueling tankers: An article in Business on Monday about the competition to update the Air Force's aging tanker fleet misidentified Boeing Co.'s vice president of tanker programs as Mike McGaw. His name is Mark McGraw.
"Appreciate you guys hanging out here. Need about 10-K," the F-22 pilot said to Eckhardt over the radio, signaling 10,000 pounds of fuel. If it were gasoline and not kerosene-like jet fuel, that would be enough to fill 100 cars.
"No worries," Eckhardt said last week before topping off the F-22, which had been tethered to the tanker for about five minutes as the two craft sailed along at a relatively leisurely 350 miles per hour.
For more than half a century, fighters, bombers and other military aircraft have been refueled this way as they've traveled great distances on missions. The flying gas stations and their capability to refuel aircraft in mid-air have been mainstays -- albeit less visible than other weapons -- in projecting U.S. military might overseas.
But the planes were built during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, long before many of their current pilots were born.
Now, they're showing their age and the Air Force has made replacing them its top priority, ahead of the traditionally prized fighter jets.
"There is a saying out there that 'you can't kick ass without tanker gas,' " Sue Payton, the Air Force's acquisition chief, said at a defense seminar recently. But "we have tankers that should be flying around with an AARP card."
The move to update the tanker fleet has led to one of the most intense competitions in a decade, pitting two of the nation's largest defense contractors against each other, Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp. At stake is a contract worth $40 billion with the potential to grow to at least $100 billion.
"It could be the biggest purchase in the first half of this century," said Loren Thompson, defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute.
The local effect is likely to be significant. Hundreds of suppliers in Southern California are aligned with one or the other or, in some cases, both.
Suppliers on the winning team could be making parts for the new tanker for two generations or more.
Air Force officials declined to talk about the competition, citing policy against commenting while the competing bids were being evaluated. An Air Force spokeswoman also wouldn't say when the winner would be picked, but officials said previously that they would like to award a contract by the end of the year.
The first award calls for replacing 179 KC-135s with more modern and fuel-efficient planes that could also perform other duties such as carrying cargo and troops or operating as a flying command center. The Air Force wants to purchase more later, with the goal of eventually retiring the 500 or so KC-135s operating today.
Boeing has proposed modifying its 767 commercial aircraft jet, while Northrop has linked up with the North American subsidiary of the Amsterdam-based European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co. to modify a larger Airbus A330 passenger plane.
Boeing would assemble the plane on its current production line in Everett, Wash., before the plane would be flown to Wichita, Kan., where the refueling boom and other military components would be installed. Northrop would put together its planes in Mobile, Ala.
Both companies have launched intense lobbying efforts, drawing congressional support from states where they plan to build the planes. And both haven't been shy about putting each other down.
"Do we want to get to a point of relying on international sources for critical technology," said Mike McGaw, Boeing's vice president of tanker programs, who claims 85% of the company's tanker parts would be made in the U.S. compared with about 60% for Northrop's plane. "What if they don't agree with U.S. policy and they withhold technology?"
Paul Meyer, general manager for Northrop's tanker program, called the made-in-America argument mere "hype" that distracts from what is "really important."
"The real principal should be who offers the best value," Meyer said, asserting that the Northrop plane is more capable because it can carry more fuel and cargo.
Once the contract is awarded, the first new tankers are expected to fly in 2010.
But they won't come soon enough for tanker crews that have been flying planes built with 1950s technology.
Initial efforts to replace the tankers in 2002 were dashed by a high-profile procurement scandal involving an Air Force official who admitted favoring Boeing in picking the company for several multibillion-dollar contracts, including the tanker program.