The one and only completed Boeing 767 military refueling tanker is parked for the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airfield, painted in the...
PARIS — The one and only completed Boeing 767 military refueling tanker is parked for the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airfield, painted in the colors of the Italian air force.
The scandal over a fleet of similar airplanes intended for the U.S. Air Force has caused immense damage to Boeing’s reputation as a defense contractor.
But in an interview at the show this week, Boeing Chairman Lewis Platt vigorously defended the company, insisting that little wrongdoing on the company’s part has been proven. And he rejected any shared responsibility for how the original contract was conceived or structured.
“I don’t think that Boeing can be held responsible for poor procurement practices on the part of the Air Force,” he said.
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Still, Platt acknowledged, the company has been hurt by the scandal. “We definitely wounded ourselves,” Platt said. “We’re trying to recover our reputation.”
Inside the tanker at Le Bourget, visitors can sit at a simulator and play at controlling the refueling procedure. As in the real thing, the goal is to extend the fuel-carrying boom and lock it onto a small hole on top of a combat airplane flying closely underneath the tanker.
A visitor operating the station wears a computer-controlled helmet. It displays on the visor a 3-D view from the infrared camera at the end of the boom.
In the simulation, an F-16 fighter jet gets in position to sip some fuel. A little directional control from the right-hand joystick, an extension of the boom using the left-hand one, and bingo, you’ve brought the pipe close enough for the system to lock in automatically.
Jet fuel gushes out from the tanker to the other plane at 900 gallons a minute. The operator feels the force feedback in the joystick as the boom moves around.
This cool simulation is inside a fully operational airplane. The real boom operating station is in the front of the jet, ready for action.
Boeing gave the go ahead to develop this military derivative of the 767 airliner just over four years ago.
It bore all the development costs itself, without government funding. Boeing is building four of the tankers for Italy and four for Japan.
It expected to build 100 for the U.S. But that expectation turned into the “767 tanker scandal” after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., challenged the terms of that contract, a $23 billion leasing deal instead of a straight purchase.
Air Force acquisitions officer Darleen Druyun, who had left the military and joined Boeing, later admitted favoring the company on contracts, including the tanker. She and Boeing Chief Financial Officer Mike Sears went to jail, and the original tanker contract was canceled.
Now Boeing is in limbo on the 767 tanker. It has two firm customers for eight tankers. The United Arab Emirates is considering ordering three. Korea might take a few. Australia and the U.K. have gone for a rival tanker from Airbus majority-owner EADS.
And EADS is also maneuvering to snatch away the U.S. Air Force deal. Next week it will announce where it would build a U.S. assembly plant if it were to receive a tanker contract.
Meanwhile, fallout in Washington continues. The Pentagon inspector general’s final report on the tanker scandal, released earlier this month, found that the initial contract had indeed been tailored to fit Boeing’s 767 airplane and that the need to replace the tankers had been exaggerated.
Platt emphasizes that the report didn’t criticize Boeing.
“The inspector general’s report was very critical of Air Force procurement practices,” Platt said. “But the hearing on that was essentially silent on Boeing.”
Platt firmly rejected the suggestion that Boeing could not have been entirely disinterested, an innocent on the sidelines, as the Air Force fixed the contract in the company’s favor.
“It’s never been proven that we did anything wrong,” Platt insisted. “We hired an Air Force acquisitions officer in an illegal fashion. It’s never been proven business was pushed our way for doing that.”
“We’ve been tarred and feathered for manipulating the buy into a lease, so we could circumvent normal procurement practices,” he added. “That’s not how it happened. The [Air Force] came to us.”
He said the Air Force wanted a lease because it couldn’t afford to buy the airplanes it needed outright. Boeing simply agreed to the request, he said.
Can Boeing recover from the debacle?
“The tanker is clearly going to have to be rebid,” Platt said, “if they decide they need new tankers — and even that isn’t clear.”
But if the Air Force goes ahead, he said, Boeing will be allowed to recompete.
One piece of news from Paris offers a gleam of hope on the tanker. Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Alan Mulally said that orders are in the pipeline for more 767 commercial jets, and the production line can therefore be kept going for “a number of years” even without a tanker contract.
There’s more time for the political reverberations to play out.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com