Boeing rolled out the Royal Australian Air Force’s first P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft Tuesday. The plane — a rare military-procurement program delivering on time and under budget — is already in service with both the U.S. Navy and the Indian Navy.
Boeing on Tuesday rolled out the first P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft — based on its 737 commercial jet — destined for the Royal Australian Air Force.
On a tour of the plant at Boeing Field where mechanics install the plane’s military systems, Steve Tripp, who heads P-8 sales to foreign militaries, touted the efficiency of Boeing’s P-8 manufacturing operation.
The program is going so smoothly that Boeing has been able to drop the base price of the aircraft by about 30 percent from about $170 million to $115 million.
“It’s good to be a major defense acquisition program that delivers on time and under budget,” Tripp said.
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The Australian jet, the first of 12 for that nation, is the 60th flying P-8 built.
The U.S. Navy has already taken six flight-test P-8s and 45 production aircraft, and has deployed those on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in the western Pacific, the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.
The Indian Navy took eight P-8s. Boeing also built two ground-test planes at the program’s outset.
At the rollout ceremony, Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, commander of U.S. Naval Air Forces, said Boeing has been delivering a “tremendous quality” aircraft.
Air Marshal Leo Davies, head of Australia’s Air Force, said the 220 Australians currently training on the P-8 in the U.S. are excited to finally get their hands on the P-8’s advanced technology.
The P-8 bristles with antennae and fins used to detect radio or acoustic signals.
Sonobuoys are deployed from tubular holes in the jet’s underbelly to listen for submarines.
The wings are fitted with pylons to carry Harpoon missiles for striking surface ships. A bomb bay carries Mark 54 torpedoes.
Inside the plane, operators sit at five computer work stations with touch screens, monitoring the data from sensors and weapons systems and networking with other aircraft and military assets.
An unusual blister on the casing of the standard 737 CFM engine covers a powerful generator that runs all the mission systems on board.
The jets are assembled and painted in Renton, then flown to Boeing Field and moved at night across East Marginal Way South to the old Thompson building — where in the 1960s the first few 737 airliners were built.
Because the old building isn’t quite wide enough, the P-8’s raked wingtips are removed before it enters, then put back on when it emerges.
A tour of the Thompson site Tuesday — no photos allowed due to military restrictions — indicated how Boeing has been able to achieve the cost efficiency that’s impressed the U.S. Navy.
The old way Boeing manufactured a military derivative aircraft — say a 707-based Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane — was to build a basic commercial airframe, then deliver it to a special completion center where holes would be cut out of it for weapons and structural parts beefed up as needed for the mission load.
For the P-8, Boeing introduced “in-line production,” meaning that all those structural changes to the airframe are incorporated as it is built, not afterward.
So for example, the aluminum skin of a P-8 is almost twice as thick as a regular 737 because the airframe has to withstand much more stressful maneuvers.
So from the beginning of production, a different gauge of metal is used.
“From the day this was a roll of aluminum, it was always going to be a P-8, not a 737,” Tripp said.
Likewise the fuselage and wings have many more stiffening stringers and frames, meaning many more rivets.
The holes in the fuselage for regular passenger windows are absent.
But one big picture window on each side of the fuselage accommodates a spotter looking for surface vessels. The large bomb bay is cut out of the belly.
That’s the way the fuselage is built by Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan.
“We don’t build it, unbuild it and rebuild it,” said Tripp. “We build it from day one with this end state in mind.”
As a result, the Thompson building is very quiet. Instead of riveting or metal work, the mechanics are installing, plugging in and testing the systems.
Between 1,000 and 1,300 defense-side employees work on the P-8 program in Seattle, with hundreds more staffing the P-8 assembly line in Renton.
They are producing 12 of the jets per year now, and moving to 18 per year.
The U.K. ordered nine P-8s at the Farnborough Air Show near London in July. Boeing expects more foreign sales.