Why Aurora Flight Sciences is still bitter about X-55



During a wide-ranging interview last week with Aurora Flight Sciences chief executive officer and founder John Langford, a single question set off a long and provocative monologue by the MIT-trained aerodynamicist and UAV pioneer that ripped into the heart of the ongoing debate about how the Department of Defense streamlines and reforms the industrial base.

My question concerned, of all things, retracing Aurora’s role in the competition for the contract to build the X-55 advanced composite cargo aircraft (ACCA).

For Aurora, ACCA meant far more than an experiment in manufacturing all-composite airframes. It was a chance to leap into the ranks of aerospace “prime” manufacturers. If European-based aircraft-makers like EADS North America and Alenia North America could elbow aside major US primes during the last few years, why couldn’t a homegrown start-up with a good reputation?

As I learned, however, the ACCA competition proved a bitter experience for Aurora.

“We were disappointed, although I can’t say totally stunned, when they picked Lockheed over us [to build the aircraft],” Langford says. “But we were blown away when [Lockheed] then just blew through the design — what we thought were the requirements — and everybody still acted happy about it.”

In Langford’s view, the story offers a case study of today’s defense industrial base.

“I tell that story because it goes right to the bigger picture of how does the US actually do innovation in the defense business,” Langford told me. “I’m not saying that they should have picked Aurora. But I’m saying it’s a problem if you can’t move innovative new companies into the space because they always get kicked out in favor of the safe choice.”   

My transcript of Langford’s version of the ACCA story is on the jump. As a postscript, I’ve also added a response from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, which won the contract.

Photo courtesy of Aurora Flight Sciences.

Langford: “Our version of ACCA: [At first] they gave a couple of seedlings to the big guys and we were peripherally involved in some of those. Then AFRL came out with a requirement that a lot of the big guys said was impossible, and nobody could build a new airplane for $50 million and we’re not even going to bid. We didn’t set out to bid on ACCA as a prime. We set out to be on somebody else’s team. We had a couple of teammates — one in the US, who — we got pretty far along and then they decided to no-bid. And one was actually a European partner, and we got really far along in the bidding process with them. And, then at the last minute they had an approval way up the food chain, and they decided to no-bid literally a few days before solicitation was due. So we had a team that was working hard on that. We basically said well, do we go home or do we build this on our own? We said, we’ve got too much into this and so we bid it as a prime.

The DEW Line: This is like the EADS strategy on KC-X.

Langford: Yeah, yeah. It was obvious if you read the AFRL requirement, they weren’t going to get everything for the dollars. But they said, this is what we’d like, here’s our vision, here’s our money, we’re going to give to the best value. So both Lockheed and Aurora ended up bidding solutions that took an existing airplane, and cannibalized it for parts and said we’ll give you a composite demonstrator that focuses on the composites but still has some utility.

We bid the An-72 — the Russian Antonov — because that was the airplane that actually came closest to meeting the requirements that AFRL put out for the next generation transport. Lockheed bid the smaller Fairchild Dornier 328. But we both bid basically the same idea, which was we’ll harvest the cockpit, the engines, a lot of the systems — a lot of the things that the money goes into — and we will remanufacture parts of this airplane that was originally designed in metal out of composites. Lockheed actually focused on the fuselage. We had actually focused on the wing. We went through that process. We both did a Phase 1.

We looked at changing our strategy because once we were in we had more opportunities. We had a lot of companies come to us — big companies — and say can we get on our team at this point.

In retrospect a smaller airplane than the An-72 would have been a good idea. We actually got an An-72. We brought into the country. As far as I know it’s the first one that was ever brought in, although I’ve seen enough things out in the desert that you can’t be absolute about those — but it’s the first one people knew about it anyway. We flew it in. We brought it in through Dulles. We laser-scanned the whole thing. We had great pictures of that [see photo above]. We were ready to start making the moulds — if the AFRL had told us they picked us for Phase 2. We were ready to start making the moulds to do the wing, the tail and eventually the fuselage, although we were going to do as much as we could with the money that was available.

We ended up getting beat by Lockheed. They picked Lockheed over us in the Phase 2 for a phenomenon that I call the ‘nobody-ever-got-fired-for-buying-IBM-solution’, which is: You’re a career civil servant somewhere in the government. You’re trying to make a decision for the taxpayer — and not probably incidentally mindful of your own career.

What are you going to pick? This upstart, Aurora, which has done human-powered flight airplanes, planetary aircraft, environmental stuff — you know, kind of a big name in the UAV business but pretty much unknown outside?

Or Lockheed, which has built pretty much every cargo airplane that the us has had since 1953 if you except the C-17?  And they picked Lockheed. Of course they picked Lockheed.

And, then, Lockheed — you know, it was supposed to be $45 million and 12 months — and Lockheed took 26 months to do it, okay? Now I’m not going to say Lockheed misrepresented the situation but Aurora was very — we were right in that and we were very focused on almost naively maybe doing what the customer asked.

Could we have done that in 12 months? I don’t know. That was very hard. I had a whole lot of people who were nervous about our ability to do it in 12 months. But the idea that you could take 26 months and the customer would still call it a success never occurred to Aurora because we really thought, 12 months — okay, we’re going to do it 12 months, and this was how much money and how much time we got, and everything we had was structured to that. 

So we were disappointed, although I can’t say totally stunned, when they picked Lockheed over us. But we were blown away when they then just blew through the design — what we thought were the requirements — and everybody still acted happy about it.

I tell that story because it goes right to the bigger picture of how does the US actually do innovation in the defense business. I’m not saying that they should have picked Aurora. But I’m saying it’s a problem if you can’t move innovative new companies into the space because they always get kicked out in favor of the safe choice.

As a country — obviously Aurora has an interest in this, but we’re not the only player in this business — as a country, we have an interest in making sure the Space X’s, the Orbital Sciences, the Aurora’s, the General Atomics kind of get their day in court and get a chance to play in the big leagues because otherwise you’re never going to solve the problem of how do we get more productivity for less dollars, which is really what the defense acquisition [reform] comes down to in what amounts to a command economy. I think the defense acquisition board just said if they DOD overhead was a country in an of itself it would be like the 48th [largest] economy in the world. The DOD overhead is equal to the gross domestic product of the state of Israel. It’s a mind-boggling thing. And you can kind of understand how that’s run.”



Post-script — Lockheed Martin submitted this response after I asked for details about the ACCA program delays described above
:

“We’re in Phase 3. That means the customer has in partnership with us determined that ACCA is doing what it needs to be doing. There were 5 goals in the original program. We met four of them. There was one goal we didn’t meet — to build and fly an aircraft within 12 months. We flew in 20 months. The aircraft has an X-plane designation — the X-55. That means it is expected that you would have bumps and grinds along the way on an X-plane. The customer is in lock-step with us and understood the delays.”

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11 Responses to Why Aurora Flight Sciences is still bitter about X-55

  1. RobH 17 August, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Candid interview very well done, Mr. Trimble! A great reminder that greasy palms and politics almost always trumps direct eye contact and a handshake.

    Also makes me a fan of Mr. Langford and his efforts.

    Well done!

  2. Dave 17 August, 2010 at 10:37 pm #

    Steve, are you afforded a minion to transcribe interviews for you or are you forced to do these things yourself? Transcribing stuff is painful.

  3. Stephen Trimble 17 August, 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    I’m just a journalist. We don’t get minions. We are somebody’s minion!

  4. Dave 18 August, 2010 at 1:20 am #

    Oh man… that means I’m never going have a minion either if I stay with this profession. Do you think Damien gets minions?

  5. Stephen Trimble 18 August, 2010 at 1:32 am #

    Ha. If you replace the first ‘n’ in minion with two l’s then my answer is yes.

  6. Dave 18 August, 2010 at 1:40 am #

    Most intriguing… The dark side beckons. Do you think he’d adopt me as his apprentice?

  7. DensityDuck 18 August, 2010 at 11:20 pm #

    “Could we have done that in 12 months? I don’t know. That was very hard.”

    IOW “we couldn’t have done it either but dammit it’s still not fair!”

    *****

    The present acquisition mindset doesn’t favor innovation because
    nobody wants to spend thirty billion dollars on some bright boy’s “innovation” that turns out to be totally unworkable. Remember FIA?

  8. Distiller 19 August, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    Somehow I don’t get the point of ACCA/X-55. This should have been done 10 or 15 years ago, and by NASA, not the DoD, done *before* Boeing started the 787.

  9. Piwowar 25 August, 2010 at 6:44 am #

    Blogging can quite possibly be very marketable and also profitable for users whom are in the blogging industry and abroad.

  10. Anonymous 23 September, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    Can someone tell me what UAV Aurora has produced which has had commercial success?

    They have been in business for 2+ decades living off the tax payer. So what has Mr. Taxpayer received as a benefit to the investment?

    Perhaps this is why they get downselected

  11. non-hodgkin lymphoma survival rate 17 November, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    AND this age team is our FUTURE! they’re the people who might be our country‚Äôs scientists, teachers, business professionals,..

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