Least persuasive KC-X tanker argument to date

Thomas M Ryan Jr was commander in chief of USAF Military Airlift Command in the early 1980s, so he clearly knows more than me about operating tankers, but I think even Boeing may want to distance themselves from this St Louis Post-Dispatch article he wrote supporting the KC-767.

Ryan, who was later VP government programs for St louis-based, and now Boeing-owned, McDonnell Douglas, reckons the Northrop Grumman/EADS KC-30 shouldn’t be selected because it “burns 24% more fuel than the “KC-767AT” and is worse at dodging missiles and AAA because it has envelope-protection. Hmmm…Well even non-experts in tanking like me must be wondering how it is, if the A330 really burns a quarter more fuel than the 767, that airlines keep buying it whereas the commercial 767 is no longer in production. The answer is so glaringly obvious to anyone in aviation that it’s hardly worth mentioning – which does make you wonder why Gen Ryan would write such nonsense in a mass-circulation newspaper.

But Ryan’s not some loony loose cannon that nobody can control. That 24% figure is familiar. It comes from this Boeing document. This is also an oddity because it’s produced by the extremely competent Conklin & de Decker who are one of the world’s leading aircraft comparison consultancies. They really know their stuff, so the fact that they produced a report that uses zillions of figures to show that a bigger aircraft uses more fuel for the same trip than a smaller aircraft can only be because that’s what their customer asked them to do. And why the customer asked for that can only be…well, even for me the speculation is going too far. I’m sure you’re all more than capable.

But I’m highly confident that Boeing will not be using that argument inside the Pentagon. (Although they have used it in public.)

The envelope-protection bit really caught me by surprise – I don’t recall anyone else, Boeing or otherwise, ever making that point. And I’m not surprised. Although Ryan devotes nearly a quarter of his article to the question, it is incredibly unlikely that any tanker will ever encounter a scenario in which anyone could show you’d be better (or worse) off with or without envelope-protection. In fact there are plenty of scenarios in which you’d almost certainly be better off – but they’re all vanishingly improbable.

What is for sure however is that the KC-X will fly tens of millions of hours and make millions of take-offs and landings, encountering all the usual peacetime hazards of windshear, turbulence, wake vortices, inconvenient engine failures, etc and it is at least moderately likely that envelope-protection will save some lives somewhere. This matters – as defence planners everywhere know, an aircraft and crew is just as lost and dead whether an accident occurs in or out of combat. Sadly the KC-135 record shows this only too well.

And if the USAF really wanted to do without envelope protection than I have little doubt EADS/Airbus would happily remove it for them.

Personally I really don’t know which aircraft is better for the USAF or indeed for the USA. I suspect the likely military scenarios are the key to it. So I suppose what the world really needs is more consultants. Yep, that’s it, more consultants. Bless them all.

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3 Responses to Least persuasive KC-X tanker argument to date

  1. Kieran Daly February 18, 2008 at 1:11 pm #

    Ah, well that sounds suspiciously co-ordinated. Looks as if somebody really is trying to deploy this line of argument.

  2. John Price February 18, 2008 at 4:26 pm #

    Envelope protection – The Boeing-inspired genteleman also “forgets” that fly-by-wire combat aircraft also have some form of protection which ensures that the pilot’s demands on the aircraft don’t result in control being lost.
    Not having read The Economist article, I can only remember that Boeing has long used the paper to place its argumentation, specifically against Airbus, and the scribes don’t seem to know how to distinguish what’s smoke/mirrors or fact. But it’s read by quite a few of the “Movers & Shakers” along the banks of the Thames. However, the paper may have acquired some critical sense since its campaign against the UK “joining” Airbus back in the ’70s … I certainly hope so …
    Respectfuilly yours,

  3. GM Cassel AMH1(AW) USN RET March 6, 2008 at 6:00 am #

    I anyone aware that airbuses are corrosion traps? Clad aluminum is not used in the manufacture of any of their airframes. this where composites are not used. Cladding is the last line of defense against corrosion. The a330 knock off is going to cost alot to maintain down the road.

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