Boeing has proposed an F-18C/D life extension programme for the US Navy and Australian and Canadian forces, which would replace the aircraft's entire centre and aft fuselage to extend its operational life well into the next century.

The new fuselage work would also keep part of the production line busy until possible future export orders are received. Several potential orders have been hit by the Asian economic crisis, including a sale of 12 to the Philippines and a follow-on order for 10 aircraft from Malaysia.

"The world economy is suffering and funding is elusive right now," says Kevin O'Mara, F-18 business development manager at Northrop Grumman's El Segundo plant in California, where the centre and aft fuselage is built.

Even if the life extension programme receives sanction, the remaining elements of the assembly lines at El Segundo, and at the final assembly site at Boeing's St Louis facility in Missouri will be forced to close down if no new orders are forthcoming soon. The new F-18E/F is produced on a separate line.

A final decision on the future of the F-18C/D production line is expected to be taken by the end of next January, as manufacturing begins on the last few aircraft on firm order. The slowdown has already begun in some areas, as orders for long-lead items have been deferred.

The issue is most time critical for Northrop Grumman, which begins assembly of the centre and aft fuselage before any other major sections of the aircraft come together at Boeing.

Unless new orders arrive within the next few weeks, the company plans to roll its final fuselage out in July 1999 - the last of 64 ordered for Finland.

Northrop Grumman says that the rest of the line can be mothballed, while the section which makes the centre fuselage barrel remains active.

Source: Flight International