A perceived mix-up in the mail apparently forced Hawker Beechcraft to miss a chance to protest a US Air Force decision to throw out the AT-6 Texan II from a competition for the light air support (LAS) contract, according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO on 23 December dismissed Beechcraft's protest because the company missed a deadline by one day to file a response to the USAF's decision.

Beechcraft claims its executives were unaware of the agency's decision for more than 10 days because the USAF unexpectedly mailed the exclusion notice to an inappropriate address. It then took 11 days for the notice to be routed to the right office within the company.

"We're not disputing that that happened," Bill Boisture, Beechcraft chairman and chief executive officer, said in an interview.

Beechcraft still plans to appeal the GAO ruling in the Court of Federal Claims in hopes of keeping the AT-6 competitive for a contract with a potential long-term value of $1 billion. The appeal will be based on what Beechcraft considers the "core" issues in the dispute: whether the AT-6 is technically compliant and whether the USAF acquisition process was legitimate, Boisture said.

"We believe we have been excluded on some minor technicality," he said.

If the Beechcraft appeal fails, the only remaining bidder for the LAS contract is the Embraer/Sierra Nevada team offering the Super Tucano.

The contract award buys up to 20 light attack fighters on behalf of the Afghanistan air force. Follow-on purchases under the contract could acquired dozens of more aircraft for other countries, as well as 15 training aircraft to equip a USAF cadre of instructors under the light attack armed reconnaissance programme.

The USAF determined at some time after 23 September that the Hawker Beechcraft/Lockheed Martin team offering the AT-6 never corrected "multiple deficiencies and significant weaknesses" during the year-long competitive phase, the GAO said.

Boisture disputes that the AT-6 still had major deficiencies, citing a congressionally funded programme that the demonstrated the aircraft could release US and NATO-based precision weapons.

On 1 November, however, the USAF sent a notice by certified mail to Beechcraft's designated point of contact that the AT-6 bid was deemed "technically unacceptable" and out of the competitition.

Three days later, the Beechcraft's designated contact signed a certified mail receipt confirming that the USAF noticed was received, according to the GAO, which reviewed a copy of the receipt.

Boisture said the certified letter was signed by a member of the company's mail room. All other correspondence with the USAF during the LAS competition came during email, he added.

However, on 15 November, Beechcraft contacted the USAF's contracting officer to ask for a debriefing and notifiy the USAF that it had just received the notice dated 1 November, the GAO said.

From the date that an acqusition notice is received, companies have three days to request a debriefing and 10 days to file a protest.

Asked if Beechcraft is reviewing internal processes and taking disciplinary actions, Boisture replied: "What do you think?"

"We made a mistake but that has nothing to do with the airplane," he added. "That's not the issue. The airplane is the issue. The decision is the issue."

Source: Flight International