Ramon Lopez / Washington DC

Air force transports could be operated as civilian freighters during peacetime if US proposal comes to fruition

The US Air Force is pushing ahead with plans for a novel public/private acquisition strategy for the proposed Boeing BC-17X which would be operated by civil cargo carriers during peacetime.

A draft invitation to propose (ITP), which was to be issued on 27 July, outlines how the scheme would work. A final ITP is expected to follow in September, and the USAF hopes to have a contract by next February.

Boeing and the USAF believe there is a market for at least 10 civil variants of the C-17 over the next decade. They hope that support from the commercial cargo marketplace will sustain current production rates beyond 2006, when the last of the USAF's 137 C-17s are delivered.

Last December, the USAF issued a request for information to gauge interest from the freighter industry. In February, more than 35 interested parties attended an industry day at Boeing's Long Beach facility to discuss the aircraft's potential commercial uses.

Talks continue with between 10 and 12 entities, including cargo carriers, financial institutions and freight forwarders, which are forming partnerships to acquire the 10 BC-17Xs, says Col Gregory Lockhart, the USAF's deputy for airlift acquisitions. He says World Airways is assembling a strategic alliance to make a bid. "They are ready to go on this particular effort," says Lockhart.

It is expected that all 10 BC-17Xs would go to one US cargo carrier. Foreign cargo operators are barred from the competition since the deal requires "a lifetime commitment of the aircraft to the USAF's Civil Reserve Air Fleet [CRAF] programme and immediate availability", says Lockhart. The USAF hopes the aircraft can also be claimed for short-notice, short-term missions.

Each civil C-17 will cost $152 million and the USAF is willing to contribute about $300 million towards the purchase of 10 BC-17Xs. It will also pay an annual fee for CRAF-related costs. Boeing hopes that a combination ofBC-17Xs and a follow-on multi-year purchase of up to 50 more C-17s will sustain production until at least 2008. The programme requires approval from the Department of Defense and the US Congress.

Lockhart says the BC-17X, which will be about 92% common with the military C-17, will be able to deliver outsized cargo to unimproved 1,800m (6,000ft) airfields. He favours the concept "since the USAF will gain access to C-17s it does not need every day of the year for peacetime airlift.

"On a day-to-day basis, the BC-17 will earn money doing other things. The USAF will get them, as required, without bearing the cost of ownership."

Source: Flight International