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By William Patalon III
The Boeing Co. (BA) announced that it's delivered its 500th modified F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighter-bomber to the U.S. Navy from the company's Aerospace Support Center at Cecil Commerce Center, located near Jacksonville, Fla.
Boeing also detailed its plans for the upcoming Dubai Air Show, which opens Sunday and runs through to Thursday. It has emerged as one of the world's key commercial air shows. And Dubai has emerged as a market investors must keep watching as the Middle Eastern nation continues to expand its sphere of economic and financial influence.
The "Super" New Hornet
The Cecil airfield – a former U.S. Naval air station – functions as a "drive-in/fly-out" facility that allows the modified fighter jets to be made available for deployment as soon the upgrade and modification work is finished.
To modernize and overhaul the jet fighters, Boeing and prime contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) have been installing upgraded avionics and making key technological and structural enhancements to F/A-18s since the center opened in September 1999.
With more than 900 F/A-18s in U.S. Navy and Marine Corps squadrons, there's still plenty of modification work to be done. The modifications bring the older planes up to par with the more-recently built "marks," or versions, of the Super Hornet. Inspectors look for cracks, corrosion and fatigue to determine if the life of the aircraft can be safely extended. The oldest and most heavily used Hornets are in the midst of an extensive inspection process aimed at boosting each aircraft's lifespan from 6,000 to 10,000 flight hours.
Newer Hornets at Cecil Field receive upgraded display systems, miniaturized global-positioning system (GPS) receivers, helmet-mounted cueing systems and more advanced radios. The modifications give the Hornet improved communication and information systems and allow the F/A-18 strike fighter to carry the latest weapons, including the newest missiles and "smart bombs."
In January, Boeing's Cecil Field facility will begin modifying F/A-18 C- and D-model aircraft for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration team, which has flown the A- and B-model Hornets since 1986.
"Cecil Field is vital to the health and performance of the U.S. Hornet fleet," said Mike Rudolf, Cecil Field F/A-18 programs manager. "We've proven for almost eight years that we can successfully perform modifications and repairs and return aircraft to the customer very quickly. That's important for the [fighter pilot] in the field who depends on us to deliver improved capability. The bottom line is: We get the jets out on time."
The cost of new defense programs are soaring into the stratosphere. Aircraft programs are among the most expensive of all. As these costs rocket, retrofitting and modernizing existing aircraft has become a key strategy embraced by all branches of the U.S. military so that each service can stretch its budget allotments by keeping weapons systems in service for many additional years – if not for additional decades.
Indeed, consider the case of the U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, a high-winged strategic jet bomber that was brought into service in the middle 1950s. The B-52, also known as "The BUFF" – for Big Ugly Fat Fellow – has been retrofitted and modernized a number of times, which is the main reason it's still a frontline aircraft – even though it's much older than most of the men who fly them.
The company's Cecil air station facility has reduced its work force in recent years as Navy programs on other aircraft have wound down, but Boeing is pursuing other work for the center. One possible source of work: The V-22 Osprey, the so-called "tilt-rotor" aircraft that the U.S. Marine Corps flies.
"We're going to continue to grow Cecil Field," Don Davis, Boeing's senior manager for naval integrated logistics support systems, said in a statement.
Demonstrations at Dubai
At the Dubai Air Show, Boeing intends to highlight a range of the products and services that have been contributing to the parent company's record sales. The show will spotlight a wide range of offerings across Boeing's commercial and defense divisions. The show opens Sunday and runs through to Thursday.
"Boeing is proud of a partnership with the Middle East that stretches back more than a half century, and we are committed to meeting the needs of our customers throughout this fast-growing region and to further developing and expanding our long-term partnerships," said Tom Downey, a Boeing senior vice president.
Boeing has long considered the Dubai Air Show to be one of the world's premier aerospace exhibitions, which is why the firm said the exhibition will be well-staffed with people, products and services.
On the defense side, the company said it will showcase the capabilities of such fighter planes as the F-15E Strike Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet. Static displays will include the regional debut of Boeing's 737 Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, in addition to the E-3 AWACS, the B-1B Lancer jet bomber, the C-17 Globemaster III military transport aircraft and a UAE Land Forces AH-64A Apache attack helicopter. On the commercial side, Boeing customer Royal Jet will display a Boeing business jet.
Boeing's schedule begins on Saturday, with a press conference featuring its airliner division. On that same day, Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems unit, with its Saudi Arabian partner Alsalam Aircraft Company, will co-sponsor the Middle East Air Chiefs conference.
On Tuesday, Boeing Capital Corp. will host a financiers and investors conference, recognizing Dubai's role as an emerging center for global finance.
Issues With Emirates Airlines
Boeing executives may well use this time to try and overcome an emerging problem with the Dubai-based Emirates Airlines, a sought-after customer. Emirates says the U.S. airliner maker may fail to land a 100-plane contract worth $20 billion because of the airline's belief that the biggest version of the much-hyped Boeing 787 Dreamliner lacks sufficient "thrust," or power, from its General Electric Co. (GE) engines.