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I can’t remember ever starting out a post with the words, “I hope I’m wrong”. But, with the push to bring more manufacturing back to the U.S. (and no voice has been louder than mine), I can’t help but worry that this country has lost much of its ability to produce the products that we so desperately need. Hopefully, my fear will prove to be unfounded. However, the ongoing problems at one of our companies (one that I would formerly have termed as “elite”) do cause me concern. The company is Boeing and I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for it.
Of course, Boeing’s problems with the 737 Super Max are well known. Less well known, have been the problems with the KC-46 Tanker and these problems have an even greater potential for damage to this country and to the Boeing image. Tankers do not project a very “sexy” image compared to other aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory. They are not stealthy like the B-2 bomber nor do they have the speed of the F-22 fighter. However, there is no aircraft more vital to the mission of the Air Force than the lumbering tanker.
There are almost no missions in today’s (air) environment that can succeed without mid-air refueling. Transoceanic missions that carry material and troops and combat missions of all stripes are seldom accomplished without the assistance of tankers. Currently, our tanker force is composed of KC-135s (which debuted in 1957) and KC-10s (in service since 1981). In other words, both aircraft are much older than the men and women who are are flying them.
In 2011, the Air Force awarded the contract for the production of a new tanker, the KC-46, to Boeing. The tanker utilized roughly the same airframe as the 767 so it cannot be said that the project was starting from scratch; it might fairly be termed as an “off-the-shelf” acquisition. However, it’s safe to say that the project has devolved into a flying fiasco.
Military acquisition has always been a somewhat complicated kabuki. It usually begins with a set of specifications (written by military and civilian “subject matter experts” who may or may not have the needed expertise) that are then put out to bid to companies who will come back with their proposals and cost estimates.
Sometimes this system produces spectacular results (the SR-71 and B-2 come to mind) and sometimes the results are, shall we say, disappointing (the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the RAH-66 Comanche Stealth-Chopper). When projects fail (usually to the tune of millions, if not billions, of dollars), the final act of the kabuki begins; massive finger-pointing between the Pentagon and the defense contractor. Usually, the Pentagon will contend that the product does not work and has massive cost overruns. The contractor will counter by contending that the military demanded changes to the product that made the original concept unworkable. In many cases, both sides will be correct.
In the case of the KC-46, it has been difficult to assess blame. Needless to say, there has been an abundance of finger-pointing. To date, there have been a number of “Category 1” (the most serious) deficiencies. In one of them, it was discovered that the fueling boom (connecting from the tanker to the aircraft being fueled) had both connection and disconnection issues with certain aircraft (In a widely circulated video, the fueling boom actually hit the side of a fighter; only the fighter pilot’s quick evasion prevented a disaster.). In another, it was discovered that the cargo locks on the cabin floor of the aircraft would inexplicably come loose during flight.
The two problems that have concerned me the most, however, have been the inclusion and failure of a Remote Vision System for the boom operator and the discovery of FOD (Foreign Objects & Debris) within the inaccessible panels of the plane’s fuselage.
On the KC-135 and KC-10, the boom operator (known as the “boomer” and, in less elegant circles, the “gas passer”) is situated in the back of the aircraft where he (or she) is eyeball to eyeball with the pilot of the aircraft being fueled and immediately knows when a problem might occur. For some reason, and I do not know the reason, the boomer on the KC-46 is situated on the flight deck with the aircraft commander and pilot. From there, the boomer controls the fueling boom through a video screen (with remote cameras being mounted at the rear of the aircraft). This system has been a nightmare; Boeing has been unable to resolve the problems in which the cameras fog over (not to mention problems with night refueling) and appears to be blaming the problems on a third-party vendor.
It has been estimated that this aircraft will not be fully operational until at least 2024. This means that since the contract was awarded to Boeing in 2011, it will have taken at least 13 years for the aircraft to be deployable. Although some of the aircraft have been designated as suitable for non-combat roles (most of which involve refueling over the continental U.S.), the Air Force will be stuck with using the ancient KC-135s for at least the next four years. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that our aircrews deserve better than this.
Although I was not a pilot, I pay attention to what they have to say when it comes to vital issues such as mid-air refueling. Though I have read several comments concerning the KL-46 project, one of the best comes from a retired O-6 fighter jock,
“Ask yourself this: Would you like to be refueled by a system that requires multiple cameras and have any one of them go inoperable while on the boom? What about when the tanker goes through the clouds and the receiver is on the boom? And don’t tell me that it hasn’t happened because it’s against regulations, because there isn’t a fighter pilot out there that has not had that happen to him or her when a tanker went through the clouds and they stayed on the boom to get the gas they desperately needed to complete the mission. The same goes for the other platforms that are receivers. It happens all the time. Nothing beats the boomer with Mark One Eyeball when you need fuel, especially at night…The Air Force was told numerous times that this would not work, yet they proceeded to have it placed on the platform. Memories are short in the Pentagon. Do we need a refueling boom through the cockpit of an aircraft to bring the point home?”
As is usually the case, with bureaucracies such as the Military, those (in uniform) who were in on this catastrophic screw-up have long since retired and have moved on to lucrative civilian careers leaving it up to others to clean up the mess. The latest piece of idiocy that I have heard on the subject was a proposal by the Air Force Chief of Staff to outsource some of the refueling mission (strictly non-combat) to private contractors. Make of that what you will.
To me, the second problem (FOD in the interior panels of the aircraft) is just as problematic, even though it was more easily resolved. It has to be asked; just how does debris, trash, nuts and bolts, and other objects get left inside an aircraft? When I first learned of this, I immediately thought about the huge GM assembly plant outside of Youngstown, Ohio. In the early 1970s, it was discovered that disgruntled auto workers were putting objects such as soda bottles and tools inside door panels which were then welded shut. Naturally, this would cause rattles which would force auto owners to return their cars to dealerships (probably multiple times) to diagnose the problem. (I suspect this is when many car owners decided to make the switch to Japanese models.)
However, in this instance, we’re not talking about a Chevrolet Vega; we’re talking about a multimillion-dollar aircraft. The average Boeing assembly line worker makes $26.00 per hour and they’re putting FOD inside the walls of the aircraft they’re building? (This was not only on the military side of Boeing’s house; a 787 was actually delivered to another country with a ladder and a string of lights welded inside the aircraft.).
What has happened to this crown jewel of American manufacturing? I suppose there are a number of theories. I believe that it was on this website, that I read a post concerning the many problems of the 737 Super Max. Clearly there was, and is, a corporate culture that enables screw-ups like these to occur on a regular basis. It appears to have been occurring on specific projects (so far, the CST-100 Starliner appears to be OK), so I don’t think that it’s fair to write off the entire corporation. Still, these massive failures are troubling. Is this the same company that produced such successes as the B-29 and the B-52?
Of course, there was another familiar kabuki that played out at Boeing. Their CEO (Dennis Muilenburg) was fired but to ease his pain and suffering he walked out the door with sixty million dollars in his pocket. Evidently, failure does come with a price. But, how does that clean up a company that appears to be satisfied with mediocrity from the boardroom all the way down to the assembly line?
To be sure, there have been a number of glaring examples of modern corporate ineptitude and corruption: Enron, Worldcom, Sears; the list is long and the reasons are numerous. Of course, the issues with corporate leadership are worrisome but what worries me the most are the twin issues of midlevel (managers and directors) incompetence and worker ineptitude. Simply put, do we now have a workforce that is swiftly becoming a laughingstock?
It’s no secret that we have outsourced everything except the kitchen sink. We’ve heard the familiar reframe that, because of the realities of the “new global economy”, we have no recourse except to ship our manufacturing capabilities to other countries. At least that’s what our oh-so-bright MBAs tell us and everyone knows they’re the “best and brightest”, right?
But, on a deeper, more visceral level, what has that done to us? For one thing, it has been a factor in the steady shrinkage of America’s middle class. It used to be that American factory workers (auto workers, steelworkers, etc.) were the envy of the world. Yes, an argument can be made that, thanks to the greed of labor unions, many industries “priced themselves out of the market”. However, that paints an incomplete picture. At one time, “American Made” still meant something and “Made in Japan” and “Made in China” were synonymous with cheap, shoddy quality.
So what happened? Certainly, the quality of American products slipped in the 1970s (and perhaps earlier). Some time back I ran across an interview with J.D. Power (yes, that J.D. Power) in which he mentioned that the only people he could sell his service to initially were the Japanese automakers and that the Japanese couldn’t get enough of his customer research. When Power attempted to sell his service to American automakers, he was met with a haughty, “We already know what the American auto buyer wants”. Needless to say, the American automakers didn’t have a clue.
But American business leadership wasn’t the only problem. At the same time, the quality of the American labor force began slipping in a number of areas; among them a strong work ethic, honesty, and ambition. I believe that the area in which the American worker has deteriorated the most is education. Simply put, the last two generations of Americans that have come out of our high schools and colleges (as a group) cannot compete on the world stage.
In the last few weeks, there have been excellent posts on this website by @ontheleftcoast and @henryracette dealing with the state of American education. I would add to their posts that, except for a few islands of excellence, American high schools and many universities are fetid, festering dumpster fires that have become a complete waste of taxpayer dollars and have produced “graduates” who are unable or unfit to perform the job duties that future employers might task them with.
It goes without saying that I do not blame American students for their scholastic ineptitude. I suspect that many of our “underachievers” would thrive if they were put into the right learning environment. However, the American “educational mafia” seems determined to destroy an educational system that was once respected throughout the world. Although I could probably come up with thousands of names for my “Educators Hall of Shame”, I choose to highlight only two individuals. If they are not the worst, they are certainly in the top ten.
The first is Richard Carranza, the New York City Schools Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Carranza, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, has made it his life’s work to “flatten the curve” in New York City schools by attempting to institute a “one size fits all” methodology in city schools. Do you have a gifted child; one who could benefit from advanced learning classes? That’s too bad, according to Carranza. Your child can sit in class and be bored with the rest of the knuckleheads. After all, isn’t that what diversity is all about?
The second, and possibly the worst figure in American education, is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten, a buddy of Hillary “It Takes a Village” Clinton, has consistently pursued policies that have ensured that American kids will always be behind their counterparts throughout the world. Classroom competency? Not a problem; Ms. Weingarten’s main concern is that teachers, “infuse social justice ideals in their classrooms every day”.
With an educational system such as this, how will this country ever produce the labor force we need to fill not only the upper-level jobs but the manufacturing jobs that are now being performed overseas? Plainly, today’s system is not working and is probably incapable of reforming itself.
Over 60 years ago, with the USSR’s launch of Sputnik, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to bolster high-quality teaching and learning in science, mathematics, and foreign languages. However, in today’s political environment, it is doubtful that something like this could be accomplished. The stakes are too high to do nothing; however, that is exactly what I fear is going to happen.Published in