Friday, March 28, 2008

KC-45 Win: Not a 'Foreign' First

I've run into a lot of buzz on the internet where people were bemoaning a 'foreign' aircraft winning the KC-X competition. I even read someone's comment wondering what the past leaders of the AF, the 'Founding Fathers of Airpower' as it were, would think about the US NOT selecting the American competitor when given the chance. One does not have to wonder: they did it first.

The KC-45 win is at least the second time this has happened with a United States military aircraft program. The first was the Canberra, fielded by the US as the B-57. There is a lot of B-57 history that is glossed over or ignored in this country, possibly due to the ‘Cold War era’ when it was fielded, and the circumstances of how Martin ended up building the B-57 as the last ‘loser’ standing in a A-26 ‘night intruder’ replacement competition.

The USAF was so impressed with the English Electric Canberra when they took their first good look at it in August 1950, they invited EE to compete for the A-26 replacement contract in early ‘51, which included a fly-off of sorts (not as extensive but certainly more dramatic than those we have today). The RAF loaned EE an airplane for the competition, which in coming to the US broke a trans-Atlantic speed record AND was the first jet aircraft to fly across the Atlantic unrefueled. In the flyoff, The B-57 beat the B-45 Tornado, AJ-1 Savage, Martin XB-51, and the Canadian Avro CF-100.

After the flyoff, the B-57 (then of course not yet called a B-57) was the hands down favorite: having performed all the required flight demonstration over Andrews AFB more quickly than the evaluators thought possible and then performing a few more displays of performance - all within the alloted time limit.

But the AF would not commit solely to the Canberra until the British MoD would certify that EE could make delivery to both countries on schedule. EE had an agreement in place to build 300 Canberras for the USAF pending MoD approval, and the AF ‘down selected’ to just the XB-51 and Canberra until the guarantee came through. When the UK MoD would or could NOT guarantee that USAF Canberras would be delivered to meet USAF schedule needs, the USAF still preferred the Canberra so strongly that it had a backup plan in place and arranged for a licensing agreement whereby an American company would build Canberras in the US.

Since Martin had been the 'runner-up' they got first shot at the plane. After Martin got their hands on two pattern aircraft (crashing one due to pilot error) and copies of all the engineering, they proposed SO many changes to it that it was almost unrecognizable. The AF had to practically force Martin to build it ‘to print’.

The changes that did come in the end we are mostly familiar with (tandem cockpit, 2-man crew), but most interesting is the rotary bomb bay concept/design: taken directly from the losing XB-51.

There you have it, a foreign competitor beating aircraft from two other countries including the domestic favorites: a plane that was so superior we HAD to have it even though then-little English Electric couldn’t build enough to spare us any. (However, EE did get a 5% royalty on every plane Martin built.)

Canberra: The Operational Record by Robert Jackson, 1989, pp 113-114
English Electric Canberra by Barry Jones, 2006, pp 99-101
Found a resource today with a lot of the same info at the Glen L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum

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