Air Force’s next few moves could lead to orders for hundreds of Wichita-built planes

The Air Force is moving forward with a program that could mean orders for hundreds of planes from Textron Aviation in Wichita.

This week the Air Force released a draft request for proposal for bids for light-attack aircraft.

The Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine, manufactured at Textron Aviation’s East Campus, is one of two aircraft that will be considered in a final RFP that the Air Force said it expects to issue in December.

The other is the Sierra Nevada and Embraer A-29 Super Tucano.

Both airplanes have undergone months of evaluation through two phases of the Air Force’s OA-X, or light-attack experiment, the latter phase of which concluded this summer, shortly after an A-29 flying in the experiment crashed on June 22 in New Mexico, killing its pilot.

The Air Force hasn’t said how many planes it could order from the successful bidder, but analysts have said they’ve heard orders could total between 250 and 350 planes. Textron said it was far too early to talk about possible jobs.

The Air Force is seeking a lower-cost option to fighter jets for close air support of troops on the ground as well as for battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance.

Light-attack aircraft offers “an option to increase the Air Force capacity beyond what we now have in our inventory or budget,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a news release this week about the RFP.

The draft RFP allows Textron Aviation and Sierra Nevada to respond quickly once the final RFP is released. Because their airplanes are already in production, they can be quickly adapted to the Air Force’s needs and put into service much sooner.

“We’re where we’re at today because both Congress and our industry partners understood the need to find ways to get capabilities to our warfighters faster,” Wilson said.

Textron Aviation and Sierra Nevada/Embraer’s airplanes are already in production and can be quickly adapted to the Air Force’s needs, which allows the Air Force to put them into service much sooner.

Textron Aviation said it “eagerly awaits” the final RFP.

“Our successful completion of the training, flight, weapons, maintenance and sustainment experiment conducted by the Air Force position us well for this acquisition decision,” Tom Webster, defense and special missions business development director for Textron Aviation Defense, said in a statement to The Eagle.

Company officials said they wouldn’t speculate on how such a contract would affect its local employment, which totals about 9,000 people.

“. . . It is far too early to address the jobs impact of a possible contract,” said Jim Walters, senior vice president of human resources at Textron Aviation, said in a statement to The Eagle on Thursday.

But, Walters added, “discussion regarding the employment significance of that contract highlights why Textron Aviation is actively investing in and supporting critical workforce development initiatives locally and at the state level.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark