US GAO still researching protested $15 bln 'copter

WASHINGTON, July 10 (Reuters) - The federal audit agency said on Tuesday it was still gathering information about a contested $15 billion Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter program, but hoped to rule on the case before September.

Government Accountability Office spokesman Michael Golden said it was premature to forecast an exact date, but the Air Force said it expected a decision 60 days after the second round of protests came in -- or around early August.

Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp. UTX.N, and Lockheed Martin Corp. LMT.N last month protested the Air Force's revised terms of the competition, which Boeing Co. BA.N initially won last November.

The GAO upheld earlier protests by the two losing bidders against the Boeing award in February, prompting the Air Force to amend its terms, albeit very narrowly.

In a redacted protest document released on Tuesday, Lockheed said the Air Force’s revised bid “clarified” how it initially evaluated operation and support costs, but did not allow bidders to adjust their proposals to reflect any new insights.

It also criticized the Air Force’s decision to add more than $13 billion in maintenance costs to each of the three bids, as that “overwhelmed the proposed costs in our offer.”


The Pentagon last month asked Congress to shift $123 million in fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2007 funding out of the program, due to anticipated delays because of the protests.

In the reprogramming request, the Defense Department said it expected a nine- to 12-month delay in the projected “initial operating capability” of the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X) program to approximately the fourth quarter of fiscal 2013.

The program’s system development phase for the first batch of helicopters was also expected to slip by one year, it said.

Air Force spokeswoman Laura McGowan declined to discuss the request, but said the bidding companies agreed in their revised bids to stick to the schedule mapped out in September 2006.

Boeing’s HH-47, based on its popular twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook, surprised analysts and even some Air Force insiders when it beat out smaller Lockheed and Sikorsky helicopters.

Boeing officials told reporters on Tuesday the HH-47 still represented the best value, and should win again.

They rejected news reports which said the downwash from the H-47’s twin rotors could make rescue efforts difficult.

Rick Lemaster, Boeing’s HH-47 program manager, said the helicopter beat the Air Force requirements for no more than 65 knots of wind below the helicopter, and achieved far lower levels of just 35 to 40 knots in the forward area.

He said those speeds were measured at up to six feet above the ground, while the aircraft hovered at 80 feet. Critics say hovering that high makes aircraft vulnerable in combat.

“We continue to have strong doubts,” said Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson.

Lemaster also noted the military had recently completed operational testing of the CH-47 “F” and “G” models, while the competitor choppers had not undergone such rigorous testing.

Moreover, the search-and-rescue version of the H-47 had about 80 percent of parts in common with the Army and Special Operations versions, which are already in production.

That meant Boeing had already worked through early design changes and other adjustments, while its competitors are going to be behind on the learning curve, Lemaster said.

Sikorsky’s S-92 helicopter, used by the offshore oil industry and other customers worldwide, just achieved 50,000 fleet flight hours, the company announced on Tuesday.

The Marine Corps is buying Lockheed’s US101 helicopter to carry the U.S. president. It will begin use in fiscal 2009.