Remembering that bitter day in 2011 when the Air Force reversed field and gave Boeing the massive tanker contract Mobilians were embracing as our own only made it that much sweeter Monday when the first Alabama-born 321A rolled across the tarmac at Brookley and was delivered to JetBlue.
The discount carrier had already named their newest asset “BluesMobile,” a play on a cinematic icon as well as an homage to the men and women who welded, bolted and outfitted the first U.S.-made Airbus. While I’m sure it wasn’t meant that way, the name could also serve as a sly jab at Boeing, which is headquartered in the Windy City where Jake and Elwood drove their Bluesmobile on a “mission from God.” Ever since that fateful day just over five years ago, it’s Mobile that’s looked like it was receiving holy guidance while the boys from Boeing have stumbled around like the buffoonish cops trying to keep The Blues Brothers from achieving their destiny.
Or maybe it was just a catchy name. Either way it’s hard not to want to rub it in a little as the new BluesMobile takes to the skies. (Co-pilot, please throw the cigarette lighter out of the window before takeoff. If you don’t get that, rent the movie.)
In 2011 we seemed set for a whole other destiny. Mobile was going to build refueling tankers for the Air Force. A contract worth tens of billions had already been won once and we felt sure the plan offered by EADS — Airbus’ parent company — could make Boeing’s endless appeals and squawking nothing more than white noise. After all, the only reason this crown jewel contract was even available is because of a scandal between Boeing and a government official that landed two people in jail and scrapped a deal that would have seen Boeing lease tankers to the Air Force.
But the closer Mobile-built tanker planes came to becoming reality, the harder and nastier Boeing and its puppets in DC fought to maintain dominance. Our workers were disparaged by the Seattle, Washington media as not being ready or able to handle such an advanced task. The “Senator From Boeing,” Patty Murray, famously got the entire state in an uproar when she announced, “I would challenge anybody to tell me that they’ve stood on a line in Alabama and seen anybody building anything.”
That put us all in a fighting mood. I wanted to write a column challenging anyone to tell me they’d actually seen Patty Murray comb her hair, but it seemed rude and childish, so I didn’t do it. I’m still glad I took the high road.
And then the air got sucked out of the room when the final decision came that the Air Force doubled back and chose Boeing. I remember being at the Mobile Convention Center in a huge room filled with hundreds of people ready to party like it was 1999 when the news we knew was coming came — that Mobile had won. In the end the whole thing was like having Steve Harvey crown you Miss Universe, then finding out it was really that skank from Seattle.
Everybody was pretty low. It felt like our “City of Perpetual Promise” had once again missed the boat (or the plane) that would take us to a better future. Of course, we all know “the rest of the story,” as iconic radio host Paul Harvey would have said. Airbus was that breakup who comes back ready for a real commitment, with dogs, kids, a house and lawn equipment. Miraculously, a year after losing the tanker deal, Airbus said in a thick French accent they still wanted to make sweet, sweet airplane love, and this time it wouldn’t be tied to a bizarre governmental process.
Yes, the investment would be smaller than it would have been with the guaranteed money from the tanker contract, but the company still had big ideas. And so far things have gone exactly as planned. At least here they have. Cast a jaundiced eye northwest and things aren’t exactly so great.
The latest news is Boeing’s KC-46 tanker may be even more delayed than it already is because during a recent test of the tanker’s refueling boom, higher than expected axial loads prevented the transfer of fuel to a C-17 transport plane. Rookie move Boeing! Everyone knows you check the axial loads first! At least that’s the way we do it down South. Heck, I wouldn’t drive across town without being sure of my axial loads.
The new deadline for delivery is already seven months late, and the initial test flight was six months late. The contract requires the company to eat cost overruns, so they are already reported to have gobbled up more than $800 million in after-tax charges on the plane. Bummer. Some experts even believe Boeing lost a B-21 contract to Northrop Gumman last year because of their failure to deliver the tanker on time.
While it’s hard not to think the Air Force could have done better keeping the tanker contract here, things seemed to have worked out well for Mobile anyway. It’s hard to know should the tanker deal have come through if the political landscape here would have changed the way it has for the better over the past couple of years.
As things turned out, the city appears to be on a new track and we dumb Alabama hicks have proven we can indeed produce something as wondrous as a jet airliner without jacking up the axial loads, the ball bearings or even the flux capacitor.
I just happened to see the BluesMobile make take its maiden flight a few weeks ago, catching it gliding across the causeway as it circled the city. There was certainly a level of excitement I felt knowing it was the first of many to come. A lot of local, state and federal leaders worked very hard over many years, through some rather big highs and lows to make that flight a reality and they all deserve to feel pride in the accomplishment.
I don’t know if they were on a mission from God to get Mobile into the aerospace business in a big way, but these days it sure looks that way.
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