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Air Force issues potential $7.4 billion contract for F-22 upgrade

Raptor

The Pentagon announced that it awarded a contract worth as much as $7.4 billion to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. to upgrade the Air Force's fleet of problem-plagued F-22 Raptor fighter jets.

The announcement said that the Bethesda, Md., company would “add new capabilities and enhance the performance" of the aircraft.

Lockheed referred all questions about the contract to the Air Force, which said it could not provide details about the upgrade announced Friday.

The F-22, which cost an estimated $412 million each, is the military’s most expensive fighter jet and known to be its most advanced. Yet the stealthy, supersonic plane has never been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other combat zone since it entered service for the military in 2005.

The F-22 has experienced seven major crashes with two fatalities.

Last May, the entire fleet of F-22s was taken out of service after a dozen incidents occurred since April 2008 in which pilots' oxygen was cut off.

After a government safety investigation grounded the jets for more than four months, the Air Force returned all 170 of the F-22s to flight operations in September. The Air Force did not disclose whether engineers had identified the problems with the oxygen system or whether it had been fixed.

About a month after reentering service , several F-22s were temporarily grounded in October after an incident at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: Two of the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptors, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., fly above Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. Credit: Associated Press / U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Courtney Witt

SpaceX looking for 'a commercial Cape Canaveral' launch site

Spacex

Hawthorne-based commercial space venture Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said it is in the hunt for a new launch site to meet increasing demand from commercial customers.

“Our growing launch manifest has led us to look for additional sites. We're considering several states and territories,” Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a statement. “I envision this site functioning like a commercial Cape Canaveral.”

The private company, known better known as SpaceX, named the four states that have active launch sites -- Virginia, California, Alaska and Florida -- for its pursuit.

SpaceX already has a launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it has two successful test launches of its 18-story Falcon 9 rocket.

The company is developing a new launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, located northwest of Santa Barbara, where it hopes to launch satellites for military and commercial customers.

Ultimately, SpaceX hopes to take over the responsibility of running cargo missions and carrying astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA now that the space shuttle fleet has been retired.

SpaceX had planned to launch its space capsule, named Dragon, and dock it to the International Space Station in a test flight aboard its Falcon 9 rocket this year, but delays will push that launch into next year.

The company makes its capsules and rockets at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet. It also operates a rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

 

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NASA launches satellite from Vandenberg at night [Video]

-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is prepared in its hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Al Diaz / Miami Herald

Southland aerospace innovations snag magazine awards

TimeSouthern California's aerospace technology has recently received national recognition.

This week's Time magazine cover features Monrovia-based drone maker AeroVironment Inc.’s Nano Hummingbird as one of the best inventions of 2011. See it at right or here.

The Times wrote in February about the little flying machine that’s built to look like a bird for potential use in spy missions.

Equipped with a camera, the drone can fly at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour, AeroVironment said. It can hover and fly sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise, by remote control for about eight minutes.

The pocket-size drone also recently received Popular Science magazine’s Best of What's New award and was designated "grand award winner" in the security category.

Another grand award winner -- this time in the aviation & space category -- was Hawthorne- based Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Dragon space capsule.

Last December the company, better known as SpaceX, became the first private company to blast a spacecraft into Earth's orbit and have it return intact. The company wants to take over the responsibility of running cargo missions and possibly carrying astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA now that the space shuttle is retired.

SpaceX has been planning to launch the capsule and dock it to the International Space Station in a test flight aboard its Falcon 9 rocket this year, but delays will push that launch into next year.

The editors of Popular Science also chose Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop Grumman Corp.’s bat-winged experimental drone, the X-47B, to receive a 2011 Best of What's New award in the aviation & space category.

The drone, which resembles a miniature B-2 stealth bomber, is being developed by engineers in El Segundo to take off from an aircraft carrier, fly to an enemy target and then land back on a carrier, all without a pilot. It’s currently in test flight at Edwards Air Force Base.

If you're interested in seeing the award announcements in print, both the Popular Science and Time issues are on newsstands now.

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NASA launches satellite from Vandenberg at night [Video]

--W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Image: Cover of Time magazine's Nov. 28 issue. Credit: Time Inc.

Robinson Helicopter hits milestone, makes 10,000th chopper

Krobinson_makes_champange_toast

Robinson Helicopter Co., the nation's leading maker of commercial helicopters, hit a major milestone when its 10,000th chopper came off the production line.

To mark the occasion, the company held a celebration at its factory, which now hugs almost half a mile of runway at the east end of Torrance Municipal Airport. The event took place last week with employees, city officials and representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Also in attendance was Frank Robinson, the company’s 81-year-old founder, who spoke briefly about starting the company in 1973. He retired in August 2010 and turned over the chief executive role to his son, Kurt.

Kurt Robinson predicts the company’s total aircraft production for 2011 will more than double last year’s production of 162 choppers.

At Robinson Helicopter's complex in Torrance, hundreds of workers churn out 10 helicopters a week -- from start to finish. The company manufactures more civilian helicopters than any other helicopter manufacturer in the world, making the two-seat R-22, four-seat R-44, and the new five-seat R-66.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: Kurt Robinson, Robinson Helicopter Co.'s chief executive, makes a toast at the firm's Torrance complex. Credit: Robinson Helicopter

Century City's Air Lease posts third-quarter profit

Hazy

Air Lease Corp., the aircraft leasing company started last year by Los Angeles billionaire Steven Udvar-Hazy, reported a profit for the third quarter, citing strong demand for its aircraft amid airline expansion in many regions of the world.

The Century City company reported late Thursday that net income for the three-month period ended Sept. 30 came to $18.3 million, or 18 cents a share. Analysts had expected a profit of 15 cents a share. Revenue totaled $92.1 million.

Air Lease bought 14 planes during the quarter and now has a fleet of 79 aircraft. The company plans to expand to about 100 planes by the end of the year.

“Passenger airline growth in many regions of the world continues at a strong rate, coupled with the requirement on the part of all carriers to constantly push toward newer and more efficient fleets,” Udvar-Hazy, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement. “As such, global demand for new aircraft remains strong, and our lease placements and portfolio returns are in line with our expectations.”

Air Lease is growing its business by focusing on emerging markets such as Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, where fast economic growth is driving an increase in air traffic.

During the quarter, Air Lease signed deals with airlines that included South Korea’s Asiana Airlines Inc., Colombia’s Aerovías del Continente Americano and Brazil’s Gol Transportes Aéreos.

Udvar-Hazy, a Hungarian emigre, made a name for himself pioneering the business of buying planes and leasing them to airlines when he co-founded International Lease Finance Corp. nearly four decades ago.

After a rift with ILFC, Udvar-Hazy left to start Air Lease last year. He took the company public in April.

Air Lease shares rose 49 cents, or 2%, to $23.16 on Friday.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: Air Lease Corp. CEO Steven Udvar-Hazy. Credit: Lai Seng Sin / Associated Press

Boeing defense chief preparing for 'worst-case budget scenario'

C17

The chief executive of Boeing Co.’s defense, space and security sector spoke to investors at a defense forum in New York about how the company was positioning itself in the coming years with constrained federal budgets.

At the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Defense Outlook Forum on Thursday, Dennis Muilenburg described bracing for what he expects to be a “tough defense environment.”

"We do a lot of scenario planning about how it might impact individual programs, which would get into individual facilities and infrastructure," he said. "But we are preparing ourselves and had been preparing ourselves for that worst-case budget scenario."

Boeing has extensive defense, space and security facilities across the Southland including in El Segundo, Anaheim, Long Beach and Huntington Beach. In all, the company employs 21,347 people in the state.

“We are anticipating already seeing at least $500-billion reduction in the U.S. defense budget over the next 10 years that could be as high as $1 trillion dollars,” he said.

The Chicago company, which also makes commercial jets, has already begun to slash defense jobs in preparation of a shrinking Pentagon budget.

Earlier this year it relocated two key defense programs and 800 jobs from Long Beach. The company also cut 900 jobs at its nearby sprawling complex where it makes C-17 cargo planes, citing declining orders.

“Certainly, it’s a challenging defense environment and we’ve been very realistic about it, we’ve anticipated it, we’ve expected it,” Muilenburg said. “Clearly we’re in a down dense cycle budget-wise in the U.S., while we see some opportunities on the international front.”

Boeing has had success selling its products overseas, which has benefited the Southland.

Muilenburg also said the satellite business, based in El Segundo, is a potential growth area.

“We see strength in the satellite business, especially when we look across the commercial sector and the demand for communications bandwidth,” he said.

Boeing shares rose 28 cents, or 0.4%, to $64.83 on Thursday.

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Newly delivered Boeing 787 Dreamliner's landing gear malfunctions

-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: Royal Australian Air Force Squadron 36 air crew waits for the delivery of their new Boeing C-17 Globemaster lll aircraft in September at the company's Long Beach plant. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Newly delivered Boeing 787 Dreamliner's landing gear malfunctions

787

The world’s first Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner is being checked out for an issue with its landing gear less than two weeks after the new aircraft embarked on its maiden passenger flight for carrier All Nippon Airways.

The airline’s pilots had to manually deploy the Dreamliner’s landing gear after the automated system did not engage, the company said. The incident occurred on a Sunday morning flight when the plane was approaching Okayama Airport in western Japan from Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

Nao Gunji, an All Nippon spokeswoman, said the problem has been linked to a hydraulic valve. The airline is working with Chicago-based Boeing to address the issue.

The Dreamliner is an all-new commercial jetliner that Boeing says is the most advanced, fuel-stingy passenger jet ever made. It features a suite of new technologies, such as the largest windows on a commercial jetliner and an extensive use of strong, lightweight carbon composites rather than sheets of aluminum.

When the aircraft was first delivered to All Nippon on Sept. 26 it was more than three years late because of design problems and supplier issues. It took off on its first passenger flight a month later, on Oct. 26, from Narita, Japan, to Hong Kong on a four-hour charter trip.

The Dreamliner, which will seat 210 to 290 passengers, is the first new class of aircraft launched by Boeing since the 777 in 1995.

There are more than 800 orders for the Dreamliner from airlines and aircraft leasing firms around the world.

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Dreamliner completes maiden commercial flight

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A look inside All Nippon Airways' 787 Dreamliner ... Is that a bidet?

-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: All Nippon Airways' Boeing 787 Dreamliner comes in for a landing at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on Sept. 28. Credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP/Getty Images

Boeing to establish center in Florida for new spaceship program

Boeing

Aerospace giant Boeing Co. announced plans to establish a headquarters for its new spaceship program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Chicago company is in the process of developing a seven-person spaceship, dubbed the Crew Space Transportation-100, for the job of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station now that the space shuttle program is over.

Boeing will consolidate the program’s engineering and manufacturing operations, which are now spread across the country in space-centric cities like Huntington Beach, Houston and Huntsville, Ala. Boeing’s decision is expected to bring back high-paying aerospace jobs to the nation’s “space coast,” near Cape Canaveral, which lost thousands of jobs when the shuttle program was retired this year.

"We selected Florida due to the cost benefits achieved with a consolidated operation, the skilled local workforce and proximity to our NASA customer,” John Mulholland, Boeing’s program manager of commercial programs, said in a statement.

Boeing estimated that the workforce at Kennedy Space Center will ramp up to 550 local jobs by December 2015. Although that's a relatively small number compared with the tens of thousands employed during the shuttle program, the announcement was heralded by state officials.

"We are extremely pleased that Boeing will locate its commercial crew headquarters here in Florida," said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency. "This positions our state well for future growth and a leadership role in NASA's next-generation human space exploration initiatives. It is also a key factor in ensuring Florida's space-related economy continues to thrive after shuttle retirement."

In the coming years, NASA plans to rely on private businesses for low–orbit space missions such as carrying cargo to the space station. The space agency hopes that one day the companies will be able to take astronauts into space as well.

Modern-day industrialists have pounced on this opportunity, developing rockets and space ships to assume the responsibilities.

Boeing's contender to fill the role is an Apollo-like space capsule. Locally, engineers in Huntington Beach are developing the capsule's pressure vessel, base heat shield and autonomous docking systems.

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The space shuttle's Southland legacy

-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Image: An artist's rendering of Boeing's Crew Space Transportation-100. Composed of a crew module and a service module, the capsule could carry a crew of seven and would be used to support the International Space Station. Credit: Boeing

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner completes maiden commercial flight

  787

For the first time, Japanese airline All Nippon Airways took to the skies carrying paying passengers aboard the world’s first Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliner.

The much-anticipated maiden passenger flight Wednesday was a charter trip from Narita to Hong Kong that took about four hours.

The 787 Dreamliner is an all-new commercial jetliner that Boeing says is the most advanced, fuel-stingy passenger jet ever made. It features a suite of new technologies, such as the largest windows on a commercial jetliner and an extensive use of strong, lightweight carbon composites rather than sheets of aluminum.

PHOTOS: The future of commercial flight

But the new aircraft is more than three years late due to design problems and supplier issues.

The 787, which will seat 210 to 290 passengers, is the first new class of aircraft launched by Boeing since the 777 in 1995. There are 821 orders for the plane from airlines and aircraft leasing firms around the world.

Boeing posted some photos of events before and after Wednesday's flight on its Flickr account here.

The Associated Press reported that there were 240 journalists and aviation enthusiasts aboard -- and that some of the passengers paid thousands of dollars for a seat.

Stephanie Wood of Davie, Fla.,  told the AP that she won a charity auction and paid nearly $18,700 for two business-class seats.

"It's silly, but it's a little piece of history,” she said. “New cars come out all the time but how often do new planes come out?"

Not only is the event momentous, it's also good for Boeing's business, said Paul Sheridan, head of risk advisory at aviation consultancy Ascend Worldwide Ltd.

“Airlines are, if anything, even more keen to get their hands on the aircraft," he said. "The advanced technology used in the 787 means that, in spite of the delays, it is still ahead of its time. The size and range of the aircraft offers airlines the ability to open new long-haul routes linking a range of cities that would have been uneconomic with other aircraft types in the market.”

Chicago-based Boeing also issued its third-quarter earnings Wednesday, saying profit rose to $1.1 billion, or $1.46 per share, from $837 million, or $1.12 per share, when compared to the same period last year.

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Boeing delivers first 787 Dreamliner to All Nippon Airways

Take a look inside All Nippon Airways' 787 Dreamliner ... Is that a bidet?

Boeing 787 Dreamliner the first of a new generation of aircraft

-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: All Nippon Airways passengers arrive in Hong Kong after maiden 787 Dreamliner commercial flight. Credit: Boeing Co. via Flickr.

Military reportedly uses 'kamikaze drones' in battle

U.S. Army and Air Force special forces have used a mini-cruise missile made by Monrovia-based AeroVironment Inc. to blast apart Taliban targets, according to a media report. Switchblade_launch_lg

In an article, Bloomberg BusinessWeek disclosed that the weapon, called Switchblade, “was secretly sent to Afghanistan for the first time last year.”

Check out the entire article here.

The self-destructing mini-drone is designed to fit into a soldier's rucksack and be fired from a mortar where it unfolds its wings as it takes to the skies, and begins sending live video and GPS coordinates to the soldier who launched it. Switchblade is remotely operated with a handheld controller.

The little missile, which looks less harmless than many Fourth of July fireworks, is tipped with a tiny warhead designed to explode upon hitting a target, which is why BusinessWeek dubbed it a “kamikaze drone.”

The 2-foot-long battery-powered drone is designed to fly above a war zone for at least five minutes for more than a mile at a time. We told you about the technology in a Times story about the miniaturization of military weaponry here.

Maj. Christopher Kasker, an Army spokesman, did not confirm whether Switchblade had been deployed above the war zone. However, he issued a statement that said:

"The Army has purchased a limited quantity of the Switchblade munition to support an urgent operational request. Quantities, fielding locations, dates and units involved are confidential to protect operational security."

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: Switchblade is fired from a mortar in a demonstration flight. Credit: AeroVironment Inc.

Virgin Galactic moves into New Mexico spaceport

Spaceport_America_Dedication_5 (2)

Las Cruces, N.M., officially joined the list of the nation’s major space centers Monday when a newly completed terminal and hangar facility was turned over to British billionaire Richard Branson and his commercial space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic.

The company aims to launch paying customers beyond Earth’s confines from the new $209-million futuristic-looking facility, named Spaceport America.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez joined Branson and a crowd of more than 800 others during the dedication ceremonies.

“Today is another history-making day for Virgin Galactic,” Branson said at the event. “We are here with a group of incredible people who are helping us lead the way in creating one of the most important new industrial sectors of the 21st century.”

Virgin Galactic said it has taken about 455 reservations for the ride. The price per flight for a would-be space tourist is $200,000.

Instead of launching people directly into space with a rocket, Virgin Galactic plans to do the following: A rocket plane with six passengers will be attached to the wings of a White Knight mother ship, flown to 50,000 feet and released. The rocket plane's engine then will ignite and propel the passengers into suborbit.

The spaceship is designed to climb to the edge of space, about 60 miles above the Earth's surface. At that suborbital altitude, people experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth.

Virgin Galactic’s sleek carrier aircraft and spaceships are made by the Spaceship Co. in Mojave, where the planes are currently undergoing test flights. Branson hopes to make its first passenger flight with his adult children, Sam and Holly, as soon as next year.

At the end of Monday’s event, the Branson trio --after rappelling down the side of the Spaceport’s massive glass windows -- named one of the ground terminals the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space.

The gateway will house preparation facilities for company’s passengers, which it calls astronauts. There is also a mission control center and an area for friends and family.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

twitter.com/wjhenn

Photo: Dancers with Project Bandaloop, based in San Francisico, hang and dance on the side window wall of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space hangar in Las Cruces, N.M. Credit: Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic

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