Just hours before the Air Force announced the winner of a $35 billion contract to build aerial refueling aircraft on Feb. 29, an Airbus plane lumbered off the runway in Getafe, Spain, and climbed to 27,000 feet to rendezvous with a Portuguese F-16 fighter.
Then, in the skies south of Madrid, the two aircraft edged closer and closer, until they were joined by a 50-foot boom hanging off the back of the big Airbus plane. For the first time, the boom pumped fuel into another plane, 2,000 gallons in all during several connections.
The technology to pass fuel from one plane to another may not be rocket science ”” in fact, aerial fuel booms have been in use for more than 50 years ”” but it helped Airbus’s parent and its partner, Northrop Grumman, establish their technical bona fides.
Eager to enter the American defense market, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, the owner of Airbus, made several bold plays, perhaps none more dramatic than building the $100 million state-of-the-art refueling boom on spec.
As a result, Boeing, the pride of American aerospace, was outmaneuvered on its home turf for a contract that could grow to $100 billion, becoming one of the largest military purchases in history.