October 2005 
Volume 04, Issue 6 
Integrated Defense Systems

Eagle's nest

Boeing Australia prepares to bring Project Wedgetail home


Eagle's nestThe Australian Department of Defence begins its official summary of Project Wedgetail with a description of the wedgetail eagle, a native bird of prey. The eagle is known for its acute vision, wide range, ability to remain airborne for long periods, and uncompromising instinct to defend its territory. Not to mention that with its sharp talons and beak, 7.5-foot (2.3-meter) wingspan, and history of attacking helicopters and small airplanes, this predator is one intimidating beast.

For these reasons, Wedgetail is the name given to Australia's program to acquire Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) surveillance capability. With Boeing as the prime contractor and the 737-700 as the platform, most of the modification work to date has been located in Seattle.

Two modified Wedgetail aircraft rolled out of the Boeing Field facility in March 2004 and August 2005 and are in flight test in the United States. They are scheduled for delivery to Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Williamtown, New South Wales, in the fourth quarter of 2006.

Boeing Australia employees learned last year that the Australian government's decision to add two more aircraft to its initial four-aircraft order meant the remaining modifications would be performed at the Boeing Aerospace Support Centre in Amberley, Queensland. The third aircraft's Section 46—the part of the fuselage where the aircraft's Multi-role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar will be situated—has been delivered to Amberley to be fitted for installation, with delivery of the first green, or unpainted, 737-700 scheduled to follow soon after.

Preparations for the airplane's arrival have been added to a long to-do list that includes support and training as well as design and manufacture.

Modification: Amberley

"Getting to terms with the scope and scale of the program was a challenge," said George Greaves, AEW&C program manager at BASC Amberley. With more than 100,000 hours of work per aircraft, the program is the biggest commercial-to-military aircraft modification ever performed in Australia, Greaves added. But, he said, "we're committed to success, and we've built great relationships with the Seattle team."

Greaves noted that because Seattle already has agreements in place, it will provide all parts and tools. The 737-700s will arrive without passenger seats, so the cabin area may be filled with parts for the trip Down Under.

Half of a hangar at Amberley, which currently houses a 707 aerial refueling tanker and several F-111 strike aircraft undergoing maintenance, will be cleared out to make room for three AEW&C modifications at a time, while other hangars have been designated for components work and storage. Thanks to the use of Lean principles—the aircraft's work areas will fit together like puzzle pieces—no new facilities are needed. But the primary hangar will need some modifications.

The project requires the critical installation and positioning of a variety of structural-, system-, and mission-related components. BASC will use laser-tracking equipment—new to the site—to establish a digital reference frame that allows highly accurate alignment without physical tooling or fixtures. The top rear portion of the airplane has 6,000 fasteners that have to be removed and then replaced when the section is swapped with the reinforced Section 46 and the MESA radar.

Workers at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan., prepare a reinforced Section 46 for ShipmentThe facility also will have to be made more secure. "It's a whole new concept because of who's allowed to work on it," said Deputy Strike Systems Manager Ian Gabriel during a recent tour. Export-control requirements limit the list of employees who will be allowed to see, much less work on, the new aircraft.

A group of about 20 Boeing Australia avionics and structures technicians observed the first two modifications in Seattle; four of them began training workers at Amberley in September. A team of engineers from Seattle also will be on-site in Amberley for the duration of the program. Local industry will benefit from subcontracts, including Boeing subsidiary Hawker de Havilland, which is designing and manufacturing some of the aircraft's components. (Turkey has signed on for four AEW&C aircraft under its Peace Eagle program, so that country also has trainees in Seattle.)

So that not even the smallest step is missed, the Seattle and Amberley transition teams "married up" parallel tasks. "We have a responsible person here and a responsible person in Seattle," Greaves said.

Each site brings its past experience to bear on the program. Greaves recalled with a smile that when his team was contacted by the Seattle team on the topic of the aircraft's system cabinets, "They said the mission systems were shutting down during summer tests in Seattle. They said, 'You've got to think about air conditioning,' and we said, 'We're way ahead of you'—it gets to 40 degrees [Celsius, or about 100 degrees Fahrenheit] out here in the summertime."

Maintenance, training and support: Williamtown

The Boeing Australia site at RAAF Williamtown also is thinking ahead. Its AEW&C Support Centre will house an Operational Mission Simulator for mission crew training; an Operational Flight Trainer for flight crew training; a facility for engineering hardware and software support activities; and office areas for squadron logistics management personnel.

The support center was delivered by contractors ahead of schedule in December 2004, and Boeing and RAAF personnel have taken up residence as the RAAF builds a hangar next door to hold two Wedgetails. Russell Szczepanik, Integrated Defense Systems director of AEW&C and Wedge-tail Operations at Williamtown, called the site a "green field" location where everything needed to support the new aircraft had to be generated from scratch.

Norm Gray, deputy CEO of the Defence Materiel Organisation at the Australian Department of Defence, said even the squadron that will operate the aircraft hadn't existed for 18 years until it was re-formed in January 2000 for introducing AEW&C capability into service.

"The primary missions to be flown by Wedgetail will involve surveillance and air defense operations," Gray said. "However, Wedgetail will also fly missions involving fleet support, force coordination, peacekeeping and civil support—for example, coast watch and search-and-rescue operations."

The first two aircraft will begin Operational Test and Evaluation immediately after their arrival at Williamtown and are expected to be capable of being used operationally by mid-2007, though their official in-service date—based on a four-aircraft capability—is December 2007.

"The work here and at Amberley sets up the capability to do other things as well," Szczepanik said. "There will be a lot of upskilling and transfer of knowledge that will benefit both Boeing and Australia."



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