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Boeing gets $35B Air Force deal

The 135 workers at Boeing-Helena may have steady work for another 20 years with an announcement by the aerospace giant Friday of a $35 billion contract with the U.S. Air Force to supply mid-air refueling tankers based on the Boeing 767.

Spokesman Don Schmidt said the Helena facility, acquired by Boeing in November from Summit Aeronautics Group, is one of the facilities that makes the main landing gear beams for the 767.

He said the contract ensures the company will keep making 767s.

“That program, due to orders, was coming to an end,” he said. “This contract really extends it out for another 20 years.”

The contract, pushed hard by members of Washington’s congressional delegation, calls for Boeing to deliver 18 combat-ready tankers by 2017 and ultimately replace 179 of the Air Force’s 400 KC-135 tankers. The tankers are able to refuel other aircraft in mid-air, and also to carry cargo and passengers.

The contract may be the final chapter in a 10-year dispute over the tankers that over the years pitted former Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who for years protested the Air Force plan to give the deal to Boeing under a no-bid contract.

In the end, Boeing competed for the contract against the team of its American rival Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS (the European aerospace consortium). EADS said it would decide whether to file a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office on the bidding process after a closer look at the Air Force explanation for the decision.

Boeing said the contract contributes to more than 50,000 jobs nationwide, including 11,000 in Washington state.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., called the deal “a full-circle moment” for him.

He said that 13 years ago, when Boeing decided not to add additional firms to their list of potential suppliers, it shut Helena’s Summit Design and Manufacturing out of the process; he invited Boeing representatives to Helena to meet with Summit.

The Boeing staff was impressed enough to then recommend Summit be added to Boeing’s list of suppliers, according to Baucus, and it has been supplying Boeing aircraft ever since.

Baucus said Boeing officials told him the company spends more than $7.5 million annually in Montana with 30 suppliers and vendors.

By Sanjay Talwani  for Independent Record helenair.com

Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or sanjay.talwani@helenair.com