WASHINGTON — Boeing won a $35 billion contract Thursday to build the next generation of air refueling planes, a long-awaited deal that will include the replacement of a fleet of Eisenhower-era tanker aircraft stationed at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.
"What we can tell you was that Boeing was a clear winner," Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said in announcing the decision at the Pentagon.
The decision was a surprise, as defense analysts and even some lawmakers had expected the Air Force to award the contract to Netherlands-based European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. It was a blow to Alabama, which had been counting on that company to assemble the aircraft at a long-shuttered military base in Mobile.
Production will occur in Everett, Wash., Wichita, Kan., and dozens of other states. Boeing has said the contract will mean 50,000 jobs.
The $35 billion contract calls for producing 179 new tankers. Boeing would base the tanker on its 767 aircraft. The $35 billion could end up being a first installment on a $100 billion deal if the Air Force decides to buy more aircraft.
Replacing the 1950s-era KC-135 planes — the equivalent of a flying gas station — is crucial for the military. Pilots who weren't even born when the last KC-135 was delivered in 1965 are operating air tankers that the Pentagon is struggling to keep in flying shape.
"Look, it's an antique," Senior Master Sgt. Greg Kuhn, a maintenance superintendent who worked on MacDill's 16 Stratotankers, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2008.
The Stratotankers actually fly more today than they did during the Cold War, thanks to the pace of military operations in the Middle East. In the late 1950s, the KC-135 more often sat on a runway on standby, ready to fly on a moment's notice if the Soviet Union ever launched its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The capability to refuel is the backbone of the modern Air Force. In Iraq and Afghanistan, refueling aircraft are almost always in the sky, gas stations miles in the air.
But keeping the older planes aloft isn't simple. Parts are harder to find. In some cases, the Air Force has said, it is forced to build them. A plane graveyard in Arizona is often raided for spare parts unavailable elsewhere.
Metal fatigue is a constant worry, especially in Florida's corrosive saltwater air. So at MacDill, each Stratotanker undergoes a thorough washing every month.
Through the years, the Air Force's efforts to award the $35 billion contract have been undone by Pentagon bungling and the criminal conviction of a top Defense Department official.
Initially, the Air Force planned to lease and buy Boeing planes to serve as tankers, but that fell through. The Air Force later awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS, but in 2008 the Government Accountability Office upheld Boeing's protest of the contract.
The GAO said it found "a number of significant errors" in the Air Force's decision, including its failure to fairly judge the relative merits of each proposal.
The Air Force reopened the bidding in 2010 only to be embarrassed again as it mistakenly gave Boeing and EADS sensitive information that contained each other's confidential bids.
The contract has generated some of the fiercest and costliest lobbying in Washington. The two companies have spent millions on advertising, including radio and subway ads in the nation's capital.
In the past year, Boeing has spent $5 million on print advertising to promote its version while EADS has shelled out $1.7 million to boost its prototype, according to Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which typically monitors advertising for political campaigns.