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Tampa company in running for $700 million military contract

TAMPA — MacDill Air Force Base may not be the only local winner if the Pentagon decides to assign its next-generation aerial refueling tanker to the base starting in 2017.

CAE USA Inc., a leading flight simulator and training company with 504 employees in its Tampa offices, recently bid on a $700 million contract to provide simulators and training to the Air Force for the new KC-46A refueling tanker. A winning bid may be announced as early as December, CAE officials said.

CAE, a public company based in Canada, has offices around the world. But if it wins the contract, design and development of the KC-46A simulators will be "concentrated" in Tampa, a CAE spokesman said. That could lead to 20 to 50 new jobs in Tampa, John Lenyo, CAE's president, said Wednesday.

But he said the jobs figure was tentative and depended on other factors, including potential cuts to the U.S. defense budget.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, visited CAE's Tampa offices on Wednesday, saying she wanted to highlight why the assignment of the new tankers to MacDill makes sense. Boeing Co. expects to deliver the first of the jets in 2017.

"We have a partner like CAE in our back yard," Castor said. "There is no other community in the United States that has that kind of symmetry" with a major contractor so close to the base.

But CAE, the world's leading supplier of flight simulators, could win even if MacDill loses.

That's because the company's bid is not dependent on MacDill, or any particular base, winning the assignment of the first of the planes to roll off assembly lines.

The KC-46A is the Air Force's top acquisition project as it moves to phase out during the next two decades its Eisenhower-era fleet of KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft. MacDill is home to 16 KC-135s. And the base is in the running to win the assignment of the first of the new tankers.

A tentative selection by the Pentagon of the first three bases to get the new planes may come by year's end. One of the first three bases will become home to 36 KC-46As.

Castor leads a group of Tampa Bay political and business leaders urging Air Force officials to select MacDill. The group met a top Air Force official last week in Washington, D.C.

As fuel prices have climbed in recent years, the Air Force has moved more of its training to flight simulators, which can typically be operated for a few hundred dollars an hour compared with the thousands an hour of an actual flight.

Lenyo said modern simulators can replicate flight in nearly every detail.

The military, he said, has tried to strike a balance between training time in a simulator versus time spent flying the real aircraft.

Military pilots would "much rather fly the real aircraft than fly in one of these boxes," Lenyo said outside a simulator for an Air Force cargo plane that Castor was taking a spin in.

He noted, "You can crash this thing a million times and not get hurt. But you learn what you did wrong."

CAE currently trains MacDill's KC-135 pilots at the base's lone simulator. Typically, Lenyo said, the Air Force buys one simulator for a base for every 18 to 20 aircraft.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Tampa company in running for $700 million military contract 06/13/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 12:08am]
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