Flying high on LI; In a boost to its Long Island operations, Northrop Grumman lands a $408M contract from the Pentagon to build advanced aircraft

In what could be Northrop Grumman's largest airplane building program in decades, and a boost to its local Long Island operation, the company has received a Pentagon contract to begin production of a plane to replace the Navy's aging E-2C Hawkeye radar patrol aircraft.

The new plane, the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, is to be manufactured at a Northrop Grumman facility in St. Augustine, Fla. But the design and electronics work is to be done in Bethpage.

Tom Vice, a Northrop Grumman vice president for early-warning and battle management programs, said yesterday that there could be some increase in employment in Florida and Bethpage once the E-2D program ramps up. Northrop Grumman employs about 2,100 in Bethpage and about 987 in St. Augustine.

Dianne Baumert-Moyik, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman, said additional employees were hired in the design phase of the project. She said the company is competing for several other military contracts and is "putting into place what we term 'contingency' hiring plans" so new employees could be taken on quickly if more work is added.

The former Grumman Corp. - acquired by Los Angeles-based Northrop Corp. in 1994 - had not built a new aircraft since producing the Navy's F-14 Tomcat fighter jet in the early 1970s. New F-14 production ended in the early 1990s, and the plane went out of active Navy service last year.

Monday night, the Pentagon said in a release that the contract to Northrop Grumman is valued at about $408 million. It is to build three E-2D airplanes to be delivered in 2010.

The Navy wants to build a total of 75 E-2Ds. If all of those are ultimately built, the E-2D contract would total $10 billion over a decade. In 2003, Northrop Grumman won a $2 billion contract for the design phase of the E-2D.

A first flight of the E-2D is expected later this summer, Vice said.

The former Grumman began building E-2C Hawkeye airplanes in the late 1960s. They are mostly based on aircraft carriers and act as the Navy's "eye-in-the-sky," collecting data through a powerful radar system and passing along data about potentially hostile planes, ships or troops.

Much about the plane's radar system is classified, but Vice said radar on the E-2D can rotate and stop at different points, to afford the crew a longer look at enemy vehicles. The radar on the E-2C is unable to stop rotating.