PARIS AIR SHOW: This year finds some aircraft makers at the forefront, others locked in struggle

Jun. 17--The final day of the Tour de France is traditionally a casual ride down the Champs Elysees, celebratory champagne in hand.

Officials from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth might be tempted to re-enact the famous finish this week at the Paris Air Show.

Aviation industry experts say the manufacturer is flying high.

"They're the best-positioned military aviation contractor in the U.S. and actually in the world," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with aerospace and defense consulting firm Teal Group.

The huge F-35 and F-22 fighter jet projects are ramping up and look to be moneymakers for years to come, while the C-130J cargo plane remains a mainstay.

At the same time, hundreds of the older F-16 fighter jets remain to be built before the transition to the F-35 is complete.

"We're really excited about the portfolio of products that we have to showcase over in Paris, really unmatched by any other aerospace defense company in the world," said Rob Weiss, vice president of business development at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

Lockheed isn't the only local organization heading to Paris on an upswing.

L-3 Communications Holdings Inc.'s Integrated Systems division in Greenville learned a few days ago that it had submitted the winning proposal, along with Boeing Co., Alenia North America and Global Military Aircraft Systems, to build the Joint Cargo Aircraft for the U.S. Army and Air Force.

That contract could eventually be worth as much as $6 billion.

Other local, well-known aircraft builders are dealing with struggles as well as successes.

Good news, bad news

Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter Textron Inc.'s V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft seems to be in good shape as the machine heads to its first combat deployment in Iraq later this year.

But Bell's Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter is behind schedule and over budget.

"The good news is that it's actually met all its key performance parameters, as they're called," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. "The bad news is that it's costing about twice as much as the Army had planned."

Dallas-based Vought Aircraft is also having trouble with its work on Boeing's commercial 787 Dreamliner jet.

Vought recently fired the manager in charge of 787 work and is reportedly behind schedule in building the fuselage sections and shipping them to Boeing.

Both companies will try to polish their reputations this week.

The Dallas-Fort Worth companies and divisions at the air show represent a significant chunk of the local workforce and economy.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, for example, has about 14,300 employees in Fort Worth.

L-3 Integrated Systems has almost 5,000 employees in Greenville and more than 20,000 worldwide.

Vought has a little over 3,400 workers in the Dallas area, and Bell has about 7,000 in Fort Worth.

Those companies also account for billions of dollars in military and commercial aviation programs.

Lockheed Martin, for example, is the prime contractor for the $200 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, often referred to as the biggest defense contract ever.

Mission: schmooze

The show is a critical place to meet clients and schmooze potential customers, since nearly the entire aerospace industry gathers in one city for a few days. But no one expects any major new deals to be announced there.

Mr. Weiss said it takes so long to get from analyzing a customer's needs to signing on the dotted line that it's tough to synchronize announcements with the weeklong air show.

Still, Mr. Aboulafia said the show is "the most important aviation event in the world for product positioning and making customer contacts," particularly on the military side.

And analysts do expect some concrete news out of the show.

"Two of the more notable issues that need to be dealt with are right there in your back yard, getting Bell Helicopter back up and running on everything except tilt-rotors, and then Vought, getting their production problems sorted out," Mr. Aboulafia said.

Tilt-rotor promising

Bell does seem to have a genuine hit on its hands with the V-22 Osprey. The machine was on the brink of cancellation earlier in the decade after two fatal crashes in 2000. Ten of the innovative airplane-helicopter hybrids are being sent to Iraq in September to carry soldiers into battle, evacuate the wounded and perform other missions.

The Marines are buying 360 of the machines, the Air Force is scheduled to purchase 50, and the Navy is considering 48.

The Marines have also said that Britain and Israel are interested in buying the V-22 when it becomes available for overseas sale in a few years.

"That's the gem in Textron's crown," Mr. Thompson, the defense analyst, said. "V-22 looks likely to become a truly revolutionary product -- not just in the sense of combining the features of a fixed-wing aircraft with a helicopter, but in changing the way many missions are conducted."

The Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, or ARH, has a more turbulent future ahead.

Parent company Textron Inc. replaced Bell's president and chief executive in January, and the move was largely seen as an attempt to jump-start the ARH program.

The Army temporarily suspended work on the helicopter in March and gave Bell 30 days to come up with a turnaround plan on the multibillion-dollar program.

Although work has resumed, the deal is still on thin ice.

"The strategic requirement is very pressing, and the military is standing by it," Mr. Aboulafia said. "But, on the other hand, Congress seems to be quite wary.

"And, of course, it's got technical problems. It's difficult to imagine them going back and starting over again with a new builder, a new contractor. I think it goes ahead slowly."

Vought, for its part, has had some trouble keeping up with the early production schedule for its work on the 787, which is done in South Carolina.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported recently that the company has fired the manager in South Carolina in charge of overseeing the work.

Boeing does the final assembly of the 787 in Everett, Wash., near Seattle.

Back on track

During an interview in Dallas before heading off to Paris, Vought chief executive Elmer Doty declined to comment on the managerial change. But he did note that his company is hustling to get back on track.

He said the quality of the fuselage sections that Vought makes are up to spec, but it has taken longer than expected to get some components from Vought's suppliers.

"That's just a fact of life on a start-up program," he said.

Mr. Doty said Vought is fixing the problem by flying its own workers out to meet with suppliers when needed, for example, or airlifting parts to the South Carolina plant rather than shipping them by ground or sea.

"We're gonna spend more money than we wanted to spend," he said, but he doesn't expect the expense to have a "material impact" on the company's financial performance.

That performance has been strong recently.

In the first quarter of 2007, Vought rang up total sales of $380.7 million, up from $322.8 million in the first quarter of 2006. Net income hit $19.2 million, a dramatic reversal from a $51.5 million loss a year ago.

Mr. Doty joined Vought early last year.

Vought, which is owned by the Carlyle Group, a private investment firm, voluntarily reports quarterly financial results.

Although Vought is concerned about meeting Boeing's requirements on the 787, the Dallas company is auditioning for similar work on an upcoming airplane from Boeing's big European competitor, Airbus.

Vought already does some work for Airbus.

The Airbus A350 is that company's answer to the cutting-edge 787, and Mr. Doty says he won't be surprised if Airbus adopts a similar production model -- farming out major chunks of the plane to subcontractors and then assembling the final pieces on its own.

"The design is still in something of a state of flux," he said. "I don't know what our participation could or will be on that, but we're hugely interested."

So will he be meeting with Airbus at the air show?

"You bet."

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