New York and Kansas lawmakers square off over Air Force jet-trainer project

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Members of the New York congressional delegation are gearing up for a fight to keep their state from losing a hefty Air Force jet-trainer contract to Kansas. The Air Force says it based its recent decision to cancel Fairchild Republic's contract for a new-generation trainer, the T-46, strictly on dollars and cents. ``The final decision came down to what is the least dear in terms of budgetary restraints. That spelled T-46,'' says Col. David J. Shea, director of public affairs for the Air Force Systems Command.

But the New York congressional delegation is vowing to return the T-46 to the nation's military budget. To do that, they will have to buck Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, who has sought to kill the T-46 and instead upgrade the T-37 trainer currently in use. The T-37 is built by Cessna Corporation in Witchita, Kan.

The Pentagon awarded Fairchild a $3.5 billion contract in 1982 to build the T-46.

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According to company officials, the two-seat trainer offers a more fuel efficient engine than the T-37 does, and it would be pressurized, enabling it to fly at much higher altitudes, above routine air traffic.

The trainer represents ``an easier transition into higher performance fighter aircraft,'' says George Thune, a Fairchild spokesman.

Fairchild Republic is owned by Fairchild Industries in Virginia.

The Air Force is flying one T-46 at Edwards Air Force Base. A second will be finished this summer, and funding for 10 more is already in place and will not be canceled. If the contract is continued, Fairchild would eventually build 650 trainers.

T-46 proponents charge that upgrading the T-37 will end up costing the US government a lot more money than building the Fairchild trainers. Colonel Shea admits there is an element of truth to that assertion, acknowledging that in the long term costs will be higher. But initial savings are crucial during the current fiscal pinch.

Opponents of the T-46 say the trainer is far too expensive and has been beset by mismanagement.

When the Air Force initially canceled the contract in late March, Senator Dole said he was pleased the Pentagon ``agrees with me that the taxpayers' best interests are no longer served by the Fairchild contract.''

Indeed, the Air Force reviewed the Fairchild contract for management and production deficiences and found it lacking in all areas.

Mr. Thune says the Air Force accepted a ``get well'' plan that Fairchild submitted last August.

Since then, he says, Fairchild is 85 percent on target in terms of overcomming the deficiencies.

The Air Force's Shea agrees that progress has been made.

But he repeats that the decision to cut the T-46 was based on fiscal constraints.

The effort to save the T-46 will accelerate as the House begins its initial markup of the defense budget. This week Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D) of New York will visit the Fairchild plant in Farmingdale, N.Y., to inspect one trainer being finished and to speak to Fairchild employees.

Aides to Representatives Downey and Fairchild say they believe getting theT-46 reinstated in the House version will not be difficult.

The battle will really occur in the Senate -- where Dole promises to offer powerful opposition.

If the New York delegation seeks to put the money back into the budget for theT-46, the Air Force might be called to testify and give their view of the aircraft.

The Fairchild plant employs around 3,500.

Thune will not speculate what the loss of the T-46 contract would mean in terms of layoffs on Long Island.

He points out that the first lot is committed, and the company has other military and commercial contracts. Representative Downy's office says an effort to secure other contracts for Fairchild will always be made.

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