Why This Company is Bringing Dozens of French-Built Fighter Jets to Fort Worth Alliance Airport

For 40 years, the Dassault Mirage F1 fighter jet saw action in combat zones in Africa and the Middle East as a staple of the French military. Now, more than 60 of the jets will find a home near Fort Worth where they’ll be taking on a new kind of mission as part of a multibillion-dollar opportunity for Alliance Airport’s newest tenant.

Airborne Tactical Advantage Co., also known as ATAC, broke ground last month on a 75,000-square-foot hangar due to open next summer that will house maintenance and pilot-training functions. Mechanics there recently showed off two refurbished jets, the first of 63 F1s purchased from the French government that will eventually make up the fleet.

ATAC, a part of Textron’s Airborne Solutions division, has a two-decade history providing adversary air services for the U.S. military, supplying outsourced jets and civilian pilots to play the role of enemy fighters in live training drills against Navy or Air Force pilots.

The line of business is expected to grow dramatically in the coming years, with the Air Force in the early stages of bidding out a contract up to an estimated $7.5 billion over 10 years.

“To challange aircraft like the F-35 and the F-22, you need a lot of bad guys out there, because those things are lethal,” said ATAC chief executive Jeffrey Parker. The Air Force needs “more capability and they need more capacity. They can’t generate that internally any more.”

Parker said outsourcing the role of training adversaries provides several advantages for the military. Older jets supplied by the likes of ATAC are cheaper to operate and save wear and tear on the U.S. military’s expensive fleets. And, at a time when the Air Force is dealing with a pilot shortage, its and the Navy’s pilots are freed up to focus on other duties.

ATAC acquired the F1 jets to bulk up its existing fleet of nearly 30 jets — made up of a mix of F-21 Kfir, MK-58 Hawker Hunter and L-39 Albatros aircraft — to better compete for the upcoming Air Force contract. At its max, ATAC has provided about 6,000 flight-hours in a given year; the Air Force is looking for up to 37,000 a year.

Several other companies will also be competing for the bid, including Draken International, which this summer won a $280 million contract to provide adversary air services at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

At Alliance, a growing team of mechanics and support staff has been charged with getting the F1s up to speed. The effort includes assembling the aircraft after they arrive in several pieces, refurbishing the jets and retrofitting them with modern technologies like upgraded radars.

ATAC said it expects to eventually employ about 200 people at the site, which will also serve as a parts depot for the fleet. The company did not disclose how much it is investing in its Alliance Airport facility.

“The skilled labor in the aviation community around here is huge. It’s better than anyplace else we’re currently based,” said Parker.

While the F1s will start out in Texas, they’ll spend much of their time being used in drills at military bases around the country, returning to Alliance Airport for maintenance and other work. ATAC expects to also add other types of jets to the Alliance base, bringing the total fleet up to as many as 80 jets in the coming years.

“This base is geographically central. We can basically shoot jets east or west and get them there in a timely fashion, as well as get parts back and forth,” said Parker. “This will be the base that’s farming the jets to other locations.”

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News