Sierra Nevada Corp. is preparing to receive its first commercial passenger jet to be modified into the U.S. Air Force’s next “doomsday” planes — and readying for what it hopes will mark a new era for the defense contractor.

Brady Hauboldt, SNC’s vice president of business development, told Defense News on May 29 that the first of five Boeing 747-8 aircraft that will become the Survivable Airborne Operations Center, or SAOC, will arrive at its Dayton, Ohio, facility this summer.

Over the next dozen years, the SAOC will gradually replace the Air Force’s aging E-4B Nightwatch, also known as the National Airborne Operations Center aircraft. If a nuclear war or other catastrophe were to occur that destroyed the military’s command-and-control centers on the ground, the president would direct forces through an airborne E-4B or SAOC — thus the “doomsday” term.

The Air Force has four E-4Bs, which have been flying since the 1970s, and they are near the end of their service lives. The Air Force announced in April it awarded SNC a $13 billion contract to build SAOC and replace the E-4B by July 2036.

The deal is the largest single contract SNC has received in its more than six-decade history as a mission systems integration and aircraft modification company, Hauboldt said. The firm hopes its work on SAOC will open opportunities to larger contracts and major programs.

SNC decided to aim for larger growth in recent years, he said, with the company ramping up its spending on digital engineering tools as well as new infrastructure and facilities. That included standing up an Aviation Innovation and Technology Center in Dayton, which comes with large hangars where the 747s will receive modifications to become SAOCs.

The company’s first new hangar there opened a year and a half ago. The second is expected to be done this summer, and three more hangars and other support facilities are to follow.

Developmental engineering on SAOC will largely take place at SNC’s facility near Denver, Colorado. Other offices are being set up in locations such as Dallas, Texas. This will allow the firm to take advantage of hiring pools in multiple locations across the country as the company adds about 1,000 workers for the program, Hauboldt said.

“All of that investment in the digital tools, the employees and the facilities for SNC have put us in a position to take on this kind of a project, like SAOC,” he added.

Antennas, computers and radiation shielding

SNC plans to buy five Boeing 747-8 planes from Korean Air to convert into flying operations centers, with the last scheduled for delivery in September 2025, according to a May report by Reuters. Hauboldt told Defense News these five aircraft are all the company needs to finish the engineering and manufacturing development requirements of SAOC, but said SNC will buy more planes if the Air Force wants to further expand its fleet.

Hauboldt said SNC inspected the planes, the oldest of which was delivered in 2015, and found Korean Air has kept them in excellent condition.

SNC is using a fully digital process to design SAOC, he said, and the Air Force will own those digital models. Hauboldt said the models, along with the open-systems architecture, will make it easier for the Air Force to upgrade the planes.

The structural modifications to turn the 747s into airborne command centers will include installing communications antennas throughout the aircraft, a galley for long-haul flights, the mission systems where the crew will carry out their jobs, and the wiring and infrastructure to support those systems, Hauboldt said.

But one of the most critical upgrades will involve hardening the plane to withstand radiation and electromagnetic pulses it might encounter from a nuclear blast. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works will conduct this work as a subcontractor on the program, Hauboldt said, as well as performing other work on SAOC.

Skunk Works brings “a lot of expertise in integrating advanced capabilities on airframes — in this case, the radiation hardening,” Hauboldt said. “They have an experience base that SNC has less experience on, so we added them to the team.”

The planes will keep their General Electric-made GEnx-2B engines, he noted, and Rolls-Royce will provide the aircraft’s auxiliary power systems. Collins Aerospace, which Hauboldt called a leader in the defense industry on nuclear command, control and communications systems, will also help build SAOC.

In addition to being a fresher airframe than the half-century-old E-4Bs, Hauboldt said, the new SAOC will benefit from having modern, user-friendly computers and other technologies, and the easy modification that comes from having an open-architecture structure.

The Air Force was focused on keeping down the life-cycle costs to operate and sustain SAOC, Hauboldt said — particularly after the high maintenance cost of the E-4B. So SNC tailored its proposal to address those concerns by using open-systems architecture and offering the Air Force a “robust” data rights package — something the service has found difficult to obtain from contractors on other aircraft, such as the Lockheed-made F-35 fighter.

Hauboldt acknowledged that could mean another company could win the contract to sustain the program. But he said SNC is confident that it can do the job well enough and efficiently enough to keep the job.

Obtaining data rights for SAOC is “going to pay great dividends for the U.S. Air Force and the [Department of Defense] for decades,” Hauboldt said. “We recognized early on that the Air Force valued data rights — in other words, the ability to cost-effectively sustain and modify the aircraft. We were willing, as a company, to listen and offer them what they asked for.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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