In 1982, seven-year-old Son Tran fled his home country of Vietnam along with his mother, older sister and two older brothers to escape an oppressive regime. His family was captured at the Vietnam-Cambodia border by the Khmer Rouge and forced to live in a refugee camp for six months. It wasn’t until 1983, after brief stops in Thailand and the Philippines, that Tran – now eight years old – arrived in Tacoma with his family and reunited with his father, who had previously fled to the United States.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest and attending the University of Washington, Tran said Boeing’s strong defense presence in the region felt more like a personal calling than a career choice. Now a software engineer for Boeing Defense, Space & Security’s E-7 program, Tran’s life-changing journey as a child still motivates him to this day.
“This is something I always aspired to do,” he said. “When I work for Boeing, I feel like I am doing my part to help defend our country. And so, it’s a great honor for me.”
Boeing has built aircraft in the Pacific Northwest for more than a century. William Boeing’s “Little Red Barn” on the Duwamish River marks the birthplace of the Pacific Northwest as a global hub of aerospace supply and manufacturing. In addition to building commercial aircraft for customers around the globe, Boeing and suppliers in the Puget Sound region support the United States and allies with military platforms for national defense. These include the KC-46 tanker, the P-8 “Sub Hunter” and the E-7 Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft.
E-7: Quarterback of the Skies
Tran began working for Boeing as a software engineer on the E-7 AEW&C program in 2004.
Much like a quarterback on the gridiron, the E-7 scans the skies to identify threats and “calls the plays” to command and control air, surface and ground forces. These capabilities increase survivability and improve operational decision making to give U.S. and allied joint forces a tactical edge in contested environments.
The E-7 is currently operated by air forces around the globe, with the U.S. Air Force becoming the latest customer to sign up for the E-7A aircraft. Earlier this year, Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. signed a tri-lateral agreement to work together in furthering E-7 capability development and interoperability, operations and sustainment, as well as training and testing.
After a 10-year stint supporting the program’s Datalink Infrastructure (DLI) – the secure communications connectivity network that provides battlespace awareness to joint forces – Tran left to work for a tech company and then a medical company in the Puget Sound region. But he never got over his calling to support the nation’s armed services.
Tran returned to Boeing to support the P-8 program in 2019 before coming back to E-7 and DLI work two years later. One of Tran’s E-7 teammates is a familiar face. His older brother Vinh, one of the three siblings who immigrated to the United States with Son and his mother, has worked as a Defense, Space & Security software engineer for 26 years.
The Tran brothers both support the E-7A aircraft that will be delivered to the U.S. Air Force. The airframes on order will be built on the 737 Next Generation production line in Renton, Washington, and then will be converted to combat-ready E-7s in nearby Tukwila, Washington.
During his first stint as an E-7 software engineer, Son Tran vividly remembers boarding an Australian E-7 – nicknamed “Wedgetail” by the Royal Australian Air Force – and witnessing the software he coded in action as the aircraft took off from Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.
“I was sitting in the cockpit of an E-7 and we were flying side-by-side with an F/A-18,” he recounted. “I could see the (F/A-18) pilot giving us the thumbs up. It was amazing.”
P-8: A Proven, Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft
At the same facility where the military modification of the first two E-7A aircraft for the U.S. Air Force will take place, the P-8A Poseidon’s mission systems are installed. The P-8 is a maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft flown by six allied countries around the globe, including the U.S. Navy.
P-8 global sales and marketing representative John T. Breeden, who logged 4,553 flight hours on the P-3 Orion during 21 years of service in the U.S. Navy, said the new-age Poseidon that is replacing most P-3s has been a significant upgrade for the Navy and allies.
“The capability this aircraft has in terms of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW) and Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) is far superior than any other maritime aircraft,” Breeden said.
In 2022, 20 percent of BDS employees, including Breeden, were veterans. A former petty officer first class who was stationed at nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island from 1999 until his retirement in 2004, he points to the Island County base as a key operator of the Poseidon.
“On any given day, hour of the day and day of the week, a P-8A from Whidbey Island is most likely flying somewhere over one of our vast oceans,” he said.
Currently in production as a commercial derivative within the Boeing Mobility, Surveillance and Bombers (MS&B) division, the P-8 is built on the same 737NG production line as the E-7 and converted into a military aircraft at the Defense, Space & Security P-8 Installation and Checkout Facility in Tukwila, Washington.
As for how the Poseidon is employed in the battlespace, Breeden points to new investments – like a recent $31.7 million contract awarded by U.S. Navy to provide ongoing evaluation, integration and delivery of the Boeing-built Multi-Mission Pod – to increase the aircraft’s capability.
“There’s that much more room for growth and experience to make this an even more viable weapons platform for the maritime warfighter,” he said.
KC-46: The world’s most advanced multi-mission aerial refueler
About 30 miles north of the P-8 and the “Little Red Barn,” another multi-mission aircraft comes alive in the Pacific Northwest.
The KC-46A Pegasus, the world’s most advanced multi-mission aerial refueler, is built to be a combat-ready tanker from day one on the 767 production line in Everett, Washington.
Real Time Software Engineer John Harriss supports situational awareness and connectivity on the tanker’s Tactical Situational Awareness System, which equips the crew with fleet data to give the U.S. and allies a tactical edge. His colleague, Jami Bunker, leads a systems engineering integration team that ensures the Pegasus continues to evolve for the needs of the mission.
“The KC-46A is a great platform for innovation and incorporating all of these advanced defensive tactical systems,” Harriss continued, “and putting fuel where it’s needed so our service members can come home safely.”
A native Washingtonian, Harriss grew up with a passion for military aviation. He started his “dream job” at Boeing, Defense Space & Security in 2019 and said he is still glowing four years later.
“When I was a kid, I think I was just very curious about technology, so I always wanted to take things apart and figure out how they worked,” Harriss said with a smile. “I think that sparked a lifetime of learning.”
As for Bunker, she harnesses the same career perseverance that brought her to Boeing’s team in the Seattle area from a small town in the Midwest.
“Endurance really does define what the KC-46 is,” Bunker said, describing the pride she has working with the U.S. Air Force to integrate “new technologies that allow the platform to endure far into the future.”
Tran, Breeden, Bunker and Harriss represent thousands of Boeing employees – and suppliers they work with – who support a global mission on the same soil where The Boeing Company got its start. Together, this passionate and patriotic group works tirelessly to make the Pacific Northwest a bastion of national security and international stability.