The Air Force will choose a winner in its troubled Light Air Support competition without actually flying the two contending planes, the Embraer Super Tucano and the Hawker-Beechcraft AT-6, and it will even disregard what it has data from the limited “flight demonstration” it conducted last year.

That’s a disturbing departure from best practice in a program that has already been an agony for the Air Force, with the delivery of ground-attack planes to the fledgling Afghan air force now delayed by 15 months, enough to miss not one but two “fighting seasons” in Afghanistan. A chagrined Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has publicly pledged “we’ll work our asses off” to get it right. But according to Breaking Defense interviews with both corporate camps, the revised Request For Proposal released at 5:16 on Friday — the traditional time to bury awkward news — skips the important step of having the Air Force actually see how both planes fly before it makes its decision, tentatively due in January.

Evaluating the planes purely on paper rather than hands-on is problematic with each competing aircraft, for different reasons. The Super Tucano is simply unfamiliar to the Air Force, although it has an extensive track record in Latin American militaries, and a series of Navy Special Operations experiments variously called “Imminent Fury” and “Combat Dragon” gave good reports. The Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 (pictured) is derived from the familiar T-6 used to train both Air Force and Navy pilots, but the basic trainer is significantly different from the combat version, of which only two working models exist.

While they’re still wading through the details, both companies expressed confusion and disappointment over the revised RFP. The Super Tucano camp is clearly more distressed, with one partisan arguing the lack of a fly-off is a gimme to the AT-6 in a furious blog entry on Second Line of Defense, a website run by AOL Board of Contributors member Robbin Laird. On the AT-6 side, the reaction was milder.

“We’re a little bit disappointed in the fact that the Air Force has not raised some of the standards,” particularly for ejection seat safety, said Derek Hess, the retired Air Force colonel who’s vice-president of Light Attack Programs at AT-6 manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft (which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy). The AT-6′s ejection seat accommodates a wider range of heights and weights than the Super Tucano’s, but the Air Force has said they both meet the requirements set by the Afghans. As for the bigger issue of fly-before-buy, Hess told Breaking Defense, “we would welcome the opportunity for a fly-off… We would love the opportunity to go show it off and frankly are not sure why they’re not doing that.”

By contrast, the vice-president of Sierra Nevada Corporation, Embraer’s US partner offering the Brazilian-designed aircraft, audibly struggled to keep his frustration in check during a phone call with Breaking Defense. “The lack of a fly off, a flight evaluation, is concerning,” said SNC vice president Taco Gilbert, a retired Air Force general. Compounding the problem, “they’ve further delayed first article testing until delivery,” he said. “The first time the Air Force [will be] seeing the equipment perform is well into production.” That same buy-before-fly approach proved so problematic on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Gilbert pointed out, that no less a figure than Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall called it “acquisition malpractice.”

Congress is taking note. “Probably the most consistent thing we’ve heard from the Hill is, ‘What in the world is wrong with the Air Force?’” said one source painfully familiar with the program. “If they can’t do something this simple, how can we trust them on F-35?”