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EADS Says Top North American Executive O’Keefe Crashes in Plane

European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. said Sean O’Keefe, the head of its North American unit since November, was involved in a fatal plane crash last night in Alaska. His condition remains unknown.

O’Keefe, 54, was a passenger on the private aircraft, Paris- and Munich-based EADS said in a statement today. Four of nine passengers survived the crash, the Coast Guard said.

“A rescue operation is underway,” EADS spokesman Guy Hicks said. “No other details are available at this time.”

A former head of NASA, O’Keefe was hired to lead the North American operations of EADS as the parent of planemaker Airbus SAS seeks to broaden its presence in the U.S. military market. His attention has focused on helping win the $35 billion contest against Boeing Co. for new U.S. Air Force refueling tankers.

“O’Keefe is extremely well-connected, particularly in Republican circles, but is respected and liked by everyone involved,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, a consultancy and an acquaintance of the executive.

The DeHavilland DHC-3T plane in which O’Keefe was traveling crashed at about 8 p.m. local time last night northwest of Aleknagik, Alaska, according to a National Transportation Safety Board statement.

O’Keefe succeeded Ralph D. Crosby as chief executive of the North American unit, with Crosby retaining his position as chairman of the subsidiary.

Tanker Bid

Before coming to EADS, O’Keefe ran the Washington office for General Electric Co.’s aviation subsidiary for more than a year. Over a 30-year career, he held government positions in Washington, including NASA Administrator from 2001 to 2005, deputy director and deputy assistant to the president at the Office of Management and Budget in 2001, and Secretary of the Navy from 1992 to 1993.

O’Keefe was also chancellor of Louisiana State University from 2005 to 2008.

After joining EADS, O’Keefe helped push ahead with an effort to participate the tanker competition even after its original U.S. partner, North Grumman Corp., dropped out. EADS submitted its proposal to the Air Force on July 8, and the Pentagon will likely announce in November if Boeing or EADS has won the order for 179 airplanes to replace 1950s-era tankers.

Besides working on the tanker bid, O’Keefe was given the mandate to expand businesses with the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, as well as in space and related areas.

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