A worker uses a lift to get onto the wing of a KC-46 Pegasus aerial-refueling tanker at the Boeing Everett Modification Center last month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

A worker uses a lift to get onto the wing of a KC-46 Pegasus aerial-refueling tanker at the Boeing Everett Modification Center last month. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Air Force expects new Boeing tanker will be nine months late

EVERETT — The Air Force says it expects Boeing to start delivering KC-46 tankers as late as June 2018, nine months behind the current schedule.

The latest delay is caused by slow progress on certifying the new aerial refueling tanker with the Federal Aviation Administration and finishing the test flight program, the Air Force announced Wednesday.

“Once Boeing receives the remaining design approvals from the FAA, they expect testing to proceed on a faster pace,” Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski said.

The company plans on clearing those hurdles in July, which will give the service a better idea of the delivery timeline, she said.

The Air Force’s announcement followed its annual KC-46 Schedule Risk Assessment, which evaluates the development program’s progress and highlights potential delays.

Boeing still plans to start tanker deliveries by the end of the year, company spokesman Chick Ramey said.

The Air Force’s revised outlook is based on not addressing remaining risks, he said.

The company expects to have 18 tankers with limited capabilities delivered by early 2018. Wing-mounted refueling pods, dubbed WARPs, from supplier Cobham are slated for delivery by October 2018, making the KC-46s capable of performing every task required by the military.

The Air Force expects the WARPs will be delivered by then, Grabowski said.

Boeing expects to find few faults in the testing and certification that remains, Boeing executive Mike Gibbons said in May. A Boeing vice president, Gibbons oversees the KC-46 program, which is based in Everett.

Testing and certification was about 65 percent complete by early May. One of the program’s test aircraft recently has been conducting ground testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California and Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

The tanker is an extensively modified version of Boeing’s successful 767 jet. Unlike earlier tankers, the KC-46 Pegasus can fly closer to combat and carry out far more missions, including evacuating patients, and hauling cargo and troops. It can even turn into a flying operating room.

“Absolutely, just bolt the (surgery) module on the floor” of the main cargo deck, Robert Schoeffling, senior manager of global sales for Boeing Military Aircraft, told The Daily Herald in May.

The plane’s large cargo door and wide-open main deck allow ground crews to quickly reconfigure the interior to fit the mission. The Air Force expects the Pegasus to be able to go from hauling troops to refueling fighters in flight in just a few hours.

Boeing won the contract to develop and build the tanker in 2011. The contract originally set August as the delivery deadline for the first 18 combat-ready airplanes. However, supplier and design problems have dogged its development.

The contract capped taxpayer costs at $4.9 billion. The delays and changes have cost Boeing roughly $2 billion in overruns.

The Air Force plans to buy 179 KC-46s, including the 18 in production, over the next 10 years as it begins upgrading its aging tanker fleet. After handing over the first batch, Boeing plans on delivering 15 tankers a year. The U.S. has more than 400 jet tankers. Most are Boeing KC-135s, which were developed in the 1950s. McDonnell Douglas designed the bigger KC-10 in the 1970s.

For now, “the Air Force will have to continue to sustain and rely on our legacy tanker fleet for our operations until the KC-46 delivers,” Grabowski said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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