Boeing to begin Air Force tanker assembly in June

EVERETT — The Air Force’s first KC-46 aerial-refueling tanker will take shape in late June inside Boeing’s factory at Paine Field.

That’s when Boeing will load into place the aircraft’s wing spar, the first tangible sign that KC-46 production is underway. But Boeing already has crossed off many milestones to get to this point since winning the multibillion-dollar contract in February 2011.

Over the next few months, Boeing and the Air Force will complete what’s called the critical design review of the KC-46, said Jim Eisenhart, director of Boeing’s tanker program. It’s the stage, he said Tuesday, when the two parties agree “this is the airplane we’re going to build and this is how it will perform. And the Air Force says go build it.”

Boeing and the Air Force are reaching the review stage at a quick pace, roughly 30 months since the contract was awarded, he said. That’s largely because Boeing’s design is based on a commercial freighter, the 767-200ER — already certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Boeing supplied the Air Force with the fleet of KC-135 tankers the KC-46 will replace. Those KC-135s, on average 50 years old, have been used in Vietnam, Desert Storm and, today, Afghanistan.

“We have been building tankers and military derivative aircraft for years,” Eisenhart said. “This is what Boeing does.”

The Chicago-based company struggled to meet customer requirements for tankers for Italy and Japan, leading to delivery delays. To avoid repeating past mistakes, Boeing is opening several laboratories around the Puget Sound region to help the company anticipate problems before the tanker makes a first flight.

At one, Boeing workers will be able to envision how various cargo and seating configurations work. Employees will test the tanker’s software and avionics before the plane flies. Because lighting is essential on the tanker, a lab will open this year in Everett to ensure KC-46 features like exterior lights and cameras work smoothly. A fuels lab will help Boeing gain “scientific-level precision” in shifting fuel around the tanker, Eisenhart said.

With the Air Force review approaching, Boeing is “laser-focused” on meeting deadlines, he said. The first part of Boeing’s contract requires the aerospace giant to deliver 18 tankers by 2017, increasing production to a pace of 15 tankers annually.

Based on the existing contract with the Air Force, Boeing will deliver the final KC-46 in 2027. The schedule could change, depending on Air Force needs. The Pentagon could ask Boeing to speed up production, to deliver more KC-46s sooner. Or the Air Force could request more than the 179 tankers in the contract, Eisenhart said.

Regardless, “we’re going to be building KC-46s for a long time,” Eisenhart said.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454;

KC-46 milestones

2011: Won Air Force contract; began development review.

June 26, 2013: Wing assembly begins.

Third quarter 2013: Air Force gives final OK to produce KC-46.

Early 2014: First 767-based tanker rolls out in Everett; military systems installed at Boeing Field.

First quarter 2015: Maiden flight.

2017: Boeing delivers 18 tankers to the Air Force.

Source: Boeing Co.

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