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.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Members of Gravitics' team and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen stand in front of a mockup of a space module interior on Thursday, August 17, 2023 at Gravitics' Marysville facility. Left to right: Mark Tiner, government affairs representative; Jiral Shah, business development; U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen; Mike DeRosa, marketing; Scott Macklin, lead engineer. (Gravitics.)
Marysville startup prepares for space — the financial frontier

Gravitics is building space station module prototypes to one day house space travelers and researchers.

Orca Mobility designer Mike Lowell, left, and CEO Bill Messing at their office on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 in Granite Falls, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Could a Granite Falls startup’s three-wheeler revolutionize delivery?

Orca Mobility’s battery-powered, three-wheel truck is built on a motorcycle frame. Now, they aim to make it self-driving.

Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Grant aids apprenticeship program in Mukilteo and elsewhere

A $5.6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant will boost apprenticeships for special education teachers and nurses.

Peoples Bank is placing piggy banks with $30 around Washington starting Aug. 1.
(Peoples Bank)
Peoples Bank grant program seeks proposals from nonprofits

Peoples Bank offers up to $35,000 in Impact Grants aimed at helping communities. Applications due Sept. 15.

Workers build the first all-electric commuter plane, the Eviation Alice, at Eviation's plant on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in Arlington, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Arlington’s Eviation selects Seattle firm to configure production plane

TLG Aerospace chosen to configure Eviation Aircraft’s all-electric commuter plane for mass production.

Jim Simpson leans on Blue Ray III, one of his designs, in his shop on Friday, August 25, 2023, in Clinton, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Whidbey Island master mechanic building dream car from “Speed Racer”

Jim Simpson, 68, of Clinton, is using his knowledge of sports cars to assemble his own Mach Five.

Yansi De La Cruz molds a cheese mixture into bone shapes at Himalayan Dog Chew on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023 in Arlington, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Give a dog a bone? How about a hard cheese chew from Arlington instead!

Launched from a kitchen table in 2003, Himalayan Pet Supply now employs 160 workers at its new Arlington factory.

Inside the new Boeing 737 simulator at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
New Boeing 737 simulator takes ‘flight’ in Mukilteo

Pilots can test their flying skills or up their game at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo.

An Amazon worker transfers and organizes items at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amazon cuts ribbon on colossal $355M fulfillment center in Arlington

At 2.8 million square feet, the facility is the largest of its kind in Washington. It can hold 40 million “units” of inventory.

A computer rendering of the North Creek Commerce Center industrial park in development at 18712 Bothell-Everett Highway. (Kidder Mathews)
Developer breaks ground on new Bothell industrial park

The North Creek Commerce Center on Bothell Everett Highway will provide warehouse and office space in three buildings.

Dan Bates / The Herald
Funko president, Brian Mariotti is excited about the growth that has led his company to need a 62,000 square foot facility in Lynnwood.
Photo Taken: 102312
Former Funko CEO resigns from the Everett company

Brian Mariotti resigned Sept. 1, six weeks after announcing he was taking a six-month sabbatical from the company.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Paper or plastic? Snohomish County may require businesses to take cash

County Council member Nate Nehring proposed an ordinance to ban cashless sales under $200. He hopes cities will follow suit.