By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
EVERETT — The federal government has been openly pessimistic that Boeing can meet even the latest, much-delayed schedule for its KC-46 air-to-air refueling tanker and has forecast delivery of the first 18 tankers as late as a full year from now.
But Boeing’s KC-46 leadership expressed confidence Thursday that the tanker program, which directly employs about 4,000 Boeing workers in the state and is worth tens of billions of dollars to the company, is at last within sight of success.
Leanne Caret, head of Boeing’s defense and space division, insisted that the jet maker will deliver those 18 tankers no later than the end of this year.
“We are on the cusp of delivery,” said Caret, during a series of briefings and tours of Boeing’s facilities and flight line for the program. “We have an entire fleet of tankers here and as we get toward first delivery we are going to be able to really start ramping up.”
Though not one tanker has been delivered yet, Boeing has 34 production tankers in various states of completion.
The first four production jets that will be delivered to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, have all flown. A fifth one will have its first flight any day.
Journalists on Thursday were shown four tankers having their military systems installed in a Boeing facility at Paine Field in Everett. Seven more were parked outside, and a line of eight other 767s was parked on a runway, awaiting their turn for tanker systems installation.
In addition, six flight-test aircraft are flying out of Boeing Field in Seattle.
The first delivery appears to be some months away. Before that can happen, Boeing must certify through flight tests that the F-16 fighter and the C-17 transport jet are capable of receiving fuel from the tanker in all possible flight conditions and that the new tanker can be refueled by the older KC-135 tanker.
The company must also certify a fix that’s been newly developed for a technical issue with the camera systems used to guide the plane’s refueling boom to the receiving aircraft.
This is one of two nagging technical issues, both of which Boeing’s tanker team Thursday dismissed as requiring only straightforward software fixes.
“This is not going to hold up delivery,” said Mike Gibbons, KC-46 tanker program manager.
Steep cost overruns
The government estimates it will spend $41 billion on development of the KC-46 and the purchase of a total of 179 tankers.
Of that, approximately $30 billion will go to Boeing, according to the company’s annual report.
However, the contract has a fixed price, with costs for this development stage of the contract capped at $4.9 billion. All development costs beyond that come out of Boeing’s pocket.
According to the company’s recently revised calculations, the cost overruns it’s had to swallow over the past three years, including a relatively small increment last quarter, now total a staggering $3 billion.
Last month the U.S. General Accountability Office projected that Boeing won’t deliver the first batch of 18 tankers — plus the two spare engines and nine sets of wing aerial refueling pods required under the contract — until May 2019.
If Boeing can beat that projection by five months as Caret asserts, it would be the first step toward stanching the cash bleed.
The refueling mission of the KC-46, which is based on a customized version of the 767 commercial jet, is essential to project U.S. military air power to far-flung parts of the globe.
The tanker features a new advanced refueling boom that extends 58 feet out from the rear of the aircraft, a rigid pipe with wings sprouting either side to make it maneuverable.
In the older KC-135 tankers flown by the Air Force today, the boom operator must lie on his or her belly at the rear of the plane, looking out a window at the receiving aircraft approaching from below. In contrast, on the KC-46 the operator sits at a computer station just behind the tanker’s cockpit and maneuvers the boom into position using remote cameras at the rear of the tanker that produce a stereoscopic 3D display.
Night-vision goggles make it possible to do this even in complete darkness.
Indeed, in a combat zone, the plane can operate in a complete blackout state using only infrared lights to illuminate its way to a landing.
Sean Martin, the KC-46 chief boom operator, said this makes the Boeing tanker a standout.
“When you are flying and fighting at night, the capabilities of the cameras are a game-changer,” Martin said. “On this airplane, it’s the same as daytime.”
Some receiving aircraft flown by the Navy and by NATO allies are refueled using a different system than a boom, with fuel delivered instead through hoses that spool out 75 feet from the center of the fuselage or from refueling pods on the wingtips.
The major competition for the KC-46 is the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport, which is already operating around the world and has won orders from many European nations as well as Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.
Mike Hafer, business development manager for the KC-46, said that the delay to the Boeing tanker gave Airbus a head start on sales.
“When a lot of European customers made their decisions, we didn’t have an airplane. We had a paper airplane,” he said.
But he said the Boeing tanker, because it must deliver as standard the tough requirements laid down by the Air Force, will be more robust in combat.
The KC-46 is hardened against bullets, has electromagnetic pulse shielding, a laser system to confuse incoming heat-seeking missiles, protection against chemical and biological agents, and sensors that warn when ground radar has locked onto the jet.
“This is a combat tanker,” Hafer said. “If you want to go into combat, this is the selection.”
He said that Boeing is actively seeking foreign sales and expects to sell 48 tankers abroad. India is considered a leading prospect.
The Air Force has recently highlighted two technical issues that stand in the way of a smooth tanker introduction.
Boeing on Thursday dismissed both as easy to fix.
The first problem is that the system of seven remote cameras that guide the tanker boom into the refueling receptacle on the receiving aircraft has run into problems when the sun is low and glare reflects off the receiving aircraft, and also when the sun is behind the tanker and casts deep shadows on the receiver.
As a result, the boom has been hitting the receiving aircraft outside the receptacle area and scraping the skin.
The GAO report said that’s considered problematic for stealth aircraft such as the F-22 fighter since it might damage their special radar-absorbing coatings.
The second issue is that when aircraft have been refueling using the hose from the center fuselage, it has occasionally disconnected during the process.
That’s not a safety issue, but it delays the refueling.
Boeing is working on software fixes to correct both.
The software in the remote camera system can be fine-tuned to cope with the glare and shadows, program manager Gibbons said.
He added that this enhancement to the camera system is being flight tested now and should be certified “over the next few months, not too much longer.” He said the enhanced system will be included in the first tanker delivered to the Air Force.
Likewise, fixing the problem with the hose is just a matter of tweaking the software that controls the tension in the hose.
“It’s a simple fix,” he said. “A tuning of the system.”
Almost exactly a year ago, Boeing showed off the first production tanker that had just rolled out, and assured journalists that the aircraft then parked at Boeing Field would be delivered by the end of 2017.
With subsequent delays in the certification process, it didn’t happen.
Now Boeing is once again promising that first delivery — and with it deliverance at last from what had become a quagmire and a cash drain.