Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tankers. (Tony Capaccio/Bloomberg)

Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tankers. (Tony Capaccio/Bloomberg)

Boeing’s tardy $44.3 billion tanker nears milestone after spat

The timing indicates Boeing and the Air Force are narrowing differences over fixing aircraft flaws.

By Tony Capaccio


Boeing and the U.S. Air Force anticipate delivery in October of the first KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, settling a disagreement over timing for the much-delayed $44.3 billion program, according to the service’s No. 2 civilian official.

The new schedule is two months earlier than the Air Force had projected. Undersecretary Matthew Donovan called it “aggressive but achievable.”

Agreement on a delivery date indicates Chicago-based Boeing and the Air Force are narrowing their differences over fixing flaws on the tanker, which is already more than two years late based on original projections. The problems include concern that the tanker’s 59-foot-long extended boom may scrape the aircraft it’s refueling.

While the tanker’s “flight test program is nearly complete, significant work remains,” Donovan said. The Air Force “will continue to work with Boeing on opportunities to expedite the program.”

Leanne Caret, chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said that with the first delivery now set, “the men and women of the Air Force know when they will start receiving this important capability.” She said “the KC-46 is a top priority for us, and we have the best of Boeing working to ensure the Air Force gets their tankers as quickly as possible.”

The service and Boeing have also reached agreement that the company would complete the contract’s most important milestone by April 2019 — delivering 18 planes, two spare engines and nine sets of wing-mounted refueling pods, Donovan said. Boeing was contractually obligated to meet that goal by August 2017.

The KC-46 is a converted 767 commercial jet that can be used for in-flight refueling, carrying cargo and performing emergency evacuations. Delays in delivering it could force the Air Force to maintain and keep in operation 19 older KC-135s through 2023 at an additional cost to the taxpayer of as much as as $10 million annually per plane, according to service figures.

Agreement on a delivery date suggests Boeing has convinced the Air Force that it’s close to solving the tanker’s most serious deficiencies, including the risk of the boom scraping other planes.

An airman guides the boom with a joystick and a system of seven cameras. But shadows or the glare of the sun can hamper the view in rare instances, possibly resulting in scraping or difficulties in connecting for a refueling, according to the Air Force.

Flight testing of a software fix developed by Boeing has already begun and flight test verification of the fixes is now forecast for September, Donovan said.

Donovan said the Air Force’s KC-46 program office “is gathering data on lost opportunities or other costs to the government due to program delays and will discuss with Boeing at the appropriate time” what compensation the company intends to offer.

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