By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Delivery of Boeing’s first KC-46 air-to-air refueling tanker to the Air Force, already late and way over budget, has been further delayed from this fall into next year, according to a person familiar with the schedule.
Flight testing and certification milestones have been missed and various problems have emerged in flight test, including instances of the extendable fuel boom scraping against the receiver aircraft.
In May, KC-46 program manager Mike Gibbons showed off progress on building the tankers in Everett and said the first tanker would fly around October and soon after would be delivered to the Air Force.
That hope has vanished.
“It is unlikely first delivery is this year,” said the person with knowledge of the problems and the schedule.
At an Air Force Association (AFA) conference near Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Air Force Gen. Carlton Everhart, the head of Air Mobility Command, said he’s now hoping for first delivery in “early 2018,” according to online defense industry magazine Breaking Defense.
Further slips in the tanker production schedule are almost certain.
A March report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said Boeing is committed to hand over the first 18 operational tankers to the Air Force by February 2018.
To count as “fully capable,” half the tankers need to be able to refuel some aircraft from special pods on the wings as well as from the standard rigid boom. So Boeing was also committed to deliver nine sets of Wing Air Refueling Pods by October 2018.
Both those deadlines are now at risk. Fixing the issues and scrambling to get certified in time is also costing Boeing more than planned.
Boeing tanker spokeswoman Caroline Hutcheson conceded Tuesday there is “near-term cost and schedule pressure.”
The Air Force wants a total of 179 of the KC-46 tankers, a contract worth more than $40 billion to Boeing.
Previous tanker development problems had already left the program 14 months behind schedule and piled up $1.7 billion in accounting write-offs.
As the end of development nears, Boeing now has six tanker airplanes in flight test and more than 30 others flowing through the production lines in Everett, Hutcheson said.
One issue that’s arisen in flight testing, reported by Bloomberg News at the end of last month, is that the tip of the refueling boom is making contact and scraping receiving aircraft outside the receptacle area.
“We’re working with the Air Force to understand the concern,” Hutcheson told Bloomberg then. “This type of contact happens occasionally with all tanker aircraft, so we are trying to determine how the KC-46 rates compare with current fleet norms.”
However, the main drag on the program seems to be the time it’s taking to crunch through the rigorous regime of testing required for certification.
The KC-46 tanker, a modified variant of the 767 commercial airliner, must earn an amended flight certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as well as military certification from the Pentagon.
“We still have a significant amount of work in front of us to complete certification testing and other activities. It’s a day-by-day process to meet certification requirements,” Hutcheson said. “We’re working closely with the Air Force.”