EVERETT — Two down, 177 to go.
The Boeing Co. delivered the first KC-46 aerial-refueling tankers to the U.S. Air Force in a ceremony Thursday at the company’s assembly plant at Paine Field.
Hundreds of Boeing workers, Air Force personnel and company executives crowded the 767 factory floor to mark a major milestone in a long, complicated, often-troubled $44 billion program that eventually will deliver 179 of the planes to the Air Force.
Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said the tanker deliveries solidified Boeing as the tanker company for the Air Force and “for the world.”
Gen. Maryanne Miller, commander of the Air Force Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, accepted delivery on behalf of Heather Wilson, secretary of the Air Force. Wilson’s plane — “not a Boeing aircraft,” Miller noted — was delayed and the secretary didn’t arrive until the ceremony was over.
Miller thanked Boeing workers — “all the men and women who put their heart and soul into this airplane.”
“Our airmen are excited to get their hands on this plane,” Miller said.
Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s chairman, president and CEO, said the tanker has already logged 3,800 hours in the air and has delivered four million pounds of fuel in tests.
Boeing expects to deliver another half-dozen KC-46s to the Air Force over the next two months.
The KC-46 Pegasus, as it’s nicknamed, is based on the 767 commercial airplane platform and is assembled in Everett before being fully outfitted for military use. Besides being capable of refueling other airplanes in flight, the Pegasus is designed also to carry cargo, troops and medevac patients, depending on the need. It will replace an aging fleet of KC-135 tankers — derived from the commercial Boeing 707. Some of those planes have been in use for a half-century.
There was no mention Thursday of the tanker program’s controversial history.
The backstory includes political maneuvering, alleged corruption, hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns, technical glitches and the hue and cry of federal government officials irked by Boeing’s tardiness and a perceived focus on non-defense product lines.
During a U.S. House Services Committee hearing last spring, Air Force Secretary Wilson told lawmakers: “One of our frustrations with Boeing is that they are much more focused on their commercial activity than they are in getting this right for the Air Force and getting these airplanes to the Air Force.”
The tanker is more than two years behind schedule. Deadlines have come and gone. Eighteen KC-46 tankers were to have been delivered to the Air Force by August 2017.
When technical problems surfaced, including an issue with the tanker’s refueling system — its raison d’etre — delivery deadlines were pushed back.
One of the tanker program’s technical snafus involves the refueling apparatus. A 59-foot connector, or boom, is controlled by an operator who relies on multiple cameras and sensors to guide it. A glitch in the camera system surfaced that caused the boom to miss the mark and scrape an aircraft it was refueling.
Sean Martin, head of Boeing boom testing, said Thursday that the system is usable 97 percent of the time. Martin, an Air Force veteran, defended the system.
“If I believed the vision system wasn’t working, I would stand up and say ‘this is unsafe,’ ” he said.
The problem is still being worked on.
Thursday’s event, though, focused on the accomplishment of delivering the first airplanes, with a KC-46 parked behind the dais inside the main factory in Everett.
It is an innovative aircraft. It can refuel two planes at the same time, and at night. It can carry more than 100 passengers or 56 patients or 18 cargo pallets. That’s twice the number of people and three times the cargo than the KC-135 it replaces.
The fuel tanks on the KC-46 can be removed as a unit, eliminating the need for repair crews to go inside the tanks to work on them
The plane’s fuel, hydraulics, oxygen and other systems can be serviced from the ground. That feature saves time and allows the tanker to quickly get back in the air.
It can refuel all U.S., allied and coalition military aircraft — everything from an F-16 fighter to a giant C-17 transport.
The two tankers feted Thursday are to be flown on Friday to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas.