GAO: Boeing shortens tanker test-flight program

EVERETT — Production problems have significantly shrunk Boeing’s test-flight program for the new Everett-built aerial-refueling tanker for the U.S. Air Force, according to a federal oversight report.

The greatly reduced flight-test plan means that Air Force officials will have less information when they decide in October whether to tell Boeing to start low-scale production of the 767-derived KC-46, according to the report released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office.

The original plan was to begin extensive flight-testing last summer and have enough data to get a green light for production from the Air Force by next fall. So far, the program’s sole test flight was three hours in late December by a 767-2C, an interim model. Boeing hasn’t said when it plans to resume flying the 767-2C.

The company had scheduled a fully configured KC-46’s inaugural flight for January, then April and now June.

The primary focus of the KC-46 flights “will now be spent on demonstrating aerial refueling capabilities — a key data point necessary to hold the low-rate production decision,” according to the GAO report.

The Air Force told the GAO that the production decision will only be made “after the required data is gathered …”

Significant risks remain that could cause further delays or create costly problems later if they are not addressed before production, the report says.

Potential problems include “late deliveries of key aerial refueling parts, a large number of software defects that need to be corrected, and optimistic flight test cycle assumptions,” the report says.

Every delay increases pressure on the company, which has promised to deliver the first 18 combat-ready tankers by August 2017.

In all, the Air Force plans to order 179 KC-46s — the first of a three-phase plan to replace an aging tanker fleet.

Buying those airplanes should actually cost taxpayers less than previously estimated, the GAO report says.

The total program cost — from development through production — is expected to be $48.9 billion, according to the report. That is about $2.8 billion, 5.4 percent, less than originally projected in 2011.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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