Test plane takes first flight for Boeing tanker program

  • By Dan Catchpole Herald writer
  • Sunday, December 28, 2014 10:04pm
  • Business

EVERETT — The Boeing Co.’s aerial-refueling tanker program moved ahead Sunday morning as the first test plane, a non-military version of the KC-46 tanker took off on the program’s first test flight before 9:30 a.m. The early morning sun’s rays caught the plane engines’ exhaust as it roared down the runway at Paine Field.

The test flight marks the beginning of a fast-paced flight testing schedule with little margin for delays or other problems.

With the flight test program six months behind schedule — due largely to problems with the plane’s wiringBoeing has focused on getting the first test airplane into the air. So, while most of Boeing’s Everett plant has been quiet for the holidays, workers on the KC-46 program have put in long hours to get the first airplane ready to fly.

The first test plane is a non-military version of the tanker, designated a 767-2C model, and it will be used to start the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification process. It is based on the 767-200ER, but it includes aspects of the 767-300 and -400, as well as a cockpit based on the 787.

The test plane spent just over three and a half hours in the air Sunday, cruising over Central Washington before returning to Western Washington and landing at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Boeing’s test pilot, Ron Johnston, said in a news release from the company that the airplane “performed flawlessly on its initial flight. We took it to 28,000 feet and near max speed, verified aircraft handling characteristics and most of the systems.”

“I’m really looking forward to putting the KC-46 program’s test aircraft through their paces as we move further into flight test,” he said.

As the U.S. military’s first next-generation tanker, the KC-46 will “become the backbone of our ability to project power anywhere in the world,” the Air Force’s Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson said Sunday.

The 767-2C test plane has a stronger airframe, extra fuel tanks, plumbing and wiring for its tanker role. But installation and testing of some non-essential systems have been delayed until after first flight.

Earlier this month, Richardson said 23 functional tests will still have to be finished after the first 767-2C flight.

The first actual military KC-46 — complete with a refueling boom — is expected to fly in the second half of April, Richardson said.

That plane will have about 120 miles of wiring, substantially more than on the 767-2C version that flew Sunday.

Richardson said that wiring fixes on the first test plane have worked “out really well,” and that by mid-December, about 78 percent of the wiring had been installed on the second test plane.

In all, Boeing has four test airplanes in production as part of a $4.4 billion design and development contract, which requires the Chicago-based company to deliver 18 tankers to the Air Force by August 2017.

Boeing is expected to give the Air Force a revised development-and-production schedule in February.

The company plans to get all the test planes into the air this year, Boeing said Sunday.

The test planes will be used to complete FAA and military certification, and to identify any problems to fix in production. Test flights scheduled for this summer will include passing fuel to a variety of military aircraft.

The Pentagon will consider results from those and other tests when it decides in September on whether to give Boeing the green light for full production. The Air Force has ordered 179 tankers worth an estimated $51 billion to replace 1950s-era KC-135 tankers.

The Air Force anticipates some wrinkles during test flights, but the airplane relies on mostly mature technology, so these issues should be minor, Richardson said.

For example, the KC-46 will use the boom used on the KC-10, the Air Force’s biggest tanker. But the control system software is very different. On the KC-46, the operator uses video displays at a station behind the cockpit to guide the telescopic boom to aircraft receiving fuel. In earlier tankers, the operator controlled the boom from the airplane’s tail, using his own eyes.

Video guidance of a tanker boom isn’t new. “It’s been done” before, such as on the Italian Air Force’s tanker, Richardson said.

Software integration has gone fairly smoothly with only a 4 percent increase in code, and Boeing has already resolved many problems that have come up, he said.

However, it remains a potential risk area for new problems.

Boeing has addressed many potential software problems in five test labs set up to support tanker development. The company has previously said it plans to keep the labs open to support the KC-46 when it is in production, and future aircraft development.

The tanker’s development cost have shot past the $4.4 billion contract, which caps the federal government’s share at $4.9 billion. The Air Force’s latest estimate is $6.4 billion, which would leave Boeing on the hook for $1.5 billion.

Boeing continues “to aggressively work plans to drive productivity, mitigate risks and lower our costs,” company spokesman Chick Ramey said earlier this month.

Getting the production contract will give the airplane maker plenty of time to make up the program’s development costs.

Also, landing the tanker contract, dubbed the KC-X, leaves Boeing well-positioned to land the Air Force’s next contract. The Air Force plans to replace the rest of its aging fleet of more than 500 tankers with two additional programs, called KC-Y and KC-Z. The KC-Y contract is expected to replace all remaining KC-135s, and the KC-Z contract will be to find a successor for the Air Force’s largest tanker, the KC-10, which is based on Douglas’ DC-10.

The Pentagon will start working on the KC-Y program in 2017, with first delivery in 2028 or later, Ed Gulick, an Air Force spokesman, said earlier this year.

Boeing hopes to also find buyers for the KC-46 overseas. Company executives hope that exports plus sales to the U.S. military will push tanker production to “400 or 500 aircraft,” Boeing President Dennis Muilenburg told analysts in a call earlier this month.

The tanker, which can serve as a cargo plane, troop carrier or medical-evacuation plane, and the P-8 anti-submarine warfare plane, figure to be key parts of Boeing defense sales in coming years. Both are based on commercial jetliners and built in metro Puget Sound. In 2012, an estimated 5,100 jobs were directly tied to Boeing’s 767 program, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the Washington Aerospace Partnership, an industry-advocacy group.

However, the company has lost several foreign contracts to its rival Airbus Group NV, which has offered a multi-role tanker based on its A330 jetliner.

Airbus won orders for three tankers this month from three European nations — The Netherlands, Norway and Poland. And France earlier this year committed to 12 Airbus tankers.

The European airplane maker has netted orders for 34 tankers from Australia, the U.K., United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India and Singapore.

Boeing has tallied only eight foreign orders from Italy and Japan.

The two companies are still competing for orders for four tankers from South Korea and another four for Poland.

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

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