A worker uses a lift to get onto the wing of a KC-46 Pegasus tanker plane, one of four, at the Boeing Everett Modification Center on Friday. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Testing, certification the last big hurdle in tanker production

EVERETT — Already behind schedule, Boeing’s KC-46 aerial refueling tanker is going to be later still.

When Boeing delivers the first KC-46 late this year, the U.S. Air Force will get the most-versatile tanker in the world, company officials say.

Completing testing and certification is the last big hurdle. Boeing is more than halfway through the process, but plenty more remains.

Clearing Federal Aviation Administration certification “is our current challenge for completing the program,” said Mike Gibbons, a Boeing vice president and general manger of the KC-46 program.

Last month, Boeing added a sixth test plane to quicken its progress through testing and certification. Earlier this year, the company told government officials that it had condensed the testing and certification schedule, and that it expected to start delivering three tankers a month in September and finish in February 2018.

A March report from the Government Accountability Office cautioned that the pace was ambitious and at risk of taking longer than expected. At the time, Boeing dismissed the report as overly cautious. However, the first KC-46A Pegasus slated for delivery is not expected to fly until October, Gibbons said.

The original deadline was to deliver the first 18 combat-ready tankers to the Air Force by this August.

Supplier and design problems dogged the tanker’s development. Boeing won the contract to develop the tanker for the Air Force in 2011. The tanker is based on its successful 767 jetliner.

The contract capped taxpayer costs at $4.9 billion. The delays and changes have cost Boeing roughly $2 billion in cost overruns. The latest charge was for $140 million, which Boeing reported in April. It came from the cost of rolling lessons from flight testing back into the production line, Gibbons said.

“We don’t expect to learn anything more out of flight testing,” he said.

Ground testing going on now at Edwards Air Force Base in California and next month at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland could uncover other rework, which would happen this summer, he said.

With testing and certification about 65 percent complete, the list of things that can create expensive surprises for Boeing is dwindling.

The Air Force plans to buy 179 KC-46s over the next 10 years as it begins upgrading its aging tanker fleet. The U.S. has more than 400 jet tankers. Most are Boeing KC-135s, which were developed in the 1950s. McDonnell Douglas designed the bigger KC-10 in the 1970s.

Unlike those older tankers, the KC-46 is built to perform multiple missions. It can refuel aircraft in flight, haul cargo, and move passengers or medical patients. It takes less than two hours to switch from one role to the other.

The KC-46 can refuel two aircraft at the same time with hoses — called drogues — trailing from pods mounted near its wingtips. It also can extend a single drogue or a boom — essentially a rigid straw — from the rear of its fuselage.

No tanker has ever gone through FAA certification before, a process that has proven much more time consuming than Boeing originally had expected. Only about 3 percent of the aircraft and its systems receive only military certification because it’s classified material.

The plane can operate covertly at night without lights visible to the naked eye. Instead, the tanker has infrared lights to direct the pilots flying fighter jets and other aircraft coming in to gas up. Those pilots use night-vision goggles to see the infrared lights. On current tankers, huge incandescent floodlights bathe the boom.

In mid-December, Boeing and Air Force test crews flying in a KC-46 over Eastern Washington successfully refueled a C-17 cargo plane at night and without visible lights. The operation went so smoothly, the C-17 pilots said they prefer the blacked-out method to floodlights, said Sean Martin, head of Boeing’s boom testing.

When a pilot puts on or takes off night-vision goggles, it takes 15 minutes for the eyes to adjust. That costs valuable time and fuel during combat. The KC-46 system means American warplanes will have more time over targets — if it comes to that, he said.

“We’ve designed a system so good, it’s going to change how the Air Force fights,” Martin said.

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

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Small business relief effort inundated with 850 applications

The economy in and around Everett has struggled amid fallen revenues and uncertainty about the future.

‘Hundreds of millions’ in bogus jobless benefits paid out

Washington state has been reported as the top target of a Nigerian fraud ring.

Marysville drivers wait overnight for Chick-fil-A opening

The popular chicken restaurant began serving at 6:30 a.m. Thursday. Police plan to guide traffic for days.

Tulalip Resort Casino and Quil Ceda Creek to open Tuesday

Guests must wear a mask and occupancy is limited, the Tulalip Tribes announced Wednesday.

As Arlington gym closes, a Snohomish barber continues to cut

PA Fitness closed after the state attorney general filed a lawsuit. “We would lose,” a co-owner conceded.

FAA says it will let Boeing employees vouch for plane safety

The agency defended the current system but identified areas for improvement. Some lawmakers disagree.

Fraudsters using local identities for phony jobless claims

The Everett School District, for example, saw about 310 false claims using employees’ personal information.

State sues an Arlington gym for violating stay-home order

“It is my constitutional right to be open,” says a co-owner of PA Fitness. He plans to countersue.

Heavy traffic expected when Chick-fil-A opens in Marysville

The city warns there will likely be delays for days along 88th Street NE. near the new restaurant.

Somers announces $14 million in relief for small businesses

One program will target aerospace companies. The other will focus on service and retail industries.

Paine Field terminal to close for 71 days of ramp repairs

Alaska is down to one departure per day due to the coronavirus outbreak’s effect on travel.

Quarantini time! New state rule allows cocktails to-go

Enjoy a margarita or a Manhattan with lunch or dinner to go. At Buck’s in Everett, you keep the mason jar.