Japan rejects 767 tanker

EVERETT – A fully built Boeing Co. 767 refueling tanker remains parked at an airfield, waiting to be delivered.

But Boeing’s customer, Japan, won’t take the tanker as is. And Boeing officials aren’t saying why exactly.

A recently published article in a defense journal suggests that Boeing has hit a snag in convincing Japan that its first 767 tanker meets the necessary standards and certifications.

“The airplane is ready to go,” said Bill Barksdale, spokesman for Boeing’s tanker program. “We’ve got a customer that needs a tanker. We’re working with our customer to get it delivered.”

At the heart of the debate is Federal Aviation Administration certification for a valve that controls air circulation in the tanker, InsideDefense reported, citing FAA documents. Boeing altered the valve when it modified its FAA-certified commercial 767 jet into a refueling tanker. The agency has yet to sign off on the new device.

Boeing is quick to point out that it isn’t seeking full aircraft certification from the FAA. Instead, the company seeks military qualifications with limited FAA involvement, Barksdale said. The tanker already meets Boeing’s qualification process for military aircraft – aircraft that aren’t certified typically through the FAA.

Barksdale declined to comment on whether Japan is seeking compensation for the delay. Boeing initially planned to deliver the first tanker to Japan in February.

The bigger concern for Boeing, perhaps, is how the glitch will affect its bid to win a multibillion-dollar contract supplying the U.S. Air Force with refueling tankers. In April, Boeing handed over to the Air Force its proposal to use tankers based on its Everett-built 767 jet. It faces competition from partners Northrop Grumman and European Aerospace Defence and Space Co., the parent company of rival planemaker Airbus.

Industry analyst Scott Hamilton downplayed Boeing’s trouble with Japan’s tanker.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Boeing will solve this issue,” Hamilton said.

The issue has been isolated to a minor component, not a major structure like a wing box, he said.

Japan’s air force has ordered four 767 tankers from Boeing, as has Italy’s military, which hasn’t yet taken delivery of its planes.

To build the tankers, Boeing is taking its commercial 767s and modifying the jets in Wichita, Kan. That’s where the tanker destined for Japan now sits.

Barksdale says Boeing is learning lessons from its problem with the Japan tanker that will help the company should it secure the Air Force contract.

“It’s going to be a smoother process,” he said.

If it wins the Air Force contract, the company will streamline the process, with Everett workers building a tanker version of the 767-200 Longer Range freighter and the company’s employees in Wichita installing military refueling systems. The Air Force plans to announce the winner of the tanker bid later this year.

Although the timing of Boeing’s tanker trouble couldn’t be worse, Hamilton doesn’t foresee it hurting Boeing’s chances with the U.S. Air Force contract.

“This is a hiccup, maybe an embarrassment at most,” he said.

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