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Spirit celebrates rollout of new tanker fuselage

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, July 26, 2013, at 11:45 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, July 27, 2013, at 7:05 a.m.

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Spirit rolls out forward fuselage for new Air Force tanker

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Spirit AeroSystems on Friday celebrated the roll-out of the first forward fuselage section to be shipped to Boeing for the Air Force’s new KC-46 refueling tanker.

The cab section was on display at an event attended by Spirit employees and Air Force, Boeing, city, county and state officials.

“We are all so incredibly thankful to the employees of Spirit who made this happen,” said Larry Lawson, Spirit CEO and president.

Spirit will ship the section to Boeing’s plant in Everett, Wash., on Tuesday, on time and on schedule, company officials said.

Boeing will build 179 KC-46 tankers – gas stations in the sky – for the Air Force to replace an aging fleet of aging KC-135 tankers. The average age of the current fleet is 51 years.

Every day, pilots across the road from Spirit at McConnell Air Force Base fly the KC-135R tankers.

“It’s a great platform,” Maj. Gen. John Thompson, U.S. Air Force program executive director for tankers, told attendees at the roll-out. “It gives gas all over the world.”

Four hundred tankers are stationed around the globe. But they need to be replaced.

“Our war fighters do their absolute best with them, but they need something better – they need something newer,” Thompson said.

The KC-46A is the answer, he said.

Besides refueling capabilities, the tankers will be able to perform multiple missions and offer increased cargo handling, passenger carrying and air medical capabilities.

The stability of the program, despite sequestration, is “fantastic,” he said.

“I am counting on you to deliver these planes on time and with high quality so our war fighters can safely, efficiently and effectively do their job to protect our freedom,” Thompson said.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, said the mechanics, pilots and refuelers who maintain and operate the new tankers in the future may not know the names of the workers who are building them today.

But, Pompeo said, “there will come a day when it matters” that the aircraft can take off on time, flies correctly and completes a refueling mission.

That way, “we can do the things we do to keep everyone safe here in the United States of America,” Pompeo said.

The program is performing to plan and has met or exceeded all major milestones, said Maureen Dougherty, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for the tanker.

“We are on a fast track,” Dougherty said.

First flight of the tanker is expected in June 2014 with first deliveries beginning in early 2016.

“We’ve had such great performance and commitment by our key suppliers,” Dougherty said. “Spirit is one of the most major suppliers on the program.”

Boeing is performing to plan and meeting or exceeding all the major milestones on the tanker program, she said.

Earlier this month, the Air Force conducted a critical design review of the tanker. While the final report has not come back, Boeing received positive feedback from the review, Dougherty said.

Spirit was announced as a major supplier on the program in June 2011. Besides the forward fuselage section, known as Section 41, Spirit builds strut and nacelle components in Wichita and the fixed leading edge for the wing in Prestwick, Scotland.

“We are proud to be part of the next generation of aerial refueling tankers, and to support our war fighters both home and abroad by providing this critical capability,” said Kris Atcheson, director of Spirit’s tanker program.

The tanker is based on Boeing’s commercial widebody 767 airliner.

At Spirit, the sections go down the same assembly line as the 767s, but the tanker sections have about 2,500 unique parts, Atcheson said.

Spirit uses 111 suppliers from Wichita and elsewhere for the tanker program.

One supplier includes Wichita’s Product Manufacturing Corp., which builds the aerial receptacle refueling panel, Atcheson said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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