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McConnell flight crews get a sneak feel for KC-46A tanker’s technology

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, at 4:54 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, March 26, 2014, at 11:38 a.m.

KC-46A Tanker Demonstrator

McConnell Air Force Base tanker crew members get their first look at the new KC-46A through a demonstrator. (Video by Rick Plumlee, Nov. 14, 2013)

The new KC-46A refueling tanker paid a visit Thursday to McConnell Air Force Base.

Not all 165 1/2 feet of the tanker, of course. The first test aircraft won’t roll out of Boeing’s plant in Seattle until the first quarter of 2014, with the first test flight a year later.

But a 53-foot trailer containing KC-46A demonstrators – two for pilots, two for boom operators – pulled into a McConnell parking lot overnight. More than 500 flight crew members slipped inside the trailer, sat at a station and got their first feel for the KC-46A’s wealth of technology.

“She’s awesome,” Capt. Derek St. John said. “She handles like a gem.”

St. John has been flying the venerable KC-135 tankers since 2005. But if everything continues to go as expected, McConnell will begin receiving the KC-46A in 2016 as the old tankers are phased out over the next two decades.

The demonstrators weren’t close to a full-scale simulator, which gives flight crews the actual feel of flying and is far more realistic. But the demonstrators gave crews a sneak peek and feel for new technology.

And with the new tanker replacing one that is almost 60 years old, there is plenty to upgrade.

The new tanker means boom operators – the ones who do the mid-air refueling of the other aircraft – can get up off their bellies in the back of the tanker and have a seat toward the cockpit in front of a computer screen.

“Sitting up will be a nice advantage,” Senior Airman Alexis Mitchell said after completing her turn at a demonstrator. “This is very unique.”

She has spent her two years as a boom operator on the KC-135 lying on her stomach, looking through a window as she manually handles the controls that put the refueling boom in the gas tank of the plane just below her.

Just the right touch and feel is required.

Now, she and other boom operators will use a computer to direct the refueling. There are two additional screens to the side of the main screen, allowing the operators to get a better view of planes off to the side.

“Now we have to ask the pilot,” Mitchell said. “This is more visual. There’s more situational awareness.”

The boom operators also will wear 3-D glasses to improve their depth perception during the refueling process.

Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build 179 KC-46A tankers, which are scheduled to be delivered to the Air Force between 2016 and 2027. More specifically, Boeing is putting the military components on the airframe of its existing 767.

The Air Force says the new tanker will fulfill more roles, including carrying three times as much cargo weight and more patients on medical evacuations. With new refueling technology and equipment, the KC-46A will be able to gas up all U.S., allied and coalition military aircraft while in the air.

Ron Johnston, Boeing’s chief pilot for the KC-46A, was on hand Thursday to answer pilots’ questions. A retired Air Force pilot, he flew tankers and has flown 767s since 1997.

“There’s a huge difference between this and the KC-135s,” Johnston said. “These are easier to handle. They’re also quieter, more fuel efficient, more reliable.”

He’ll be the pilot when the KC-46A has its first test flight, scheduled for the first quarter of 2015.

After a long selection process, McConnell in May was named the preferred choice as the main active-duty base to eventually receive 36 new tankers. The first two are scheduled to arrive in 2016, officials said.

An environmental impact study has to be completed before the Air Force will make its official final selection next spring.

Meanwhile, McConnell’s crews were getting a scaled-down look at what to expect.

“It should be a seamless transition,” St. John said.

But while he was impressed with all the technology, including the KC-46A’s ability to fly on autopilot from takeoff to landing, he said there’s a fine line that pilots dare not cross.

“It’s important that pilots don’t get sucked into automation so much,” he said, “that they lose their pilot skills.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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