'Delivering, bringing home' KC-46 to McConnell is Boeing chief's priority

Boeing KC-46A air refueling tankers undergo modification Thursday at the company's Everett Modification Center.
Boeing KC-46A air refueling tankers undergo modification Thursday at the company's Everett Modification Center. The Wichita Eagle

Boeing officials are bound and determined to make sure McConnell Air Force Base gets its first KC-46A Pegasus air refueling tankers before the end of the year.

McConnell is the first active duty Air Force base slated to receive the new tankers. But work on the planes is months behind schedule. Boeing has committed to deliver 18 to the Air Force this year despite billions of dollars in extra development costs.

"I am totally in line with their sense of frustration. We have it ourselves," said Boeing Defense CEO Leanne Caret, who grew up in Derby and started her career with Boeing Wichita. "This is about, though, delivering it, bringing it home and getting this capability so that the men and women who proudly serve 24/7 have it."

Boeing is using the 767 passenger and freighter airframe for the KC-46, which will be faster, fly farther and be more fuel efficient than the aging KC-135 it replaces.

It also will be able to fuel a broader array of military aircraft because it has two different ways to provide fuel: through a boom mounted on rear of the plane and through a "drogue," which is akin to a flying hose. In that regard, it is unlike any other tanker airplane Boeing has manufactured, which has presented the company with challenges that have led to the delivery delays, which at this point are more of an irritation than a threat to the Air Force's readiness.

But even though Boeing officials seem highly confident in their ability to deliver the first round of planes this year, one government agency has said delivery of the planes could slip into next spring.

Last week, Boeing showed reporters a factory filled with four of the wide-body tankers. At the Everett Modification Center, workers were equipping the planes with systems that transform them into a tanker that can simultaneously refuel two military aircraft in flight, transport three times as much cargo and fly closer to a combat area because it's equipped with defensive systems.

On a nearby ramp, seven airplanes sat outside waiting to be outfitted with military gear.

Caret said 46 aircraft are in various stages of conversion to KC-46s. So far the Air Force has formally awarded Boeing contracts totaling $4.9 billion for 34 tankers and spare parts, though the company expects to deliver 179 of the planes over the life of the program.

"When you start thinking about this, this isn't about one aircraft and we're going to get started on another one," she said. "We have an entire fleet of tankers here and as we get toward that first delivery we're going to be able to really just start ramping up and getting these to the customer the way they need them."

In a report on April 18, the federal Government Accountability Office cited several reasons why delivery of the first KC-46s could move beyond the revised delivery date of October 2018 into next spring instead. Among the reasons: difficulty contacting the boom with an aircraft receiving gas, retrofitting the aircraft already finished with the fixes and completing all the flight tests in a time that would require Boeing to nearly double its testing pace.

"A schedule risk assessment, as well as GAO’s analysis, however projects that deliveries could slip to May 2019, 21 months from the original schedule, if risks are not mitigated," the report said.

Construction boom at McConnell

Col. Mark Baran, chief of McConnell's KC-46 program integration office, said McConnell is ready to receive the airplane.

Its designation as the first base to receive the tankers is key to the future of McConnell, which has 3,000 airmen and employs about 500 civilians.

McConnell has completed 16 projects totaling $267 million in new construction for the tankers, including three new hangars that have a combined 297,000 square feet, he said.

Eventually, McConnell will have 36 of the new tankers, replacing its fleet of KC-135s that were manufactured between 1957 and 1963.

Besides the airplane's more modern systems and the capability to fly more cargo, Baran said one of its more important attributes is its ability to defend itself. Unlike the KC-135, the KC-46 has defensive systems such as infrared countermeasures, including the ability to disable laser guided missiles.

That, Baran said, improves tanker crews' situational awareness and allows them to fly closer to the battlefield. And that means U.S. aircraft actively engaged in combat don't have to travel as far to refuel because the new tankers can protect themselves.

95 percent complete?

During last week's tanker tour, Boeing officials identified several challenges they have encountered in developing the airplane and talked about what they've done to overcome them.

Earlier, Boeing encountered troubles qualifying and certifying the airplane’s center-line drogue and wing-aerial refueling pod systems. Those can extend as much as 75 feet from their housing to refuel some Navy, Air Force and coalition planes that can't be refueled with the boom because they don't have a receptacle to accept gas from the boom.

With those problems behind them, Boeing still has about three aircraft it needs to finish certification testing on for air-to-air refueling: the KC-135, the F-16 Falcon fighter jet and the C-17 cargo jet, said Jeanette Croppi, KC-46 test program manager.

Otherwise, she said, the airplane's certification test program is 95 percent complete.

Recently, during flight testing of the airplane — Boeing has six KC-46s in the flight test program — company officials have noted a new problem. In certain conditions, a locking mechanism on the drogue's hose has been unlocking before refueling is complete.

But Mike Gibbons, Boeing vice president and KC-46 Tanker program manager, said the company has learned it can fix that premature unlocking of the hose by "tuning" the software that controls the locking mechanism.

Tuning the software also was the fix the company discovered for when the refueling boom missed making contact with the receptacle on an aircraft.

Boom operators on the KC-46 control the boom from a panel located by the tanker's cockpit. The system has seven cameras mounted on the outside of the plane and four screens placed around the panel to control the boom. The problem, which Gibbons said occurred in a "small percentage" of test flights, was generally occurring when the boom operator couldn't clearly see because views on the screen were blocked or distorted because of the position of the sun. Officials adjusted the software on the remote vision system.

"What we needed to do was manage low light conditions," said Sean Martin, KC-46 chief air refueling operator.

Gibbons said that issue has largely been corrected and the solution, which he called an enhancement to the remote vision system, is being tested now.

"That's not going to hold up delivery of the jet," Gibbons said.

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark