Air Force accepts long-delayed Boeing tanker, bringing the KC-46 to Wichita soon

The wait is almost over for Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base. The KC-46A Pegasus tanker could come to town by the end of the month, officials say.

The delivery will happen despite unresolved deficiencies in the long-delayed plane, according to an Air Force spokesperson.

Air Force Cpt. Hope Cronin called the decision to accept the plane from Boeing “a major milestone for our next generation tanker” that will allow the Air Force to begin operational testing and flight training. She also said the plane has deficiencies in its remote vision system that Boeing will fix at its own expense.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who is on the Senate’s defense appropriations subcommittee, said he’s “pleased that the KC-46A will finally be coming home to McConnell Air Force Base.”

An official with Sen. Pat Roberts’ office said the Air Force expects a formal delivery of the first plane by the end of January. A Boeing official confirmed that timeline and said the company signed the official paperwork to handover the planes Thursday morning.

McConnell was selected as the first active-duty base in the country to receive the new refueling tankers, which will replace KC-135s that have been in service since the Cold War. Boeing said the first delivery to McConnell will be four planes.

Thirty-six of the tankers will come to Wichita eventually, a spokesman for McConnell said. Boeing is on contract for 52 planes. It expects to deliver 179 of the new tankers to the Air Force by 2027.

Boeing missed multiple deadlines on the KC-46, pushing back the date of first delivery by almost two years. The company was originally scheduled to deliver the first tanker as early as April 2016 and the remainder of the first 18 tankers by August 2017.

When that didn’t happen, it said it would complete the first delivery by October 2018, and then by the end of 2018. The planemaker missed those deadlines, in part because of turnover at the Pentagon and Trump’s pick for acting defense secretary, who is a former Boeing executive.

The decision to accept the planes was made by Ellen Lord, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, Bloomberg reported.

The tankers coming to Wichita signal potential for long-term economic benefits to the “Air Capital of the World” and future stability for two of the area’s largest employers — McConnell and Spirit AeroSystems, which manufactures the airplane’s forward fuselage section, pylons, engine cowlings and wing leading edge. Combined, the two employers have nearly 20,000 full-time employees in Wichita. Last month, Spirit announced it was adding 1,400 more jobs in Wichita this year.

The KC-46A is expected to replace the KC-135 air refueling tankers that dominate McConnell’s two air refueling wings, the 22nd and 931st. It’s expected to be faster, fly farther and be more fuel efficient than the Cold War-era tankers in use today.

The KC-46 can hold 212,000 lbs of fuel for refueling, 12,000 more than the KC-135. It also refuels faster than the KC-135. The KC-46 refuels at a rate of 1,200 gallons a minute compared with 1,176 gallons a minute for the KC-135.

McConnell’s KC-46A Pegasus Fuselage Training Facility has been in use since May, and will train Air Force personnel from across the country.

Lawmakers from Kansas were quick to offer praise of the deal.

“They have been preparing and training to receive the first of the fleet and they are ready to fuel the fight,” Roberts said in a written statement.

“The Airmen at McConnell have a global reach in refueling missions and with the arrival of the KC-46A,” Moran said in a statement. “McConnell will continue to be the nation’s ‘Super Tanker’ base for years to come.”

Rep. Ron Estes said he has helped mediate the relationship between the U.S. Air Force and Boeing to ensure delivery of the KC-46.

“This is a big win for our community and country and I look forward to providing even more aircraft and equipment to maintain our efforts to rebuild the military,” Estes said in a written statement.

The tankers are still “years away” from clearing technical hurdles, including problems with the remote vision system, according to a report by DefenseNews. B

We have identified, and Boeing has agreed to fix at its expense, deficiencies discovered in developmental testing of the remote vision system,” Cronin, a spokesperson for the Air Force, said. “The Air Force has mechanisms in place to ensure Boeing meets its contractual obligations while we continue with initial operational testing and evaluation.”

Remote vision is one of the key differences between the KC-46 and the tankers already in use. In legacy tankers, like the KC-135, boom operators can see out a window in the back of the plane to guide the boom into place for refueling. The KC-46 relies on cameras and sensors to remotely control the boom. Certain lighting conditions could mislead operators, which could lead to costly and potentially dangerous mistakes.

Despite the problems with the remote vision system, Boeing’s President and CEO of Defense, Space and Security Leanne Caret said the planes are ready and safe, pointing to the 3,800 hours of completed flight hours and more than 4 million pounds of fuel delivered during testing.

“The KC-46A is a proven, safe, multi-mission aircraft that will transform aerial refueling and mobility operations for decades to come,” Caret said.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.