At long last, first KC-46 Pegasus tankers to land in Wichita

McConnell Air Force Base is expected to get its first two KC-46A Pegasus tankers on Friday after a decade of controversy, uncertainty and delays.

The first planes — a modified Boeing 767 — are expected to arrive at the Wichita base sometime Friday afternoon, almost two years behind schedule. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, and Rep. Ron Estes are expected to attended an official welcoming ceremony.

When the first plane lands, the promise of long-term economic opportunity for some of Wichita’s largest employers — McConnell and Spirit Aerosystems — will land with it.

What’s good for McConnell is good for the local economy, the base’s latest economic impact statement suggests.

As the base prepared for the tankers, adding jobs and upgrading infrastructure, McConnell’s economic impact on the Wichita area grew to $617.2 million last year, up $31.1 million from the year before.

McConnell announced in September that it was adding at least 400 positions to support the KC-46. Outside of the base, McConnell created an estimated 2,500 indirect jobs in 2018, according to its economic impact statement.

Spirit manufactures the airplane’s forward fuselage section, pylons, engine cowlings and wing leading edge. The company is expected to add 1,400 jobs in Wichita this year.

The KC-46 is expected to be faster and more efficient than the KC-135, currently in use at McConnell. It can hold 212,000 lbs of fuel for refueling, 12,000 more 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.

Wichita is supposed to get 36 of the new tankers eventually. But there’s still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the plane, and further delays are expected.

The Air Force accepted the first delivery of the tankers earlier this month despite problems with its remote-vision system, which Boeing has agreed to pay to fix. Boeing has racked up more than $3 billion in charges related to delays. The company expects to build 179 of the aerial refueling tankers as part of a $44 billion dollar deal.

Now defense-contractor giants Airbus and Lockheed Martin have launched a joint venture exploring ways replace the Air Force’s aging refueling fleet beyond the KC-46. That presents a challenge to Boeing’s stronghold on refueling tanker contracts and adds an extra layer of unpredictability.

Officials have not said when the KC-46 will begin flying on active missions.

McConnell expects to get 18 tankers in the first phase of deliveries from Boeing. The company said the first four planes will go to McConnell and another four could go to Oklahoma’s Altus Air Force Base next month. But after Friday’s delivery, it’s not clear when the remaining tankers will come to Wichita.

A report by the Defense Contract Management Agency released this week predicts Boeing will not deliver the rest of its initial tankers until as late as September 2020.

That delay is expected because a U.K.-based Boeing subcontractor, Cobham, is working to meet Federal Aviation Administration compliance on wing-mounted pods that allow the KC-46 to refuel two aircraft at once — one of the new capabilities the KC-46 is supposed to offer compared with the KC-135. The pods were originally scheduled for delivery in August 2017.

Controversy over the tanker stretches back beyond issues with the KC-46.

The Air Force began making plans to replace the aging KC-135s in 2001, the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Pentagon leaders tried to push through a deal with Boeing, in a lease-to-own type of agreement, for 100 tankers based on the 767.

But before the deal went anywhere, an investigation was launched into the bidding process that ended with several resignations and prison sentences for former Air Force and Boeing officials. Boeing paid $615 million in fines for its involvement in the scandal.

When the project reopened for bid, Boeing lost to the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, the parent company of Airbus, and Northrup Grumman, a military contractor in Los Angeles. Boeing contested the bid and the contract was eventually reopened.

Ten years after the initial talks of an agreement, Boeing ended up with the tanker contract in 2011. The company was still in Wichita and claimed a victory would have an economic impact of $388 million a year in Kansas and 7,500 jobs in the state. Its Wichita plant was to be the finishing center to convert the 767 jets to tankers.

Then, less than a year later, Boeing announced it was leaving Wichita.

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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.