McConnell hopes to get first KC-46 refueling tanker by end of December

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained a quote from a McConnell public affairs officer suggesting acquisition of the KC-46 tankers was guaranteed by the end of the year. Acquisition in 2018 is possible but not guaranteed.

After nearly two years of delays, the first KC-46 air refueling tankers could be in Wichita by the end of this month, an Air Force official said Wednesday.

Getting the next-generation tankers to Wichita has three components: “Getting the aircraft, having it arrive on station and giving it a proper historical ceremony that a new asset for the entire Air Force deserves,” said Lt. Daniel de La Fe, public affairs officer for the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell.

“So could those all occur on the same day in 2018? Yes. But they could occur separately with who knows what the amount of time in between.”

Wichita was chosen as the first base to receive the long-awaited tankers. To prepare for the new aircraft, $267 million has been spent on 16 construction projects at the base. Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire also will receive tankers in the first round.

The tanker 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 KC-135s, which were manufactured between 1957 and 1963.

McConnell will receive 18 tankers in the first round of deliveries and will end up with a fleet of 36, said de La Fe said.

The first KC-46 was originally slated for delivery to Wichita in March 2017, but the tanker’s new features have been problematic for Boeing.

In June, Boeing Defense said it would deliver its first KC-46 air refueling tanker to McConnell in October. Two months later, the first tanker is yet to land. Boeing’s deadline to deliver the first tankers to the Air Force now is the end of 2018, de La Fe said.

“There’s been a lot of excitement and build-up,” de La Fe said.

While waiting for the tankers, a broad spectrum of Air Force personnel have been training on a replica fuselage since May, de La Fe said.

The KC-46A Pegasus Fuselage Training Facility, a $6.4 million, 13,000-sq.-ft. building, houses the replica. Crews load and unload cargo from the fuselage, familiarizing themselves with the different layout and working out the possible kinks before the tankers’ arrival.

De La Fe said the Wichita training facility will serve as a model for bases across the country.

The trainer fuselage was built by Aircrew Training Inc., a company from Broken Arrow, Okla. It’s used to train people from a broad spectrum of specialties, including cargo, fueling, emergency and maintenance, de La Fe said.

McConnell, in southeast Wichita, is one of the area’s largest employers, with about 3,000 airmen and about 500 civilian employees.

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.