KC-46A tankers’ arrival at McConnell delayed until 2017

Crews examine a KC-46A tanker at its first flight on Sept. 25, 2015, in Everett, Wash.
Crews examine a KC-46A tanker at its first flight on Sept. 25, 2015, in Everett, Wash. Courtesy photo

The Boeing KC-46A refueling tanker, the highly anticipated Air Force plane set to replace the aging KC-135 tanker, will arrive later than expected.

Officials at McConnell Air Force Base, which will receive 36 of the new planes by 2020, said the first of the new planes will not start arriving until the spring of 2017.

The tankers were initially projected to start arriving in early 2016. That arrival date was later bumped to August.

The delay in receiving the tankers can be attributed to production delays at Boeing; the KC-46 is a militarized version of Boeing’s 767 airliner.

2nd Lt. Krystal Jimenez, media operations chief at McConnell, said the delay will not affect operations on the base. Construction to accommodate the planes upon their arrival is continuing, she said.

“They promised to get us a set amount of 46s before the deadline, and we’re still scheduled to receive all of them by that deadline,” she said.

“We’re still continuing to prepare, continuing to do construction. Delays to the aircraft don’t have anything to do with what’s going on at our base.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo, an outspoken advocate of the KC-46 tankers, said he has been “reassured by the Air Force that the contractor remains on schedule” to provide the first 18 KC-46s by its August 2017 deadline.

“As anyone associated with the aircraft industry knows, development and procurement timetables do have a tendency to slip,” Pompeo said in an emailed statement.

Initial stalls

The path to production for the KC-46 has been plagued with delays, so much so that Air Force Secretary Deborah James said in Congress last week there was “very little to no margin left in that timeframe.”

“We’re projecting aircraft to be arriving in the March of 2017 timeframe, if I’m not mistaken,” she said.

In 2014, Boeing reported wiring issues as well as software issues with the planes, postponing the scheduled first flight of the plane to 2015.

Then in 2015, a fuel system issue was discovered during testing. The KC-46 had its first official flight in September.

“Sometimes people forget that KC-46 is a developmental program,” said Boeing spokesman Charles Ramey. “It’s normal for issues to be discovered and fixed.”

Ramey said this week the KC-46 has since completed 40 flights and successfully refueled fighter jets. According to Boeing, the KC-46 has also been refueled in midair by another tanker model.

The company expects a “milestone C” decision – formal approval from Congress to begin production – in late spring.

While awaiting the decision, Boeing is building the first planes using its own funds, according to Ramey. The planes are assembled in Everett, Wash.

Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma will serve as the Air Force’s KC-46 formal training unit, and McConnell will be the first active-duty KC-46 main operating base, according to Air Force Maj. Robert Leese.

Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire will be the first Air National Guard-led KC-46 main operating base, Leese said.

Construction progressing

Projects to prepare for the arrival of the KC-46 tankers are underway at McConnell.

The final hangar will be completed in March 2017, as part of $267 million worth of construction projects through fiscal year 2017, according to the Air Force.

Ben Davis, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City District, said the hangars’ completion has been delayed twice.

The hangars had to be redesigned to accommodate changes in the life safety and fire suppression systems, following a fatality at Eglin Air Force Base in 2014 when the fire-suppression foam system was inadvertently activated.

“The biggest struggle has been the fire suppression, because (McConnell) just happened to be the first one to deal with these lessons learned,” Davis said. “We’ve taken a lot of effort and time to make sure we’re doing it correctly.”

The total cost of the hangars has gone up as a result of the redesign, but it is still “well-within what Congress appropriated for the project,” Davis said.

“When we made that decision last February, we were at a perfect, opportune time – we never had to tear out anything,” he said. “It was a perfect storm, you could say.

“There will be no retrofitting, which in government speak means that saves money and time down the road.”

Because of Boeing’s delay, the hangars will still be completed before the KC-46’s arrival, he said.

An additional $19.8 million is requested in the Department of Defense’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget to fund a new $11.2 million air traffic control tower on base, as well as various KC-46 projects.

On the Reserve side, the 931st Air Refueling Group is planning to add 400 new reservists upon the KC-46’s arrival. The unit – which will be designated a wing in April – will be the first Reserve associate unit to fly and maintain the KC-46 tankers.

Lt. Col. Corbett Peterson, who serves as the KC-46A Program Integration Office Chief, said McConnell will be “fully ready for the first delivery” of KC-46s in spring of 2017.

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

Timeline of the KC-46 at McConnell

2011: The Air Force selects Boeing to manufacture the KC-46A, a militarized version of its 767 jetliner, intended to be its next-generation refueling tanker.

2013: Air Force officials approve the design of the KC-46A. Wichita’s McConnell Air Force Base is chosen to be the first active-duty operating base for the tankers, bringing stability to the base in a time of base closings elsewhere.

2014: Boeing discovers issues with the wiring and software in the KC-46A design. Its first flight, originally scheduled for 2014, is delayed until 2015. At McConnell, $267 million of construction begins on base to support the KC-46 project.

2015: Additional issues are discovered with the fuel system on the KC-46A. The plane successfully completes its first flight in September.

2016: The KC-46A completes its first aerial refueling test mission, and further testing occurs. Construction of one- and two-bay hangars to house the planes at McConnell is scheduled to be completed in the summer.

2017: Boeing has a deadline to produce and deliver 18 KC-46 planes by August. McConnell’s three-bay hangar will be complete in the spring, when the base is scheduled to receive its first KC-46s.

2020: McConnell will have 36 of the KC-46s.

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