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KC-46 tankers begin new McConnell chapter

A KC-46 tanker refuels an A-10 during a test flight.
A KC-46 tanker refuels an A-10 during a test flight.

We are about to begin a new chapter in Kansas’ aerospace history when Boeing will soon deliver the first KC-46 refueling tanker to McConnell Air Force Base. This is a state-of-the-art airplane that will allow our men and women in uniform to complete their mission.

Developing, certifying and delivering an airplane is not an easy task. It can be one of the greatest aerospace challenges.

I spent 38 years at Boeing testing airplanes on the ground and in flight. I also flew the F-100C with the Kansas Air National Guard 127th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at McConnell in the late 1950s and early ’60s. I quickly learned that when you test airplanes to the limit of their envelope, you need to expect unexpected results.

We burned the tail off of a B-47 during Jet Assisted Takeoff testing and had to replace the aft section of the fuselage. We broke the vertical fin off of a B-52 during low-level testing in the Colorado mountains and had to redesign and replace the vertical fin. We also lost a B-52 in Oklahoma in 1956 due to the unexpected.

On the other hand, the KC-135R test program went off to near perfection. I spent four years on that program from the initial proposal to the delivery of the final product. We realized that we had a real winner on the first flight when we confirmed that the KC-135R consumed about 25 percent less fuel than the KC-135A. We estimated spending 135 days at Edwards Air Force Base and completing 52 flights.

We returned to Wichita on the 135th day and on the 52nd flight. It is unusual to not encounter problems due to the unexpected. We had a close-knit Boeing/Air Force test team that was not biased to Boeing or to the Air Force, but to the taxpayer to get the best product at the lowest cost.

When we arrived back in Wichita, we installed the auxilary power unit and that was another story. We tested the APU in snowstorms and at the climatic hangar at Eglin Air Force Base. We finally got it right and delivered an outstanding product.

Boeing’s reputation for producing quality products is second to none.

It is obvious that the Air Force is anxious to replace the aging KC-135R and KC-10 with the KC-46. I am confident that Boeing is going to produce an airplane that satisfies the Air Force’s highest expectations.

Don Boleski, of Wichita, is a retired Boeing flight test engineer and former member of the Kansas Air National Guard based at McConnell.