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Air Force won't accept any more Boeing tankers until manufacturing process is cleaned up

A KC-46 Pegasus is flown over central Washington on Jan. 30, 2019.

SARA HOERICHS/U.S. AIR FORCE

By DOMINIC GATES | The Seattle Times | Published: March 2, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — The Air Force said Friday that it won't accept delivery of any more KC-46 tankers until Boeing's manufacturing process is cleaned up.

Boeing grounded the tankers just over a week ago after loose tools and bits of debris – known in the aviation world as Foreign Object Debris, or FOD – were found in various locations inside completed airplanes, the airframes of which are built on the 767 assembly line in Everett.

Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Hope Cronin said Friday that the Defense Contract Management Agency stopped acceptance of KC-46 aircraft on Feb. 20.

"No aircraft have been accepted since then, and [deliveries] will not restart until the production aircraft are cleared of FOD, and the Air Force and DCMA have approved a corrective action plan by Boeing that will prevent FOD in the future," Cronin said via email.

At a roundtable at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., Friday, defense journalists asked Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, about the impact of the FOD issues, which were first reported Thursday by The Seattle Times.

"As of this morning we are still not accepting KC-46s and I believe that will continue for some time," Roper said.

"I don't want to overblow it," Roper told Defense News. "If the issue goes away and we have no cause for concern in the future, I'll just treat it as growing pains. ... If we have this issue again, then – it's already serious – but it will be a much more serious endeavor."

During the process of building aircraft, all airframes are supposed to be routinely swept for FOD – especially anything metal. A loose object left, say, inside a wall cavity or under a floor, is potentially dangerous because over time it could damage equipment or cause an electrical short.

Last week, an internal Boeing management memo to employees noted that eight tools were found in aircraft delivered from the main assembly line to the company's military installation facility at the south end of Paine Field, and two more were found in tankers delivered to the U.S. Air Force.

In the past, final FOD sweeps of any area of any aircraft that's about to be closed up would have been done by a quality inspector. However, Boeing is in the process of transforming its quality-control procedures, aiming to change work procedures and introduce automation so that many fewer such secondary checks are necessary.

One change already implemented is that mechanics can close up many areas of the airplane without an inspector taking a final look. And as part of what Boeing calls its Quality Transformation" program, the company intends to cut nearly 1,000 quality-inspector jobs over the next two years.

Boeing has delivered six tanker aircraft to the Air Force so far, the first of a total 179 airplanes. The government estimates it will spend $41 billion on development and procurement of the KC-46, of which approximately $30 billion will go to Boeing, according to the company's annual report.

However, the program has been beset with years of delays and Boeing has already had to swallow more than $3.6 billion in cost overruns.

The Air Force took the first tanker in January only after working out an agreement with Boeing that it will fix certain flaws in the aircraft's refueling systems over the next three to four years, and that until those fixes are implemented the Air Force will withhold up to $28 million from the final payment on each aircraft.

Prior to the latest FOD problems surfacing, Boeing had been expecting to deliver its next tanker within days. That's now on hold.

Note: An earlier version of this story cited an incorrect location for the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium.

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