Boeing shows off long-troubled Air Force tanker, says deadlines will be met
By DOMINIC GATES | The Seattle Times | Published: May 17, 2017
SEATTLE (Tribune News Service) — Since wresting the Air Force KC-46 tanker contract away from rival Airbus in 2011, Boeing has struggled through $1 billion in cost overruns and written off $1.7 billion in costs to fix multiple design problems.
Yet company officials, leading the media on a tour of its tanker facilities in Everett last week, offered assurances that the program is now on track.
“We expect to hand it over late this year,” said Boeing vice president and KC-46 program manager Mike Gibbons about the first of the modified 767s.
Journalists got an up-close look for the first time at the new advanced boom the tanker uses to deliver fuel, which has now proved itself more than 1,000 times in flight-test contacts with refueling aircraft.
And a test pilot and a boom operator described new features of the air-to-air refueling system and how it’s been working during flight tests.
Gibbons said the design is finalized and only certification testing remains, giving him “good confidence” that Boeing’s tanker troubles are finally behind it.
The first tanker to be delivered to the Air Force should be ready to fly around October and will be delivered to the Air Force soon after, he said.
That implies a very compressed schedule for follow-on deliveries, and looks like it remains a daunting challenge for the company.
A March report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said Boeing is committed to hand over 18 operational tankers to the Air Force by February 2018.
The first four production tankers are undergoing very extensive rework to incorporate changes to the design that came after the planes were initially assembled.
Gibbons said Boeing is determined to deliver those 18 initial tankers to the Air Force fully operational and with all modifications complete by the deadline.
The Air Force wants 179 of Boeing’s air-to-air refueling tankers, based on a customized version of the 767 commercial jet. The full contract, worth more than $40 billion to Boeing, has faced numerous setbacks and delays.
The government capped the development cost of the program at $4.9 billion, but according to the GAO report Boeing has already spent about $1 billion above that ceiling. It has to swallow that cost overrun and hope for profits later.
At the south end of Paine Field in Everett, Boeing has allocated all of a huge aircraft modification center exclusively to the tanker.
Inside a hangar there last week, mechanics worked on the tanker that’s first up to be delivered, as well as three other tankers.
A person close to the program, speaking without Boeing’s permission, said mechanics had to pull almost all the wiring out of that first plane, then put it back in. It has three to four months more work to be done on it before it can fly.
He said all four planes in the modification center rolled out of Boeing’s main 767 final assembly line with thousands of unfinished jobs.
Gibbons acknowledged these issues, but cited progress in dealing with them.
Of the cause of the accumulated $1.7 billion in accounting write-offs on the tanker program, Gibbons said “mostly it’s been wiring”—though he added that the wiring of the planes is”very stable at this point.”
And he said Boeing is completing the unfinished jobs at the modification center so as not to delay production in the main assembly plant of both tankers and 767 commercial freighter jets.
One of the tanker test aircraft is doing electromagnetic interference testing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. When that testing is completed, Gibbons said further small changes may have to be incorporated into the planes already built.
He said that testing will be done by midyear and the changes won’t require more than a month of work.
Gibbons conceded that such extensive rework, compared to building the plane initially to the specification, is expensive. He said Boeing expects to reduce the rework with each new plane that comes out.
One of the four planes on display last week, unlike the others, was already painted when it got to the modification center, a sign that it had arrived in a more complete state.
Gibbons said Boeing hopes to phase out the rework completely by the time the next dozen 767 aircraft come out of final assembly.
Completing certification of the aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “is our current challenge,” Gibbons said.
“The certification effort is going along more slowly than originally anticipated,” he said. “But the design is very good and very stable.”
In the “boom shop” inside the Everett modification center, mechanics last week were assembling the new advanced air-refueling boom that telescopes out 60 feet from the back end of the tanker to dispense fuel in the air to receiving aircraft.
The boom, a rigid pipe with wings attached to make it maneuverable, is a marvel of technology. It’s controlled in flight and guided to the receiving aircraft by an operator sitting at a computer station just behind the cockpit.
At Boeing Field, where two tanker test planes were on the ground, Sean Martin, the chief boom operator on the flight-test team, described how on a covert night combat mission, the tanker can fly in complete darkness with no light showing to an outside observer, yet the operator inside can maneuver the boom and the receiving pilot can see it—thanks to a special system of night goggles that can see lighting invisible to the naked eye.
It’s a unique capability, Martin said, recounting how an Air Force lieutenant was highly impressed on a test flight in early December when he witnessed such a blacked-out hookup to refuel a big C-17 transport jet.
Ron “Taco” Johnston, an ex-military pilot who also flew 767s for United Airlines, is the chief test pilot on Boeing’s tanker program.
He said that from a pilot’s perspective, despite the large boom sticking out the back like some insect proboscis, the jet handles just like any commercial 767.
Boeing has made more than 1,000 refueling contacts with multiple aircraft, from small fighters to big transport planes, and dispensed 30,000 gallons of fuel during test flights.
The KC-46 tanker has also itself received fuel from the bigger, older-model KC-10 tanker.
The plane has elaborate protection systems so that it’s capable of flying into a combat zone. It has infrared and radio-frequency equipment that can either bathe an incoming missile in radiated heat to throw it off its trajectory, or jam its electronics.
In addition, the pilot is linked into the Air Force situational awareness network, which means instruments will indicate which other planes are in the vicinity, what’s on the ground, and whether an enemy radar has locked onto the plane’s position.
And Johnston explained how, given a combat alert, the crew can push a button on the bottom of the fuselage to start the auxiliary power unit that will turn on the aircraft’s systems, then enter the jet through a hatch, climb up a ladder into the cockpit, and take off in just 10 minutes.
The Air Force is mightily impressed with the tanker’s capabilities, the Boeing officials said.
The difficult task ahead is getting the planes built to the new schedule and without any more exorbitant charges.