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First two of Boeing's KC-46 aerial tankers to debut in Kansas

A file photo of a KC-46 Pegasus tanker.

BOEING

By JULIE JOHNSSON, SPENCER SOPER AND TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg | Published: January 25, 2019

Boeing is poised to make history as a pair of its new KC-46 Pegasus tankers take off Friday for a U.S. Air Force base in Kansas to provide overdue and much-needed replacements for Eisenhower-era aerial refuelers.

The two planes are the opening deliveries in Boeing's $44 billion program to create the first U.S.-built flying gas station for the Pentagon's fleet since the KC-10A Extender in 1981. Boeing workers, defense officials and reporters marked the event alongside a gunmetal gray tanker parked in a Seattle-area factory Thursday, munching on tanker-themed cookies while a live band blared Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady."

The debut of the military aircraft "solidifies the Boeing Company as the tanker company for the U.S. and the world," said Leanne Caret, chief executive officer of Boeing's defense division, as she handed the ceremonial keys for the two planes to General Maryanne Miller of the Air Mobility Command.

But hovering over the celebration was uncertainty over when the Chicago-based manufacturer will meet a bigger, more crucial milestone: delivering the first 18 aircraft. Caret declined to comment on a Bloomberg report that the last of that initial batch would arrive three years later than initially planned.

The contractor missed an August 2017 deadline for delivering 18 planes, two spare engines and nine sets of wing-mounted refueling pods. The deliveries have already slipped past a revised estimate of October 2018. Now, the Defense Contract Management Agency is predicting Boeing won't fulfill its commitment until the third quarter of 2020.

The hold-up: a Boeing subcontractor based in the U.K., Cobham Plc, is waiting for regulators to certify its pods, which allow two aircraft to be refueled at once. Deliveries of the refueling equipment are expected by summer of next year, U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters.

The delay is the latest twist in a saga spanning more than 15 years that's featured an ethics scandal and multiple contract competitions to replace about 400 KC-135 tankers that Boeing developed in the 1950s. Those were the first aircraft developed from the Dash 80, a Boeing prototype that ushered in the jet age. The second was the 707 airliner.

Despite a half-century of experience with aerial refueling, Boeing's plan to create the KC-46 — the militarized version of its 767 jetliner — hasn't gone smoothly. The company has absorbed nearly $4 billion in overruns on its initial 2011 contract as it dealt with design and technological hiccups ranging from the placement of wiring bundles to scraping by the tanker's 59-foot (18-meter) extended refueling boom.

The Air Force accepted the first delivery despite unresolved issues such as a flawed camera system used to operate the boom, and may withhold as much as $28 million from the final payment for each aircraft until Boeing makes the improvements.

The remote vision system is operable, and only encounters problems when the tanker is flying directly away from the sun, Wilson said. Boeing is making some enhancements to it. In the meantime, there are workarounds like slightly changing the path of flight during the fuel exchanges.

"The system is safe and usable as it is. We just have a few operating workarounds," Wilson said.

The latest version is far more advanced than last century's KC-135, featuring a skin hardened to withstand electromagnetic shock waves and a cabin that can be outfitted to ferry troops, patients and cargo pallets. The tanker's advanced boom can pump 1,200 gallons per minute to awaiting aircraft, while the under-wing pods share fuel at a 400-gallon rate.

Still, the delays have left an opening for rival Airbus SE to potentially rent its own tanker to the U.S. Air Force. The European planemaker also plans to team up with Lockheed Martin Corp. to bid against Boeing on the next tanker contest, expected in the 2020s.
 

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