Four Months Late, Fully Equipped Boeing Tanker Takes Flight

  • Air Force sees `significant step' in $51 billion program
  • Replacing the aging KC-135 is among service's top priorities

Boeing Co.’s new aerial tanker, a $51 billion program for the U.S. Air Force, made its first flight with equipment to dispense fuel after a four-month delay because of setbacks to wiring and other systems.

“We think that’s a significant step” in the 179-aircraft project, Lieutenant General Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, said Friday in an interview. The flight occurred within the July-September period the service and Boeing agreed to earlier this year when some program milestones were revised, Bunch said.

Flying the plane configured for air-to-air fueling is a crucial step toward replacing the Eisenhower-era aircraft that now keep U.S. military jets aloft. The Air Force lists the KC-46 among its top three modernization priorities, along with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new Long-Range Strike bomber.

Friday’s test flight took off from Boeing’s Paine Field, near the planemaker’s wide-body factory in Everett, Washington. The jet is due to land later at Boeing Field in nearby Seattle, spokeswoman Karen Fincutter said by e-mail.

Operational Check

“During this flight, they’ll check the basic integrity of the aircraft and exercise all the systems –- operational checks on engines, flight controls and environmental systems,” Fincutter said.

Boeing undercut Europe’s Airbus Group SE to win the contract to replace the Air Force’s aging KC-135s in 2011, betting that it could replace any losses on fixed-price development work once the program goes to full production. Boeing sees a potential market of as many as 400 aircraft worth $80 billion, and additional profit supporting the planes once they’re in service.

The Air Force has budgeted as much as $15.6 billion through 2020 for development and production of the tanker, which is based on Boeing’s 767 jetliner. It’s requesting $2.95 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct.1.

The initial KC-46 flight without refueling equipment occurred late late year, or about six months behind schedule, also because of internal wiring challenges.

Contract Milestone

With Boeing’s effort to get the plane airborne, Bunch said, the Air Force gained confidence that the planemaker will make a looming contract milestone: delivery by August 2017 of the first 18 aircraft.

“A lot of that carries over,” Bunch said. At the same time, the postponements to date have eliminated all of the wiggle room that had been built into the program to accommodate delays, he said.

Boeing has recorded $1.26 billion in pretax accounting losses as it resolved issues with wiring bundles and damage to the fueling system of a test aircraft.

New Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg recently tapped Scott Fancher, who has deep roots in both Boeing’s defense and commercial units, to
unravel the tanker’s development snarls. He heads the development organization for Boeing’s commercial plane business after playing a similar role for the 787 Dreamliner.

While the funding projected in the Air Force’s five-year plan amounts to a vote of confidence in the plane, the service projected in a revised estimate this year that Boeing will have to absorb $1.5 billion for exceeding a ceiling of about $4.8 billion to develop the first four planes.

There’s been no change in that estimate, Bunch said. “I haven’t been given a different number.”

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