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Boeing Says It's Close to Fixing a Flaw Delaying KC-46 Tanker

  • View from seven-camera system can be marred by sun or shadows
  • Contractor says fix may be verified within a few months

Crews on Boeing Co.’s KC-46 tankers have occasionally had trouble in a key area: getting a good view of the refueling operations they’re attempting. Now the company says it’s deploying a software solution it thinks will overcome the main hurdle to delivering the plane to the Air Force.

The tanker’s 59-foot-long extended boom is guided with a joystick by an airman using a system of seven cameras. But shadows or the glare of the sun can hamper the view in rare instances, possibly resulting in scraping the other plane or difficulties in performing a refueling, according to the Air Force.

767 commercial jets being converted into new KC-46 tankers.

Photographer: Tony Capaccio/Bloomberg

Last week, Boeing installed what executives believe will be the final version of software needed to correct the problem, so the Air Force should be able to test and verify the fix “over the next few months” or “not too much longer than that,” Mike Gibbons, the KC-46 program manager, told reporters visiting the company’s aircraft modification center in Everett, Washington.

At the Everett plant, green 767 commercial jets are converted into combat-grade tankers for refueling, carrying cargo and performing emergency evacuations. More than 30 aircraft are in various stages of production, and many could be ready to ship once the first is delivered, Boeing executives said.

Damage Risk

The Air Force maintains the visibility flaw could lead to undetected damage to specialized coatings used on F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters and B-2 bombers, or cause structural damage. The first of 179 tankers was originally supposed to be delivered by June 2016, but the Air Force now estimates that won’t happen until late this year. Boeing officials declined to give a firm estimate.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email Friday that the service has been concerned based on “initial indications that the system will not meet specifications.” But she said it’s “encouraged that Boeing is continuing to work” on improving performance and a “formal determination of specification compliance will be made after testing is complete.”

The executives with Chicago-based Boeing said they agreed late last year to fix the flaw even though glare or shadows affected only about 5 percent of 1,000 “boom contacts” so far.

Boeing felt confident the system was “able to satisfy” the plane’s refueling requirement but realized the Air Force “really was concerned about those other 5 percent of the time,” Sean Martin, the company’s chief refueling operator for the tanker, said in an interview.

“We went to them and said ‘let’s not argue about a requirement; let’s get you the capability you need to go do your mission,’” he said.

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