Boeing's KC-46A Pegasus more flexible, manufacturer says
The U.S. Air Force needs an updated aerial tanker that can keep its combat aircraft and others operated by U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines and allies flying in battlefields across the globe.
Boeing Co. agreed in a contract it made with the Air Force in 2011 to deliver it the KC-46A Pegasus — a product that's reliable, safe to operate and affordable to maintain.
During a recent tour of the Everett Modification Center at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., reporters were able to see four Pegasus aircraft going through a process where military gear and systems are added. At the event, Boeing's KC-46 Tanker Program Manager Mike Gibbons said the aircraft fulfills the agreement Boeing made.
Gibbons said the aircraft "is new, more reliable, more economic to fly and provides lots of capabilities the Air Force doesn't have in its fleet today."
Certainly, getting an updated, improved air tanker would help the Air Force.
According to its website, information last updated in 2014 states the service's Air Mobility Command manages an inventory of 414 KC-135 Stratotankers (based on the Boeing 707) the Pegasus is intended to partially replace.
The Air Force reports 732 Stratotankers were delivered to its fleet between 1957 and 1965.
It also has 59 KC-10 Extender refueling aircraft that are based on Boeing's DC-10 that are active in its fleet. The Extender was introduced into service in 1981.
Generally, the KC-135, the KC-10 and the KC-46A Pegasus share the same mission capabilities.
Often referred to as a flying gas can, they can take on fuel from other aircraft while flying and can dispense fuel to up to two other aircraft at a time (when properly equipped with wing aerial refueling pods).
They all also are multi-mission capable, as they can carry passengers, medical patients and pallet cargo.
There are some differences between the aircraft, however.
The Pegasus is more flexible as a tanker because it carries both a centerline boom and centerline drogue refueling system as part of its basic configuration when it goes aloft. That means it can refuel Air Force, Navy, Marine and allied aircraft any time.
With the two older models, centerline refueling systems sometimes have to be changed from one type to the other before a flight, depending on what types of other aircraft are scheduled to be refueled.
Why does it matter?
On Air Force aircraft, fuel receiving receptacles are skin-mounted and must be accessed by a probe on a tanker's boom to take on fuel.
Navy, Marine and some allied aircraft, in contrast, use their own probes to accept fuel. They do so by locking the aircraft's probe into a shuttlecock-shaped drogue (a cuplike receptacle) on the end of a retractable hose provided by a tanker.
Another significant difference between the Pegasus and the other two aircraft involves how the fueling system operator does his or her job.
On the Stratotanker and Extender, the operator works in the tail of the aircraft to operate the boom or drogue system that connects it with aircraft receiving the fuel, viewing the process through a window.
On the Pegasus, the operator sits at a rear-facing, multiple screen console just behind the cockpit, using a camera-based, remote vision system capable of both day and night operations to do the same work.
The system, which includes seven cameras, uses technology contractors previously developed for space-based operations.
The Pegasus also carries a variety of other state-of-the-art military systems that makes it capable of operating in combat environments.
Those include protections against ballistic, chemical, biological and electromagnetic pulse attacks.
Boeing representatives told reporters they've learned the value of integrating required military modifications for the Pegasus into their regular manufacturing process from another military aircraft project they are well on the way to completing.
Boeing is building P-8 Poseidon surface and subsurface warfare aircraft (based on its 737-800 air frame) for the U.S. Navy. The company has delivered 68 aircraft to the Navy, so far.
Carl Lang, Boeing's deputy program manager for the P-8 and other military derivatives of the 737, said the manufacturer worked with its suppliers to obtain materials meeting the aircraft's military structural requirements before assembly begins.
The skin of the airplane fuselage, for example, is about 50 percent thicker than a regular 737 when it arrives in Washington for assembly of the overall plane.
Plus, fuselages designated for the P-8 include skin openings and beefed up frames to accommodate the military add-ons that later are installed by Boeing's defense division before the aircraft is delivered to its customer.
"The whole philosophy is, build it once, add only value, never take value away," Lang said. "If you had to cut a hole and rip out a wire bundle (in a just-built aircraft to add military provisions), that destroys value."
Jamie Burgess, a Boeing vice president who is the deputy manager for the Pegasus program, said the same philosophy was applied to the tanker's manufacturing plans.
"Prior to P-8, all commercial derivative airplanes had to be cut up and modified (after initial assembly) to be turned into a military aircraft," Burgess said.
"By doing all of that provisioning and modifications in sequence during an initial build, that saves so much money for our customers because it makes the process more efficient."