Boeing promoted its KC-46A Pegasus tanker progress to the media during a recent Seattle event
SEATTLE — Boeing Co. brought more than a dozen reporters to various production and testing facilities here earlier this month to update progress it has made toward delivering its first group of KC-46A Pegasus tankers to the U.S. Air Force.
The company contracted with the Air Force to deliver 179 tankers to the military for $44 billion, with an initial schedule calling for the first 18 to be delivered in 2017.
Because of design and testing related issues, that deadline has slipped several times and could slip again.
Still, Boeing officials told reporters the firm is close to achieving remaining certifications it still needs to begin sending aircraft to the service.
Leanne Caret, a Boeing executive vice president who leads its Defense, Space & Security component, gave reporters an upbeat assessment of the aircraft, its development process and the project's leadership team.
"Amazing is a term you will hear me use several times today," Caret said during an event with reporters at Boeing's Everett Modification Center, where military gear is added to the Pegasus.
"It is amazing, in terms of the capabilities that this aircraft fills; amazing, in terms of the commitment by our company and most importantly; amazing, in terms of the relationship we have with the U.S. Air Force.
"First and foremost, this is about customer first" to Boeing, she continued. "This is about delivering it ... so that the men and women who serve have it to meet their needs."
To Oklahomans, the Pegasus' design and performance related delays matter, but getting significant numbers of the tankers into the Air Force fleet remains the biggest concern.
Pegasus aircrews will train at Altus Air Force Base, while the Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base will take care of the planes at a still-being-built maintenance center on the base's south side.
A long journey
The effort to get Pegasus into production follows a long, winding path.
It started in about 2000, when the Air Force decided it needed to replace about 100 of its oldest KC-135s and selected Boeing's 767 air frame as a suitable replacement. The Air Force's initial intent was to lease tanker-equipped models of the aircraft from the manufacturer, although, after criticisms, it changed those plans to buy most and lease the remainder.
Then, a corruption scandal involving a Department of Defense employee in that procurement process prompted the contract's cancellation in 2006.
A second competition asked for contractors to submit bids to provide the Air Force with 179 new tankers. Boeing again offered its 767, while Airbus and Northrop Grumman teamed up to offer the Airbus A330 as a competing air frame.
In February 2008, the Department of Defense chose Airbus/Northrop Grumman for the contract. However, protests from Boeing led to a review of the bid evaluation process, and discovered irregularities invalidated that selection.
A third selection process ended in early 2011 when the Air Force again selected Boeing to supply the tankers using its 767 air frame.
The Air Force and Boeing completed a critical design review in August 2013, with the manufacturer under contract to build four test aircraft and deliver 18 combat-ready tankers by March 2017.
But in July 2014, a review found a portion of the Pegasus' wiring bundles failed to meet Air Force redundancy requirements, causing a delay of initial test flights and requiring Boeing to record a $272 million pretax charge to cover needed design refinements.
In July 2015, Boeing announced it had discovered a number of its fuel system parts and components didn't meet required specifications. It recorded an additional $835 million pretax charge to pay for redesigns and retrofits.
The successful refueling of an F-16 by a Pegasus in early 2016 enabled Boeing to begin its production design process.
By then, though, there were concerns about whether the manufacturer could obtain needed certifications in time to meet required aircraft delivery dates.
In April 2016, Boeing took another pretax charge for cost overruns on the program and for delays (it has taken more than $2 billion in charges related to the project, so far).
The delivery date for the first 18 aircraft subsequently was pushed back to October of this year, and appears to be poised to slip again. Recent bugs designers and flight testers have encountered involve still-being-resolved issues with the aircraft's refueling system.
First, operators occasionally have encountered problems with a remote vision system they use to monitor refueling in situations involving bright reflections and deep shadows. Those have resulted in boom scrapings, which are troublesome especially for stealthy aircraft.
Second, they have observed occasional unanticipated disconnects involving the aircraft's drogue refueling system, which uses a retractable hose to extend a shuttlecock-shaped receptacle for Navy, Marine and some allied aircraft to take fuel from.
Boeing responded to the remote vision system problem by bringing in specialists from across the company who have worked with the technology in other applications to refine its software. They said tweaks provide operators with workarounds making it easier to use.
That software has been revised, is being tested and will be installed on the first aircraft delivered to the Air Force, company officials said.
As for the unanticipated disconnects, Boeing officials said that involves software used to monitor tension on a retractable hose and drogue. The aircraft taking on fuel is automatically disconnected from the drogue whenever the software senses tension is too great. Again, company officials said that will be adjusted through a software upgrade to recalibrate the system's parameters.
"The enhancements are costing the taxpayer nothing," said Mike Gibbons, Boeing's KC-46 program manager.
On other fronts, Boeing and the Air Force have made some progress.
The Federal Aviation Administration has awarded an Amended Type Certificate to the Pegasus for its core 767-2C configuration, which is a modified version of the company's commercial 767-200 with revised structure, wiring and plumbing.
Boeing recently announced it had completed needed flight tests to obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate that puts the FAA's approval on the aircraft's military systems that transform the 767 into a tanker. The certification remains pending.
Additional tests are underway to obtain the Air Force's certification that the aircraft will perform as required with the various types of aircraft it will refuel (the FAA doesn't certify that activity, as it considers it a midair collision).
Jeanette Croppi, the KC-46A's test program manager, said Boeing's fleet of six test aircraft have completed about 95 percent of the work needed to obtain the Air Force certification.
Through May 4, Croppi said those aircraft had completed 950 flights consisting of nearly 3,000 flight hours, making about 2,600 contacts with other aircraft including the F-16, C-17, KC-135, KC-10, A-10 and F-18.
She said the test aircraft had taken on nearly 1 million pounds of fuel and dispensed nearly 2 million pounds of fuel while in flight.
"Over the last few years, we've come along way," Croppi said.
No delivery date yet
So far, beyond the six aircraft that are being used for testing, Boeing has built an additional four that are being stored as final certifications are pursued.
During the media event, another four were staged at Boeing's Everett Modification Center undergoing installation of their military components. Officials said there are about three dozen Pegasus aircraft that either have been built or are far enough along in construction to be recognized as aircraft.
Initially, Caret told reporters the company's intent remains that it will deliver 18 Pegasus aircraft and a smaller number of associated refueling pods, which also use the hose and drogue system, by the end of this year.
However, she stopped short of giving a specific date, noting Boeing and the Air Force are still discussing the issue.
As for the program's past difficulties, Caret said Boeing realizes clarity up front in a contract such as the one it entered into for the Pegasus is a necessity, given that employees who started the effort are unlikely to be involved during a production run nearly two decades later.
"I understand the customer's sense of frustration, we have it ourselves," she said.
"This is a team sport. I can assure you, from the chairman of our company to the technician on the floor, this is one team, one fight, and we are doing it in partnership with the U.S. Air Force.
"The Air Force has been standing shoulder to shoulder with us."
The Oklahoman's Jack Money traveled to Washington state May 3 and 4 as part of a Boeing-paid tour that involved both its manufacturing plant where the KC-46A is being built and a Pegasus prototype. The offer was not made or accepted based on any promises for preferential coverage of the company, aircraft or its employees.