KC-46 Tanker Hits Major Milestones But Deficiencies Still Unmitigated As Delivery Looms

The KC-46 receives FAA certification and the USAF orders 18 more, but major problems with the aircraft haven't been officially solved. 

Boeing

Boeing's troubled KC-46 tanker program has experienced a double whammy of much needed good news as of late, with the aircraft receiving its FAA Supplemental Type Certification and the USAF placing another order for 18 additional aircraft and associated items, all of which has occurred this month. The purchase is worth $2.9B and brings the total number of Pegasus tankers on the order books to 52 airframes. 

But even though these are very positive developments, the major 'category 1 deficiencies' with the aircraft still have not been mitigated. These include problems with the aircraft's refueling boom scraping the skin of receiving aircraft and butting back against them during certain conditions, as well as issues with the Remote Vision System that has replaced the traditional boomer's pod, among others. You can read all about these deficiencies here. According to Boeing, they are still working with the USAF to find fixes to these critical issues.

All this comes as the first of the initial batch of 18 KC-46A tankers and nine hose and drogue refueling pods is promised to be delivered to McConnell AFB next month. This target was set after the last delivery date—August of 2017—was blown. Last June, the primary customer for the KC-46—the USAF—had posited publically that Boeing's goals were too optimistic and that they could deliver the jet in Spring of 2019 at the earliest. Boeing had pushed back against that estimate, keeping to their late 2018 target and last June the USAF acquiesced, with Air Force Under Secretary Matt Donovan stating:

“As a result of months of collaboration, the Air Force and Boeing KC-46A teams have reached an agreed joint program schedule to get to the first 18 aircraft deliveries. This includes the expectation the first KC-46A aircraft acceptance and delivery will occur in October 2018, with the remaining 17 aircraft delivered by April 2019.

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While the KC-46A flight test program is nearly complete, significant work remains. The Air Force is looking forward to KC-46A first delivery and will continue to work with Boeing on opportunities to expedite the program.”

Boeing

The last major certification hurdle will be to obtain an FAA Military Type Certificate for the unique, militarized Boeing 767 derivative. Boeing is hoping to receive this certification very soon, but without the major deficiencies fixed, not to mention the possibility of not meeting the agreed upon delivery goals, the company could be running headlong into another round of penalties based on the fixed-price contract negotiated with the USAF. The company has already incurred over $2B in out of pocket expenses for the KC-46 program due to delays and cost overruns.

Even with these issues outstanding and the skepticism surrounding the delivery timeline, the KC-46 is here to stay and the USAF absolutely needs this aircraft and in significant quantities. The latest order shows that the flying force is more than willing to bet big on the KC-46 regardless of the developmental hurdles that still plague the program. Additionally, the airframe itself has a very high likelihood of being adapted for other Pentagon uses, including an emerging initiative to replace the E-4B, E-6B, and C-32A with one common platform.  

The USAF envisions 179 KC-46s being built, but that number could grow and it does not include the possible addition of other missionized variants.

We will keep you up to date as the October delivery deadline for the first Pegasus tanker approaches.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com