Newly Designed KC-46 Aerial Refueling Tanker to Undergo Strenuous Testing

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Now that the design for the KC-46 tanker has been finalized and approved, Boeing will begin to fabricate and test the aircraft. But with an aggressive schedule ahead, it could be a challenge to keep costs down and the program on track.

The Air Force plans to integrate developmental and operational testing and Federal Aviation Administration certification as much as possible in order to save time and money, said Maj. Gen. John Thompson, the Air Force’s program executive officer for tankers.

"On a typical sortie out at Boeing field, there will be Boeing people on the aircraft, there will be FAA people on the aircraft, there will be developmental testers, there will be operational testers,” he said Sept. 17 at the Air Force Association’s 2013 Air and Space Conference. “That is a basic tenet of the program and getting that strategy laid down with detailed test plans, memorandums of agreement and understanding between all of the parties [is] absolutely essential."

Boeing has already begun assembly of its first two engineering, manufacturing and design aircraft. The third EMD aircraft will begin assembly in October, Thompson said.

Upon completion, two of those aircraft will be flown in the commercial 767-2C baseline configuration to work toward achieving necessary FAA certifications. The other two will immediately be converted into KC-46 tankers, he said. The 767-2Cs eventually will be converted to KC-46s, and all four aircraft will support initial operational test and evaluation.

The tanker’s first flight is scheduled for June 2015, and the 767-2C is planned to fly for the first time in January 2014, Thompson said.

Boeing is manufacturing KC-46 wing sections at its Everett, Wash.-facility, and refueling boom assembly began last October, he said.

The Air Force plans to procure 179 KC-46 aircraft total, starting with 18 tankers in 2017. Besides its main aerial refueling mission, the KC-46 will also fly cargo, passenger and patient transportation missions.

The new aircraft will replace some of the service’s Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers  but the KC-135 and McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extenders will continue to fly alongside the newer tankers for decades, Thompson said.

With the aircraft’s critical design review finished in August, a month earlier than expected, the program remains on schedule, Thompson said.

The Air Force’s fixed-price contract with Boeing has a $4.9 billion cost ceiling, meaning that the contractor must pay any cost overruns. So far, the government estimates the total program cost to be $5.6 billion, while Boeing’s calculates a $5.1 billion cost, Thompson said.

"I would characterize the differences between those two numbers as assumptions about what's going to happen for the next 60 percent of the program. How many problems will we have in tests, what are the risks that are out there?" he said. "I am absolutely hopeful that the Boeing folks will prove the government EAC [estimate at completion] wrong, but I have to report what I see on the assumptions and current status of the program."

As the Air Force’s biggest funding priority, the KC-46 has so far been spared the budget ax and pain of sequestration, Thompson said. "We need to continue to ensure that the program is adequately funded and that we keep requirements absolutely stable. … There have been no engineering change proposals on this program since inception.”

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget, Test and Evaluation

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